Labor & Work-Life Issues

Matt Roth for The Chronicle

David Jordan (right), associate vice president for human resources at Howard Community College, and Michael Popp, an HVAC mechanic, met in a college leadership program and now ride together regularly.
August 05, 2012

Fifth Annual Survey

Great Colleges To Work For 2012

Campuswide Leadership Programs Can Open Doors

Campuswide Leadership Programs Can Open Doors

Matt Roth for The Chronicle

David Jordan (right), associate vice president for human resources at Howard Community College, and Michael Popp, an HVAC mechanic, met in a college leadership program and now ride together regularly.

By Beth Mole

When Michael D. Popp got an unexpected call from his college's director of human resources, he blithely quipped that maybe he should fear for his job. In reality, he only wondered why the caller, David C. Jordan, associate vice president for human resources at Howard Community College, didn't ring his personal cellphone first.

Mr. Popp, an HVAC mechanic at Howard, in Columbia, Md., befriended Mr. Jordan in the spring of 2009 as they completed a campus-leadership program together. They met every Friday alongside a cross-section of faculty, staff, and administrators to curb fictional conflicts and probe hypothetical personnel problems.

Campuswide Leadership Programs Can Open Doors

Matt Roth for The Chronicle

Michael Popp (right) and David Jordan, who met in a Howard Community College leadership program, escape the rain during a recent bike ride.

At its roots, the program helps employees develop new skills. But as the pair can attest, it also plants seeds of trust and openness across the campus that can be critical for diffusing problems.

"I've never worked anywhere where you can go to the top if you want to talk about something," says Mr. Popp. People on campus know him, and he in turn feels familiar with the perspectives and procedures in each corner of the college. "I know what makes them tick," he says. "It makes a huge difference."

Mr. Jordan agrees, noting that he probably wouldn't have met Mr. Popp were it not for the training. "Now I see him and talk to him, and he knows that he can come to me with any issue."

Mr. Jordan feels the same way about his other teammates in the leadership program, including a records-and-registration employee, the chief of security, and the director of public relations. If ever they need to talk, "I already have a face with a name," he says.

Employees who responded to The Chronicle's fifth annual Great Colleges to Work For survey gave Howard Community College high marks for strong relationships between supervisors or department chairs and the people they supervise. But there's more than chumminess at play in programs like Howard's, says Mark E. Briggs, chief risk manager at Ohio State University. Such relationships help colleges dodge potential disasters, he says. "When those communication links aren't there, it makes a very significant, very negative impact."

Indeed, in the wake of the recent child-sex-abuse case at Pennsylvania State University, in which Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, was found guilty on 45 counts, investigators found that gaps in communication and an insular environment had helped fuel the scandal.

At Howard, the leadership program is one of several that give employees the chance to connect with higher-ranking employees and distant co-workers, and to confront challenges together. During one program session, a team brainstormed about how to improve printing in one office, only to realize that another had a set of printers collecting dust in a storage closet.

"I'm not a big meetings person, but I'm a big proponent of this," says Sharon L. Schmickley, a professor of business and computer systems. "In some institutions, you'll have a president, vice president, deans, etc., and sometimes to get something passed, it requires you to go through all those levels," says Ms. Schmickley, who gives regular presentations in the leadership program. "That's not what happens here. We can operate very quickly and with fewer levels. We have openness."

Howard also requires new employees to go through a probationary period. For faculty members, it's three years, during which they are assigned a senior faculty mentor and attend training modules with a campuswide cohort of other new professors.

Such sessions are highly recommended by Jeffrey J. Nolan, a lawyer at Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew, in Burlington, Vt., and Marisa Randazzo of Sigma Threat Management Associates, in Sparks, Nev., who specialize in helping colleges avoid scandals, mass violence, and other crises. "You want folks who are going to be working together to be trained together," says Mr. Nolan. "Together, issues can be raised, and then people can better recognize that they can raise these issues day to day."

James W. Mock, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Central Oklahoma, says he sees a difference in the campus climate when faculty members aren't involved in decision making. When he meets faculty members from other colleges at conferences, he is often struck by how many feel bitter and divorced from the workings of their campuses.

"They're basically Balkanized," he says. "They have surprisingly little communication with other faculty."

Mr. Mock, who is also chairman of Central Oklahoma's Faculty Senate, has made it a point to keep faculty and staff members connected and to help them understand how the university works.

Like Howard Community College, Central Oklahoma, which also ranked high in The Chronicle survey's category of relationships, requires faculty members to sit on boards that represent a cross-section of the campus. "And our chairs are elected by faculty," Mr. Mock said, "so they tend to be facilitators instead of little dictators."

Nevertheless, Mr. Mock saw weaknesses in the faculty handbook and turned his attention to its overhaul, transforming it from a slim pamphlet to a two-and-a-half-inch-thick manual. The resulting guide is "totally and utterly transparent," he says. Revisions include clarifications of the tenure process and fixed pay scales for each department.

Faculty members liked the result, and feel the university supports them, says Gregory Farnell, an exercise-physiology professor at Central Oklahoma. "You're never afraid to ask or go see them," he says, "even if it's something uncomfortable to talk about."

When he wanted to talk about his pay scale, for instance, he skipped his chair and went right to the dean. "We had a previous conversation about it, and we were meeting about something else anyway," he says.

Correction (8/9/2012, 12:29 p.m.): The photo captions in this article originally transposed the identifications of the two Howard Community College employees. David Jordan is wearing a long-sleeve shirt, and Michael Popp is has a sleeveless shirt. The captions have been updated to reflect this correction.