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JAMS Solutions Higher Education

Why Low Morale Plaguing Higher Education Is Not Inevitable

A Q&A session with Richard Birke, JAMS senior vice president and executive director of the JAMS Institute, and Jennifer Sambito, JAMS client solutions manager

Since the pandemic, higher education institutions have encountered a range of stiff challenges—from declining enrollment to policies regarding remote work—that have exacerbated tensions between faculty and staff, causing many to look for employment elsewhere. Richard Birke and Jennifer P. Sambito recently spoke about those challenges and how JAMS Pathways, a customizable service for addressing and preventing conflict, can help.

What kinds of problems have you been encountering in higher education?

Jennifer Sambito: It really runs the gamut. Certainly, high turnover is a major issue right now. A recent study out of the University of North Carolina system, for example, found that faculty and staff turnover there had increased dramatically in the first half of the last academic year. From what I am hearing, that system is not alone.

What’s driving that turnover is a key question. We don’t know for sure, but we see patterns in the problems that universities and other higher education institutions are confronting. Many of them are fundamentally about distrust between faculty and administration that manifest themselves in complaints over unequal treatment, disenfranchisement, conflicting values and unsustainable workloads.

In your experience, what happens when these issues are not addressed?

Jennifer: Well, obviously, if things go south, there is always the possibility of a formal dispute. Most of the time, that doesn’t happen. Instead, people who feel unfairly treated just leave their job.

But it’s not without costs. As turnover increases, universities can suffer from low morale and diminished productivity, which can have significant economic consequences. Recently, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources released a study that found about 35% of higher ed employees are likely or very likely to look for new employment opportunities in the next year. Another 22% are somewhat likely to look for a new job. Those are not good numbers, suggesting a lot of discontentment. The good news, though, is that these things aren’t inevitable. 

Who typically reaches out to you, and what are they looking for?

Richard Birke: We hear from a wide range of players on campus. It can be deans, provosts, chancellor’s offices, university counsel, HR. We also have had instances where faculty members have reached out to learn more about JAMS Pathways’ services so they could then introduce us to colleagues and administrators.

The most common scenario is a call from a university leader who wants to proactively get ahead of a problem that has the potential to undermine the morale and productivity of a department. We’ve heard, for example, from a lot of administrators about how they can better deliver on the promises of diversity, equity and inclusion. Other times, there is no dispute to be resolved, but a leader sees an opportunity to bring in a third party to spot potential problems, facilitate dialogue and harness a shared vision.

How does your background in academia support your work?

Richard: Well, I’ve spent most of my career in academia, so I understand the culture and nature of the tensions. I taught conflict resolution for decades. But I didn’t just teach. I also put my experience into practice. Over the course of my career, I developed skills that allow me to quickly identify the hidden problems and interpersonal issues getting in the way of the core business. 

Establishing trust is crucial. I’ve experienced the common problems universities face and know how difficult they can be and the snowballing effect of not addressing issues as early as possible. Having conflict discussed in the open while giving people the tools to move past it themselves can mean that conflict is actually a way to build a stronger organization. 

What sets JAMS apart in this area?

Richard: First, JAMS has a world-class reputation of being a neutral alternative dispute resolution provider, so that instantly gives us credibility. We’re not a consultant that takes sides. We’re serving all interested parties.

We also have decades of experience resolving conflicts, facilitating dialogue and finding common ground. We know how to engage all key stakeholders, no matter their title or seniority, to ensure that their voices are heard, which also brings credibility to the process. We make sure that everyone feels invested in the outcome.

On a broader level, we take a systems-based approach that few organizations have the time or capacity to do. Instead of looking at problems in isolation, we look at them in context and search for more sustainable solutions.

How does an engagement with JAMS Pathways work?

Jennifer: We employ a phased approach in which clients decide how far they want to go. So during phase one, we look under the hood and give some feedback about what needs to happen before an intervention can be designed. Phase two is often a much more substantial investigation that includes interviews, a summary of the core problems and a custom-designed process to address those problems. Phase three includes the facilitation of that process, and phase four, of course, is the fix and the wrap-up.

At any time, clients can decide that they’ve received all they need, which helps them control the costs. They only pay when services are rendered.

What does success look like?

Jennifer: It manifests itself in different ways. But for us, it’s often the expressions of gratitude we receive from clients. One provost recently credited us with rebuilding trust and helping his institution heal after a difficult period. But success can also come during the process, when sometimes, for the first time, people feel like they’ve been heard and had an opportunity to voice their concerns. Those moments seem small, but they can make a big impact on a culture.

Learn more about JAMS Pathways.


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