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University-staff relations must improve

Staff Editorial | Friday, September 29, 2006

The series of Town Hall sessions conducted Wednesday and Thursday by University President Father John Jenkins, Provost Tom Burish and Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves was intended to show staff members how much they matter.

It was a positive – and much needed – move by the University.

The lack of communication between administrators and workers was formally acknowledged (“The most frustrating thing for many of you is that you work at Notre Dame, but find out about many projects from the newspaper instead of us,” Affleck-Graves told staff at Wednesday morning’s meeting).

Important developments in building upon that seemingly weak University-staff communication were announced, like a new program that will distribute surveys to staff members to respond anonymously about the positives and negatives of their experience working for the University. Affleck-Graves also promised the implementation of a hotline run by an external party to field complaints workers might not feel comfortable expressing to their supervisors.

It’s commendable that so much time – four one-hour sessions in little more than a 24-hour period – was devoted to reminding staff members of their importance to the University. However, in order to truly include workers in the Notre Dame community, Jenkins and other administrators must evaluate the way they deliver that message.

“Core values are very important,” Jenkins told staff. “They are things that absolutely everyone should have in mind, because this is part of what it means to be part of Notre Dame.”

No one’s disputing the importance of core values. But integrity and accountability – two values emphasized by Jenkins – aren’t going to appease workers who feel underpaid, and the ideological goal of “leadership in mission” isn’t going to comfort a staff member who feels underappreciated.

The bigger picture can be motivating; grandiose visions of the Notre Dame to come may have stirred pride within staff members who attended the meetings. But those same grandiose visions can be overwhelming if workers feel left out of the “something more” that Jenkins envisions as Notre Dame’s destiny.

That sense of isolation would be easy to understand, since the vague wording of Jenkins’ “mission” probably doesn’t strike a chord with every University employee.

If the University wants to develop into that something greater, it’s going to have to do more than expand, construct and renovate – it must continually prioritize the people that make Notre Dame what it is.

If that happens, no one will need to remind workers of their importance. They’ll already know.