"Maintaining a positive work environment in a time of declining resources"

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September 2003

“Maintaining a positive work environment in a time of declining resources” was the topic addressed by a panel at the Quality Advocates’ Network meeting on September 12.

Philip Burlingame, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, Bonnie MacEwan, Assistant Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication, University Libraries, and Paul Peworchik, Assistant to the Vice Provost, Information Technology Services, explained how their units use low-tech ways to improve climate and employee morale.

All three units represented in the panel discussion have in common low employee turnover rates, methods to obtain employee feedback, and regular opportunities to get together across different levels of the organization.

In Student Affairs, a staff development program has been devised that uses input from staff satisfaction and exit surveys to contribute to their overarching goal of selecting and supporting a diverse staff.

The Staff Satisfaction Survey is administered on-line every three years to all SA staff at all Penn State campuses. In Spring 2002, 576 employees were surveyed and 458 responded, garnering a 79.5% response rate.

On a 5-point scale, with 5 being highest, 75% of the staff rated overall satisfaction a 4 or 5; high ratings were also given by 92% for their individual job, 84% for satisfaction with co-workers, 65% for quality and planning efforts, 60% for computing/technology, and 42% for availability of budget/resources. The work environment as it related to diversity and affirmative action was also evaluated, and opportunities for staff development and recognition were assessed.

A Staff Exit Survey is sent to all University Park staff members who leave Student Affairs. Results are tallied quarterly and reviewed by senior administrators. Areas of concern have included space limitations, budget resources, salaries, advancement opportunities, and supervisor concerns.

Some of the actions taken to enhance the work environment as a result of the two surveys included:

  • University Health Services addressed space concerns by expanding the pharmacy work area.

  • Student Activities improved supervisors’ communications with staff.

  • Staff retreats were held at some locations to discuss results and recommend changes.

  • Annual all-staff programs in August, January and May provide opportunities for staff from all campuses to attend keynote sessions, breakout sessions, and an awards luncheon.

  • Standards requiring a minimum of 20 hours per year of staff development have been instigated, including 3 hours each of diversity training, technology training, and skill enhancement.

Philip also described a Web-based software program written for SA staff that provides summary reports of staff development activities. Installed on the unit’s Intranet, the software allows each manager to see a list of their employees, their staff development activities (classes, hours, credits, etc.) and if they have met their staff development goals. For more information about the staff development software, email Ed Mc Gowan.

Several activities have been initiated in Information Technology Services to create a positive work environment. A little over one year ago, Paul Peworchik initiated a program in which a dozen or so different ITS staff members gather for lunch each month with ITS Vice Provost Gary Augustson. Their discussions, facilitated by Robin Anderson, Manager for Marketing and Communications, center on topics related to diversity and workplace climate. In order to assure a diverse mix of staff at each luncheon, Paul uses a random generator that selects participants and takes into consideration gender, ethnicity and race, years of service, and ITS department.

Several ideas generated at these luncheons have been implemented. For example, for many years ITS has conducted a new employee orientation in which staff can learn about the organization, meet people in the various divisions, tour ITS locations, and schmooze with the Vice Provost. As a result of a suggestion made at one of the vice provost’s luncheons, a similar program is now offered for “not-so-new” employees. Senior directors and managers provide overviews of their departments and “not-so-new” staff are taken on tours of the Telecommunications Building, the USB II Building, the Computer Building, Shields, and Paterno Library.

Other new initiatives to create a positive work environment in ITS include:

  • Job openings in ITS are available on the Penn State portal by division.

  • A social committee plans a yearly picnic for all staff and their families.

  • Notes from senior ITS staff meetings are now recorded on the unit’s Intranet.

For years University Libraries enjoyed a reputation among Penn State’s academic units for providing supportive faculty mentoring. Two years ago, when Bonnie MacEwan was an administrative fellow in the Provost’s office, Vice Provost Robert Secor asked her to assess faculty mentoring in the University Park colleges and document its strengths and weaknesses. With advice from Associate Dean Sally Kalin and assistance from the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment, Bonnie developed a methodology for assessing faculty mentoring: a written survey[PDF] was distributed to the college deans and follow-up interviews were held.

The results revealed a wide range of mentoring activity in the colleges–everything from a dean who meets individually with each new faculty member to assess their needs, to a college where new faculty receive notification of an assigned mentor before they arrive at the university. All mentoring programs have in common a desire to help faculty get their research up and running. In the Eberly College, for example, new faculty are taken on a “field trip” to Washington D.C. to visit funding agencies. In Liberal Arts the focus is on publications and other promotion and tenure requirements. In the final analysis, very few, if any of the colleges had written procedures for mentoring faculty.

Bonnie described several initiatives that have been in place for some time in the Libraries to facilitate good mentoring, where the attitude that “no faculty member goes through tenure alone” is encouraged:

  • A database has been developed that records proteges (untenured faculty) and their mentors

  • A promotion and tenure workshop is held annually.

  • The libraries promotion and tenure committee provides information to faculty about research opportunities.

Bonnie initiated several new activities in the collections department, for which she is responsible:

  • A “selector’s in-box” exercise asks senior librarians to keep track of all requests for service, information, etc.; at the end of the year a panel discussion is held in which the librarians describe how they handled these requests.

  • An annual retreat is held for all collections librarians from all Penn State campuses.

  • The collection and tracking of opportunities for professional development, publication, and research has been formalized.

  • A recommended reference is: The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships by Lois J. Zachary (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

In order to enhance and develop a library-wide mentoring program, the four assistant/associate library deans- Bonnie, Sally, Roseann Bazirjian, and Jack Sulzer-asked the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment to interview groups of University Libraries faculty regarding their mentoring relationships and experiences.

Four groups of faculty were identified:

  1. Four librarians who are thought to be good mentors

  2. Four untenured librarians who are proteges (mentees)

  3. Four tenured librarians who may or may not have been mentors

  4. Four assistant/associate deans

The assistant/associate deans identified a list of questions that an organization should ask itself when setting up a mentoring program. Individual interviews were conducted with the four faculty members in each of the first three groups. The four associate/assistant deans were interviewed together in one session. The results of the study will be used to develop a bona fide mentoring program in the libraries and also will be made available to the university community.

Examples from the Audience of other ways unit leaders have opened up communication within their units and created a positive work environment:

The College of Medicine CEO and CFO give financial presentations each quarter for employees. These Q&A sessions have made a big difference in employee satisfaction as reflected in Hershey’s employee climate surveys.


The new Vice President for Outreach and Cooperative Extension, Craig Weidemann, has begun to write monthly e-mails, which he has coined “Inside Outreach,” to all employees in the unit. In the two e-mails sent to date he has spoken about his leadership philosophy and the changes that have occurred under his guidance. Early feedback from staff indicates they appreciate his openness and candor. He closes each missive with the message, “I welcome your feedback and comments.”

Last year the publications editor in the College of Arts and Architecture began writing an in-house newsletter to all employees in the college. Sent electronically, it focuses on staff concerns and issues, draws on information from Human Resources, and solicits questions and feedback.

“The Big Picture,” a bi-annual new-staff orientation program in the Eberly College of Science, initially offered tours of the college’s academic departments and laboratories. Over time the program evolved into one that primarily focused on faculty members’ lab research. Now the college is developing a virtual tour of departments as part of an orientation program for new and not-so-new employees that will also feature short presentations by faculty members from each department.



In the Office of Student Aid, monthly “coffees” are held in Assistant Vice President Anna Griswold’s office. These “open office” events provide a time for staff to come together and socialize. If a staff member has an issue or problem that he or she thinks should be addressed by Student Aid, they are encouraged to put it forward as an idea for an agenda item for the “huddle” sessions Anna holds each month with her direct reports.

Robert Steele, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, holds quarterly “town meetings” and invites all faculty and staff to attend. They are encouraged to write down questions and submit them to a moderator, who–in an “issues forum” type format–submits them to the Dean for his response.

In the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences the dean-of-one-year, Eric Barron, gives academic departments funding to host open houses to promote cross-discipline interaction and socializing. The Dean also provides funds for the relatively few female faculty in the college to meet once a month for lunch to network, bond, and build professional and social relationships.

To foster transportation across a campus torn up with construction and riddled with detours, ITS has purchased 12 bicycles for staff to use to commute between meetings. After a bike has “carried out” its purpose, it is left outside one of the numerous buildings housing ITS offices to serve another ITSer’s transportation needs.

As part of its staff development activities, the Budget Office routinely organizes tours of interesting campus facilities, museums, labs, etc., coordinates weekly happy hours, and funds an annual summer picnic for all staff members and their families.


The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.