BY WATCHING ADAMS STAFF – 10/26/15
In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the citizens of Oceania are obligated to throw any information or ideas critical of Big Brother into a chute that leads to an incinerator – called “the Memory Hole.” For too long now, Adams State University (ASU) has been throwing its own people down the Memory Hole, as well. By not interviewing employees as they leave the institution, ASU is missing out on a vital opportunity for self-reflection and even self-correction.
High staff and faculty turnover is indeed a problem at ASU, one that can be an indicator as to why ASU struggles with the retention and graduation of students. As one ASU professor was told their first week on the job by another veteran faculty member, “you can use me as a letter of reference in your next job application.”
Unfortunately, ASU has not been effective at identifying, let alone correcting, the problems that lead to high turnover. It would appear that ASU is not even particularly interested in learning from its personnel mistakes given that it has never so much as asked outgoing employees why they are leaving and what recommendations they would make to the institution. Well, almost never.
Between 2012 and 2015, ASU conducted a limited number of exit interviews with faculty on probationary (tenure-track) status. Watching Adams has posted the sample questions used in these interviews here. The data was kept strictly confidential and reported directly to President Svaldi. When asked what was done with the data, one source familiar with the program was not aware of any particular action taken as the findings were not reported back. One notable piece of feedback given included a faculty member who observed, “ASU places too much emphasis on ‘diversity’ and not enough emphasis on the quality of teaching.”
Watching Adams followed up with half a dozen recent departures from the ASU workforce to inquire if they had any form of exit interview or other review of their experiences at the institution. Frequently, respondents acted as though the question itself was an absurd one. “Lol, no they didn’t” one replied. “HA, nope, not even remotely… I don’t have any desire to return there” said another with longtime roots in the San Luis Valley.
Two former employees spoke more openly about how they felt “dumped” by the institution. “Not only did I not have an exit interview, once it was known that I was not retained, I was treated like I had nothing to offer… Like I was garbage waiting to be tossed out. I felt worthless. And my students didn’t even know what had happened. It was like I just disappeared to them.” What happened to their favorite professor? ASU tossed them down the Memory Hole.
Another recalled their experience similarly: “I was just told verbally that my position was eliminated and after a few weeks, I finally got a letter from my supervisor indicating that. For a long time, I had nothing formal in writing and I was in the dark!” The employee recalls feeling that their diverse training and background were not more seriously considered even while on the job. They explained, “I kept on asking for more, still. I even asked to teach courses in my areas of expertise and they never followed up with it. I wanted to help the students to grow and understand this world, but they did not want it. Then I just stopped.” The employee added, “this diversity bullshit mantra from [ASU] is just that: diversity bullshit mantra!”
One interview Watching Adams conducted highlighted the lack of employee transitions; outgoing employees frequently have no job-shadowing, mentoring, or other overlapping responsibilities with the incoming employee in their position. The resulting loss of best practices and lessons learned can mean ASU is bound to repeat mistakes and run up against the same obstacles, over and over, because ASU administration places insufficient emphasis on the transitional process.
This former employee also wondered aloud as to who received a “going away” party and who doesn’t. It would seem that the closer one’s employment is situated to the administrative offices in Richardson Hall, the more fanfare was given to them upon their departure. For most faculty and staff, it’s as though they were disappeared into the night. And thrown down the Memory Hole.
Underlying feelings of resentment were common among all the interviews Watching Adams conducted for this story. Most were hesitant to say too much given that they don’t want to be branded as a “negative person” or a “complainer,” but it was quickly evident that they felt disposable, cast out, and that the institutional knowledge they could offer was not wanted. Many no longer list ASU in their work history on social media or other platforms.
Could ASU, an institution of higher learning, better learn from its own mistakes by embracing the feedback of its greatest resource – its workforce? Rather than throwing their own people down the Memory Hole and acting as though their ideas no longer matter, Watching Adams recommends that ASU re-instate the exit interview as a standard measure for all outgoing employees and, just as importantly, make a sincere effort to implement changes based on the feedback gathered. An institution that does not retain and learn from its collective memory is doomed to repeat the same mistakes… and at great cost to the students who count on an educational center to educate itself on best practices.