Spoilt Culture

| October 30, 2008

It's been so long since things have run smoothly at Humboldt State University that most of us have lost any idea of what normal is supposed to be like. The distrust, suspicion, hatred, paranoia, internecine warfare, obscure bureaucratic maneuvering -- it all seems like standard operating procedure up on the hill, and we just shake our heads and laugh and thank our stars that we aren't personally associated with such a baroquely dysfunctional institution. Those crazy academics!

And then along comes Keeling Associates, a high-powered consultancy out of New York, to grab everyone by the lapels and shake vigorously. No, says Keeling in an Oct. 7 report released by the university last weekend. No, listen, it says: This isn't just the usual ivory-tower pointyhead petty infighting we're talking about. Your university is a massive organizational clusterbombed catastrophe almost beyond measure, and it's going take something like a miracle for you to pull it together.

"The University's record has been characterized more by finding ways to avoid the hard decisions made necessary by budget cuts than by adapting to or accommodating those cuts in a thoughtful and strategic manner," the consultants write. "The accumulation of these decisions has resulted in a dysfunctional campus culture that is characterized by ineffective presidential leadership, a lack of shared institutional vision and governance, ineffective decision making and a fatigued if not demoralized administration, faculty, staff and student body."

And there's 31 pages following that one, all of it pretty much in the same vein.

Keeling Associates were brought on in the spring to study the university's culture, following a somewhat devastating report from the Western Association of Colleges and Schools (WASC), the body that accredits HSU. (Basically, it's WASC's job to assure that HSU deserves to be called a "university.") When WASC was last in town it decided to delay, for a year, a scheduled review of the university's educational effectiveness. According to Keeling, and apparently others at HSU, this was because the university was on a course to flunk the review, and so to run the risk spending the next several years on the knife's edge of losing accreditation. The WASC took pity.

So Keeling was brought in to study why the Humboldt State could never get anything done, and why all the different parties at the school spent so much time undermining and battling one another. Their conclusion: Everyone is to blame. The faculty refuse to accept the budget strangulation coming down from the state of California, which simply has to change the nature of the institution. The staff likewise acts erratically. In a telling anecdote, the consultants report that the university's entire accounting staff quit in protest when the university changed software systems -- even though the change was mandated by the state university system and not local administrators.

But as is perhaps proper, the bulk of the blame for the crisis is laid at the feet of President Rollin Richmond, who in most cases has unilateral authority to make decisions about how the university is governed. Hardly anyone has confidence in Richmond's leadership, according to the report, and that seems largely to be due to the fact that he acts erratically, without consulting even his close deputies, or even ignoring all counsel completely and shooting the university off on his own course, without explanation. The report doesn't call on Richmond to resign. It does everything but.

Things are going to have to get worse before they get better.


It's the last few days before the most momentous election of my lifetime -- maybe yours, too -- and we have just a couple of wrap-up housekeeping notes for you.

First: The Journal and our friends at The Venue Project are pleased to broadcast the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission-sponsored debate over Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. It takes place tonight (Thursday, Oct. 30) at College of the Redwood's Forum theater, and it features, on the "No" side, attorney Terry Stewart, who earlier this year argued (and won) San Francisco's same-sex marriage case before the California Supreme Court. We'll be running it live at northcoastjournal.com.

Then, on Election Day, you'll want to keep it tuned to radio station KHUM (104.3 or 104.7 on the FM dial) for full-blown coverage of local, state and national election results. The North Coast Journal is joining forces with the KHUM crew for complete flood-the-zone coverage of election night events up and down the county, including the presidential election. We'll see if we can cut to our Judy Hodgson in Colorado as the votes come in there. And we're simultaneously inviting you to help us live-blog the goings-on at northcoastjournal.com.

Join us if you can. Otherwise, see you on the other side of Tuesday, in a distinctly different world.

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Dear Mr. Sims, As the spouse of a former member of the HSU accounting staff, I was astonished to see, in your October 30th column, the bald allegation that "the university's entire accounting staff quit in protest when the university changed software systems". Nothing could be further from the truth. The University's administrators did indeed manage, if that is the word, to shed a number of highly qualified and dedicated professionals, but not in some protest over having to change software. First, the actual quote from the Keeling & Associates Oct. 7 report: "For example, replacing the University's legacy accounting systems resulted in the resignation of all of the accounting staff -- even though Humboldt, as a campus of the CSU, had no choice about making the change to its common management system (CMS)." This is cited as an example of "dysfunctional organizational and operational adaptation to changing circumstances that undermines the University's ability to move forward." I can remember my wife working long hours, week after week, to help effect the changeover (which has taken several years). I can remember many conversations she had with her co-workers, brainstorming how to make that system function properly. I know that some people delayed, or returned from, retirement to assist. And their work was appreciated. (I've attached a letter sent to the accounting staff by seventeen Administrative Coordinators of academic support departments, commending them during the conversion.) But I can also remember the struggles she and her co-workers had with "a dysfunctional campus culture. . . characterized by ineffective presidential leadership, a lack of shared institutional vision and governance, ineffective decision making and a fatigued if not demoralized administration, faculty, staff and student body."
I know why my wife quit. I know why several others left the accounting/fiscal department. I know it had nothing to do with a protest over software changes. And I know Keeling never asked her why she quit, or what she thought about the software change. I have no reason to believe that any of her former co-workers were asked, either.
Is it possible that someone still in a management position needed to explain why the accounting department had lost so many qualified workers? The fact that such a far-fetched allegation was made and then disseminated is itself a good example of why there has been so much distrust on campus. Is there a reason why Keeling felt no need do to any fact checking? I am not surprised by Keeling's overall conclusions regarding HSU. But as an attorney, having successfully represented libeled persons, I consider the allegation that the entire accounting staff quit rather than effect a mandated change to be professional libel. I invite Keeling to disclose its source. Andrew L. Isaac Santa Cruz, CA

Posted by Andrew Isaac on 11/04/2008 at 10:55 AM

Omitted letter from previous comment This is a letter sent to the accounting staff during the conversion, dated June 30, 2005: "Dear CMS Finance Team - Fiscal Affairs, On this momentous occasion of year-end, we wish to thank you for all you've contributed to the implementation of the CMS Finance system. Your dedication, perseverance and patience all year long are commendable. We particularly appreciate your helpful attitude throughout our training and on-going support. You've accomplished so much! So cheers to you at this year-end and best wishes in 2005-6. With our sincere gratitude, the Student Affairs Budget Team [followed by the individuals' names]"

Posted by Andrew Isaac on 11/04/2008 at 1:23 PM
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