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‘Demeaning,’ ‘wonderful’: Faculty express mixed reactions on culture trainings

Hatchet File Photo by Jack Fonseca
Geography and international affairs professor Marie Price said staff have generally given more positive feedback than faculty have about the recent culture trainings.

Faculty have expressed mixed reactions on culture training sessions offered this fall to break down GW’s new service priorities.

Administrators at faculty meetings have said the trainings and the broader culture initiative aim to reverse the “fear-based” culture pervasive among GW employees. But in interviews with more than 15 faculty, nine said the sessions inadequately address issues with GW’s culture, and five faculty said they do not plan to participate because of their disagreements with the larger culture initiative.

Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Mark Diaz, the culture initiative’s sponsor, said the sessions allow employees to become “more informed” about the initiative – which aims to tackle issues like employee onboarding and recognition – by learning about administrators’ progress.

“I think we’ve accomplished that objective,” Diaz said in an interview earlier this month. “I think they’re part motivational and inspirational and say, ‘Hey, this is a strategic initiative that we’ve defined, do you want to engage? Here’s your opportunity to do that.’”

The trainings include an explanation of the University’s new service framework, which includes a common purpose statement, seven University-wide values and three ranked-service priorities: safety, care and efficiency.

Officials asked employees in managerial roles to attend a training in September delivered by the Disney Institute – a firm officials originally partnered with to survey employees about the state of GW’s culture last year. Other employees were encouraged to attend a training in October or November facilitated by the Our GW Service Ambassadors – a team of 25 faculty and staff tapped to lead the trainings.

Sylvia Marotta-Walters, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee and a member of the team leading the culture initiative, said many attendees told her they “appreciate” the training sessions for allowing them to meet other employees from across the University.

“The thing I take away from all of this is how unique the experience is to be in a room where staff and faculty and the senior leaders are interacting around that same material,” she said. “That’s really never been done here.”

Walters said she expects more faculty to embrace the initiative as time goes on.

“There will be some faculty who will stand back and watch, and that’s OK,” she said. “Some people are early adopters, some people are not.”

Marie Price, a professor of geography and international affairs who is helping lead the culture initiative, said staff have reacted more positively to the sessions than faculty have likely because staff work more collaboratively with employees across the University and are less focused on an individual department’s needs.

“I think some faculty do like the trainings,” Price said. “Much of that depends if you think that our institutional culture needs changing or improving. And I think for faculty, if they think that there is room for improvement, then they’re more sympathetic to the project overall.”

In interviews, faculty said the sessions did not allow them to share their concerns about the University’s culture with administrators, adding that the Disney Institute’s model does not align with the needs of a higher education institution. Faculty have previously questioned the partnership’s worth and requested data about its cost earlier this month.

Gregory Squires, a professor of public policy and administration and sociology who attended a training this month conducted by the ambassador team, said the session “ignored” any specific “serious” or “concrete” issues, like what he considers a lack of shared governance between administrators and faculty, and instead discussed the service framework.

“The training struck me as a solution looking for a problem, and a very expensive solution,” he said.

Squires added that he did not learn anything “helpful” at the training he attended that would address GW’s culture issues.

“I think everybody understands the safety, care and efficiency, or the values that we should all subscribe to,” he said. “I don’t think there was anything that was wrong or inappropriate or bad about the training, I just don’t think there was anything that I learned.”

Bernard Wood, a professor of human origins in the anthropology department who attended a September training, said the training was “probably” the most “demeaning” and “disrespectful” two hours of his time at GW. The training consisted of a lecture about the service framework from the institute’s staff rather than administrators listening to faculty about their concerns, he said.

“Paying them large sums of money to gather faculty in windowless rooms for two hours and try to persuade them that they can reach higher than they actually can – I mean, it’s just mind-blowingly inappropriate,” he said.

Wood said he does not think there is a culture problem at GW, adding that the initiative has done “harm” and is “self-defeating.” He added that the push to improve GW’s culture may be the result of University President Thomas LeBlanc’s tenure at the University of Miami, which partnered with the Disney Institute while LeBlanc served as provost and has an Office of Institutional Culture.

Katrin Schultheiss, the chair of the history department who attended a September training, said the participants engaged in “condescending” exercises like closing their eyes and pointing in the direction they thought was north only to have Disney Institute staff reveal that everyone was pointing in a different direction.

She said the facilitator told them the goal was for everyone to “point in the same direction,” which she said felt “generic” and impersonal.

Schultheiss said “several” participants raised issues during the training about how effective the sessions would be in improving GW’s culture, but the trainer’s response was to “nod along and smile and then just move on.”

She said she wishes the training included a discussion more “tailored to the particular needs of different populations” at the University.

“We could actually address real issues here, but to have these generic training sessions just feels like I could have been at Home Depot,” Schultheiss said.

Some faculty said they had a positive experience with the sessions, which they believe are the first steps to changing the University’s culture.

Lynn Goldman, the dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, said the training was “highly structured” in laying out the service framework but “very participatory.”

“I think that all of this is really wonderful in terms of identifying a set of core values that I don’t think are foreign or new ideas,” she said. “I actually don’t buy into the idea that these are values that have never been manifested here at GW.”

Other faculty members said they are refusing to attend a training because they do not believe the partnership with the Disney Institute has provided any value.

Masha Belenky, an associate professor of French, said she will not attend a training because she is “skeptical” that the sessions will be effective at changing GW’s culture.

“The culture of an academic institution such as GW is something that should emerge from dialogue among faculty, students, staff and administrators,” she said in an email. “I would have preferred to see the money GW paid Disney spent instead on improving the student experience and fostering research and teaching.”

Ilena Peng contributed reporting.

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