The University Record, October 10, 1994

Implementation of Women’s Agenda requires culture change for University

By Jane R. Elgass

Reflecting on the Michigan Agenda for Women, President James J. Duderstadt told a group of women of color that “first we try to change behavior. If that doesn’t work, we’ll change people.”

The president addressed the women of color at a Sept. 30 roundtable discussion sponsored by the Women of Color Task Force. The discussion is one in a series being held this fall to address specific concerns of women at the University.

“The University was created by and to serve all the people, the common ‘man,’” Duderstadt noted. “We have grown to embrace many more people, and if they are to truly engage in the life of the institution we must change. The Michigan Mandate is changing the Uni-versity in a very basic way, to one that is a multicultural learning community in which everyone is treated with respect.”

Over the past couple of years, the president noted, “a similar effort has been undertaken that reflects the importance of gender and the issues facing women.” Launched last spring as the Agenda for Women, the program is designed “to make the University a leader in higher education and society in promoting the achievements of women.”

Noting that he is “deeply interested in your concerns,” Duderstadt emphasized that the roundtable is only one approach in the process of communication, adding that women should “feel free to bring issues to my attention” because the communication process has to be ongoing.

Prior to addressing concerns of audience members, the president briefed the group on issues that had been brought up in other meetings and discussions. They include:

  • A need to alter the staff grievance procedure. The Human Resources/Affirmative Action Office is working on a proposal for a conciliation service.

  • The difficulty in getting supervisors to understand the importance of allowing staff women to participate in the roundtable and similar events. The president noted that he had sent a letter to 3,000 supervisors urging their support of this roundtable and one on Oct. 26 for all staff women.

  • Supervisors are being asked to increase flexibility in work schedules.

  • A working group is developing a recommendation on dependent care issues, with a report due in the next several weeks.

  • Current procedures put the burden of the cost of staff training and development on the unit, sometimes preventing opportunities to attend programs. The University needs to look at a different way to fund this activity so all can take advantage of the program.

  • Training programs for managers and supervisors are being modified to address certain weaknesses.

  • Inadequate attention is being given to education, reporting and investigation with respect to the current policy on sexual harassment. Two staff positions to handle complaints and training programs have been posted by Human Resources/Affirmative Action.

  • A Universitywide task force will be appointed to address the “alarming tendency of violence toward women” with an eye to changing the environment to eliminate violence, with activities primarily focused on education.

  • Equity in compensation will be explored with an eye to developing plans for studies of the issue and a commitment to address the problems. Duderstadt also fielded a number of questions

    Among the questions and the president’s answers:

    Can we give input on the compensation proposal and how will we find out the results? A proposal to address compensation is being developed by Jackie McClain, executive director of human resources/affirmative action. The president wants the proposal in place this year and information on it will be published in The University Record.

    The flexible benefits program, particularly with respect to unused sick leave, is a “two-tiered system that has a long-term disadvantage to staff.” “Many of the elements of the plan have not been pinned down. This is the kind of input we need.”

    How will you address the shortage of minority women in departments? “There is a serious problem of underrepresentation overall and in specific areas. A global approach doesn’t work. We’ll go directly to the unit and say ‘You have to do this.’” The executive officers met in September to identify units with underrepresentation. “We’ll use a combination of the carrot and the stick. This is a personal responsibility for me.”

    What about fairness in job evaluations? This is important for advancement. “Most universities lag behind business and industry in the emphasis on developing people. We tend to select for ability rather than develop individuals. This will require a change in approach. We’re very rigid now, with boxes that don’t let you grow. We must adhere to the philosophy that the development of people is the most important thing this institution does.”

    How can women of color get into the pipeline for advancement? We must develop a combination of mentoring activities, education and intern experiences, as well as respond to employees’ needs for career counseling. In some cases, a variety of lateral moves might give staff more opportunity to learn new things.

    The University also must help staff “overcome the fear element” with respect to training. “People must feel comfortable to develop and enhance their skills. We must build strong positive incentives to reward supervisors for helping staff members. Staff are the most loyal to the University, are valuable to the University. If one person leaves, it’s a loss to the University.”

    Middle management doesn’t want to change; the glass ceiling for women of color is cemented in. “First we’ll try changing behavior. If that doesn’t work, then we’ll change people.”

    What about faculty who end up as administrators? Most of them are researchers and never trained in management skills. They don’t have a clue on how to direct staff. This is a very sensitive issue, and the University has a responsibility to address the issue, perhaps through required management institutes. “In the long run this will make a stronger university. We should establish a program and require it before the faculty move into management positions.”

    Supervisors are reluctant to allow staff flexible time to pursue their education. When the letter [announcing the roundtable meeting] came out, my supervisor threw it away. There must be pressure from the top. “This will require a change in culture. We’re too rigid and have to convince managers and supervisors to be more flexible toward their staff. If staff don’t have opportunities, how can they be expected to advance. It’s always difficult to get down to the level of the institution that affects lives. It’s like pushing on a rope. We have to convince them that it is in their best interest to help employees. It’s not easy and it won’t happen overnight, but I’m committed to doing this.”