The University Record, May 6, 2002

Staff ‘elevator speeches’ distill hot U topics for White

By Theresa Maddix

White (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)
If you had 45 seconds in an elevator with Interim President B. Joseph White, what pressing University issue would you call to his attention? Imagine trying to be succinct enough to fit in every critical detail, while still leaving time for conversational amenities, such as the weather.

This was the challenge White posed to twelve staff members at the President’s Staff Forum April 29. Presenters were drawn out of 125 staff members who analyzed issues they had pre-identified as crucial to the University’s success in the next decade. Issues were synthesized on the classification system project, diversity, professional development, tuition and education support, equity, student services, retention, environmental stewardship, ethics, benefits, technology, and regional campuses.

Classification System Project Chief Human Resources Officer Barbara Butterfield was on hand to introduce a project, still in the development stage, that will replace the current formal job classification system. Though its methods are not finalized, the project goal is set: “to assist and enable departments to attract and retain competent and committed staff.” More information is available at

White said of the current system, “Our classification system [developed in 1973] died 15 years ago, but nobody’s buried it yet.”

Staff members raised issues about how the new system will be implemented and where it will be mandated. They asked for the incentives of the new system to be made crystal clear, with a solid Universitywide communications plan—using Record stories, Web site information, e-mail messages and many open forums. Redundancy, in this case, was seen as a big plus. Group members also stressed the need for time and funding to make a smooth transition, including training at the management level.

Coordinators used index cards, masking tape and markers to construct the panel above for a mock elevator. At the event, White stood with each representative for a 45-second ‘ride’ to hear elevator speeches.
Diversity Group participants from the table that focused on diversity asked the University to create a formal strategic development plan on diversity. The resulting committee must receive adequate funding both at the administrative and departmental level, they said. The group suggested holding managers and supervisors accountable for diversity. They also sought the creation of a Universitywide position to oversee diversity. Not sure if the position already exists but isn’t well publicized, they asked for an effective communication plan for the person and office.

Professional development Staff members want three things: “recognition, respect and inclusion,” said the professional development representative. She reminded the group that “we’re the continuity and the memory of the institution.” She asked White to involve others and to “think broadly about professional development.”

Tuition and education support A large group gathered to talk about educational opportunities for staff members and did not lack for recommendations. But, instead of running through a laundry list in 45 seconds for White, they asked for a benchmark study and for a staff survey in order to begin moving forward with positive change.

Equity The round table discussing equity said that before the University can become an employer of choice, it must address inequities in the areas of gender and class, years of service, job classification, differences between units, and market variables. While the new classification system will address some of these issues, group members said a central proactive “review of inequities” is needed and a means to divide funds more equitably between units.

Student services A representative from student services cited concerns that tuition and living expenses continue to increase and asked White to consider a fund-raising campaign that targets student fellowships. On behalf of her group she also asked for a 50-50 split in student funding, where half could be disbursed for financial need and the other 50 percent could be given as merit awards. She said that if the University is serious about recruiting a diverse group of students, it must first focus on the minority and international students who are already here. She also issued a reminder that “We’re all here for the students, not for the faculty, not for research.”

Retention The representative from the group discussing retention humorously thanked “Joe” for his “buddy” getting a week off and for “comping in on parking”—compensating an employee for part of their parking costs as a reward for loyalty and service. He said, seriously, that employees wanted to be respected and empowered to make their own decisions. In the unseasonably hot 80-degree weather a couple weeks ago, for instance, the Department of Public Safety officers could not choose to wear their summer uniforms. Instead, because the decision had to be made “a couple levels up,” they were forced to wear winter uniforms, complete with turtleneck sweaters.

Environmental stewardship In this area, the campus should first “take note of what’s going on” with a well-publicized list of courses highlighting stewardship activities, and by marketing and promoting how-to lists on environmental stewardship, said the speaker for the environment. On its flip chart the group wrote, “To be exemplary, U-M must ‘walk the talk’ at all levels with joy and enthusiasm, and let the world know that we’re walkin’.”

Ethics The presenter on ethics complemented White on his recent e-mail messages on University ethics. She suggested that people might be “nonchalant in defining gray areas” and asked that ethical topics begin to be placed right in mission statements and orientation processes. She asked the University to reach high in this area: “We’re world-class for ethics. We want to be number one.”

Benefits The group concluded that the University has great benefits, but that there are huge disparities between campuses, both between Medical and Central Campus, and between U-M–Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn. Areas suggested for improvement were retirement, especially in relation to medical benefits and age; credit for prior service after dropping below half time; child care, which is unavailable to many and too expensive for others; tuition support, which seems to be more attractive at other colleges and universities; and parking, or the lack thereof.

Technology A representative from Plant Extension Services talked about technology on campus. He said that information technology (IT) has increased the number of people able to work from home and that the University is moving forward. Challenges are “bureaucratic inefficiencies,” and vision for the future. Leadership must learn “when to hold and when to fold,” said the group, giving M-Pathways as an example. It also is essential to listen to staff feedback in IT related areas and to lead by visible example, they noted.

Regional Campuses The biggest issue for campuses in Flint and Dearborn is representation. While many committees have one representative from these campuses, rarely is the representative anyone other than a department head. More representatives would lessen the difficulty of having regional voices heard.

White assured the group present that whoever is appointed president will receive all the input from the forum—e-mailed issues received beforehand, the flip charts of comments and summaries of the elevator speeches. Butterfield also said the input would be indispensable for HR as it moves forward.

Proceedings from the forum will be available online around May 20 at the President’s Web site,