Paula Manni-Pohler is a 2013 Calvin graduate who joined Calvin’s staff as gallery coordinator in 2015. She has since taken on the roles of adjunct instructor and arts programming coordinator. Due to an unsustainable workload and concerns about inclusion, she plans to move on to other opportunities at the end of June.
Calvin’s shrinking workforce left Manni-Pohler struggling to keep programs alive and fed up with the lack of margin. “It’s quite difficult to be a creative problem-solver when fear and money drive decisions,” Manni-Pohler told Chimes.
She’s not the only staff member who feels this way. On a survey assessment administered by Calvin’s Workplace Quality Task Force in partnership with Best Christian Workplaces Institute earlier this year, many employees reported feeling that they’ve had to pick up work beyond what they were hired to do.
Workplaces scoring a 4.00 or higher are considered healthy on the BCWI’s workplace health assessment, a survey that asks 56 quantitative questions as well as several free-response questions. The current sector average for Christian higher education is a score of 3.91.
Although none of Calvin’s BCWI overall scores in the last decade have made the cutoff for healthy, the university’s 2022 score of 3.38 is a new low; increasing workloads are just the tip of the iceberg. Lack of faith in Calvin’s leadership and strategy, fragile job security, concerns about diversity and inclusion, and feelings of voicelessness have all contributed to low morale.
Staff still dedicated as engagement slides
In 2016, the last time the survey was administered at Calvin, 42.5% of Calvin employees were considered “engaged,” a term BCWI uses for high levels of investment of energy and commitment to the university. This year, just 20.9% are. Almost 30% are now considered disengaged, well over the sector average of 9.5% and about three times higher than Calvin’s 2016 disengagement level.
Despite sliding engagement, Calvin improved and scored above the sector average in one category; Calvin faculty and staff remain confident in their colleagues’ commitment to excellence.
Similarly, staff’s commitment to students hasn’t wavered; it’s what has kept many at Calvin. “We do our best because we still care about the mission of Calvin and the students,” long-time staff member Lori Keen said.
“Practically everyone I worked with is here at Calvin because of a deep commitment to serving students,” said Thea Brophy, who was Calvin’s co-director of coordinated care and first-year advising until she resigned at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. “Many of us took on additional work to help bridge gaps left by the departures of colleagues so as not to affect the student experience too much. In the end, that’s just not sustainable.”
Psychology professor Emily Helder said the survey results suggest to her that faculty and staff concerns mainly have to do with leadership and communication, not their colleagues or immediate supervisors.
None of the Calvin employees Chimes spoke with were surprised by the results. Rather, the data support what they were already witnessing.
“I would say that the results resonate with what I have been hearing from faculty and staff and I think they reflect many of the difficult things that the community has been through,” Vice President for People, Strategy and Technology Todd Hubers, who plans to retire at the end of August, told Chimes. “While the results are disappointing, I am encouraged by the commitment that everyone has shown to improve our results and our work together.”
According to President Michael Le Roy, a full report on the results is planned for the October 2022 meeting of the Board of Trustees.
“A Hunger Games-esque atmosphere”
Like Manni-Pohler, Service Learning Center Director Andrew Haggerty is facing an increasing workload intensified by decreasing staff levels. When he came on board in 2019, the SLC had three professional staff members and employed 16-20 students each year. Today, he is the sole professional staff member and can only hire 10-12 students. The center’s programming budget has been reduced by over 30% in the past five years or so, according to Haggerty. As a result, “we can’t do anywhere near the scope or quality of work that we used to do, and that I was proud of doing,” Haggerty said.
The SLC can’t lean on other offices and departments that have worked closely with them in the past, because they are also facing the strain of a diminished workforce. “All of us are stretched too thin,” Haggerty said.
When Brophy decided to resign, her position at Calvin had ceased to be sustainable. “I’m concerned by the continuing trend toward outsized workload expectations at Calvin, and in these remaining months of the semester I’ll continue to advocate for healthier capacity boundaries as best as I can,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “While I’m clear-eyed about the realities of our financial situation, the pandemic, and the moment that higher ed is experiencing right now, I have to believe that there are different ways to carry out the work of the university.” Prior to her resignation, Brophy was putting in eight- to nine-hour days, plus evening hours working from home.
“The BCWI survey illuminated that one of our strengths is how highly we regard our colleagues, and I agree!” Haggerty said. “The problem is that I’ve lost so many of these highly regarded colleagues around me, which has left me feeling a sense of personal and professional isolation day-to-day.”
Andrew George, Calvin’s director of human resources, told Chimes that staff’s perception on this front is accurate. “Many of our valuable colleagues have departed the university for different reasons over the last few years and, while many of those position vacancies were refilled by new hires, there were also many positions that were not refilled due to financial and budget constraints,” George said. “Some, if not most, of the work completed by our departed colleagues is now being completed by a smaller number of people.”
The increased workload is taking a toll. According to Keen, “more and more people are actively looking for other jobs. We are losing really good people who have worked here for many years.” While the budget cuts and increased strain on remaining staff are a factor, “I think even deeper is that we’ve lost confidence in leadership’s ability to turn the ship around. In fact, we seem to be turning into a place that we don’t recognize anymore. Many of us are questioning our ability to stay,” Keen said.
Overall, Calvin’s workplace health scores have sunk well below the sector averages BCWI tracks. Calvin was mostly at or above average in 2016. Since then, employees’ assessments of job security, confidence in management and satisfaction with retirement plans have all fallen by more than a point.
Keen, an alumna who joined the biology department as lab services manager in 1985, told Chimes the outsourcing of Calvin’s facilities in summer 2020 was a “tipping point” for job security. “Faculty and staff alike were deeply troubled and angry … It was a gut punch,” Keen said. “And then the letting go of Joe Kuilema. For staff, we wonder what actions we might take in our personal lives that could cause us to lose our jobs.” Kuilema’s contract with Calvin was not renewed after he officiated a same-sex marriage.
Looming cuts have also made it difficult to set boundaries, Brophy told Chimes. “We found ourselves in a Hunger Games-esque atmosphere with a sense of needing to prove our value in order to preserve positions and programs,” she said.
According to Vice President for Student Life Sarah Visser, some faculty and staff reported feeling “survivor’s guilt” due to cuts, departures and overall retention issues on the free-response portion of the survey, which has not been made public.
Economics professor Adel Abadeer said he’s noticed “a prevailing sense of fear” on campus, which he said hasn’t been addressed by administration. To begin repairing Calvin’s workplace health, Abadeer said administrators need to “address the sense of fear among faculty and staff and provide assurance that no one will be harmed for speaking up.”
Compared to 2016 and prior, Calvin employees now feel less trust between themselves and leaders, less belief that their workplace is a place of openness and honesty and less hope for involvement in decisions that affect them. They are also less convinced that leaders have compassion for people at all levels.
According to Cary Humphries, a BCWI consultant, neither budget cuts nor COVID-19 can be blamed for Calvin’s low scores. Other Christian higher education institutions BCWI works with have gone through similar cuts, Humphries said, and managed to stay the course or even improve their scores. Over the course of the pandemic, average scores across sectors have improved.
“False claims about diversity and inclusion”
According to English and gender studies professor Linda Naranjo-Huebl, minority employees tend to be most vulnerable at institutions going through economic contractions. “The pressures of demographic shifts and the resulting economic contractions to institutions of higher learning over the years can most clearly be seen at Calvin in the loss of ethnic and gender diversity and representation, particularly among faculty and staff,” said Naranjo-Huebl.
Abadeer told Chimes he believes low faculty morale is at least partially due to “false claims about diversity and inclusion.”
“There is no effective presence of any minority in the administration (president, provost, vice presidents, deans) since I have joined Calvin in 1999 (and I am pretty sure before that, too), except the designated position on diversity and inclusion,” Abadeer said.
For Manni-Pohler, concerns about inclusion and identity played a role in her decision to leave Calvin. “It’s been extremely disappointing to observe how Calvin has handled this year’s CSR split and the conversation around LGBTQ+ inclusion,” Manni-Pohler said. “This has been top of mind for me as I support and care for students and as I think through what it means to care about and belong to an institution that’s opaque in its messaging as it works to figure itself out.”
These concerns were the final blow for some staff members. “Many folks I know stuck it out through lean years of overwork (and pandemic) because of an abiding commitment to Calvin’s mission, but as we watch the HSR conversation play out I believe a number of staff members (myself included) found it increasingly difficult to feel at home in this place — which certainly had an impact on day-to-day job satisfaction,” Brophy said.
Visser said faculty and staff reported in their free-response answers that they want clear and unified direction for diversity and accessibility efforts. They also reported facing a “tremendous amount of fear” about upcoming decisions relating to LGBTQ+ issues, Visser said.
Unheard and frustrated
Haggerty graduated from Hope College in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He holds a master’s degree in college student affairs administration from the University of Georgia and is working toward a doctorate in higher, adult and lifelong education from Michigan State University. With more than a decade of experience in student affairs, he is also active in the university community, attending town halls, forums and president’s coffees and providing feedback whenever he can.
Despite his experience and involvement, Haggerty feels his input often goes unheeded.
“I have had several instances over the past five-plus years where I have personally given campus leaders my clear and strong opinions on important matters that affect my area (both in person and in writing) where the opposite decisions have been made without any sort of announcement or justification given,” Haggerty said. “These experiences leave me feeling not only as having limited power to influence decisions, but also limited value as a professional with ideas and opinions.”
He’s not alone in feeling unheard. “For me, the frustrating thing for staff is that we really have no voice, nowhere to go with our frustrations,” Keen told Chimes. “Faculty at least have an official voice in Faculty Senate. So we [staff] are angry and frustrated, complain to each other and have a great deal of skepticism for actions made by administration.”
David Wilstermann, a program analyst at Calvin, said many staff members just don’t know where to go with ideas or how to tell when it’s safe to raise concerns.
George told Chimes that the best way for staff to express concerns and share feedback is for them to contact their immediate supervisor and then work up the chain of command to their director or divisional vice president. “All employees, whether faculty or staff, could also consult directly with Human Resources staff on identifying and engaging in available communication channels,” George said.
According to Visser, free-response answers revealed a general sense of floundering on strategy and a feeling that leaders are out of touch. They also revealed a sense that offers to include more people in decision-making go to a consistent set of favored people, as well as worries that such attempts are disingenuous and those involved may face a fear of retaliation.
Getting out of the hole
The Workplace Quality Task Force plans to continue working with BCWI. Faculty and staff are invited to participate in focus groups that will use recruitment and retention-focused questions to help employees picture Calvin at its best and administrators get a better sense of the challenges they are facing.
“We look forward to our next steps, including discovery groups, where we can learn in greater detail about the challenges of our current workplace culture and about the hopes of our faculty and staff,” Provost Noah Toly told Chimes. “We are engaging third-party experts who can help us understand how best to make progress. We want to make Calvin a great place to work. That’s going to take listening, strategy, accountability and time. But we are committed to the work ahead.”
President-Elect Wiebe Boer told Chimes he’s faced low morale in organizations before. “It’s really about getting people to recognize again this common vision and mission that they have, this shared cause, and then also being very deliberate about recognizing, on an individual level, these are really difficult times,” Boer said.
Keen, who was awarded Calvin’s William Spoelhof Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, said she plans to retire in the next two to four years, and hopes that by then she’ll once again be proud of the university.