In Leaked Letter to the President, 70 Faculty Say They “No Longer Recognize the College”

On August 16th, seventy college faculty signed a joint letter to President Bilger expressing their concerns about the college’s ongoing handling of last spring’s staff pay protests, during which staff objected to proposed changes to their compensation structure which were then put on hold. In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Quest, the seventy signatories say that “[n]on-teaching staff should be viewed as important members of a mission-driven community who should find their work deeply rewarding and, indeed, joyful. This has long been one of the defining features of Reed. To the degree that it no longer obtains – to the degree, for example, that ‘best practices’ of personnel management have been imported from the outside – we no longer recognize the college.” 

Faculty concerns were broad but were sparked partially by the recent departure of staff members like Faculty Administrative Coordinator Emily Hebbron. Hebbron holds a degree in Social Anthropology from Cambridge and has seven years of US Congressional Staff experience — but was being paid $26.18 an hour after seven years at Reed. Faculty felt she and other staff left the college, “because of their profound disappointment with the ways in which they have been treated by the administration pertaining, but not limited, to questions of remuneration and respect for their experience and commitment to Reed’s academic mission.” 

An academic mission, Hebbron felt, that’s been losing strength in the last decade. In an interview with the Quest, she said “I feel really bad for students, because I think students at Reed today have been sold a vision of Reed that existed, you know, maybe five, certainly 10 years ago, but honestly, not so much anymore.” 

The faculty letter was also written partially in response to a memo the president sent to staff on July 21 — a copy of which was obtained by the Quest — in which she promised, “an extended commitment … to understand and respond to your concerns and hopes.” She then brought up discussion sessions that took place at the end of the 2022-2023 academic year, in which topics such as, “multiple elements of compensation, including living and livable wages and keeping up with inflation,” along with, “merit raise pool allotment, taking experience into account, job descriptions, and methods of sharing [staff] voice with [President Bilger] and others,” were addressed. 

In regards to “next steps,” President Bilger described how she would work with a group of Senior Staff to, “organize existing input, to gather more perspectives, and to propose timelines.” This group, consisting of high-ranking members of the staff and administration such as Gary Granger, Lindsey Hoyt, Karnell McConnell-Black, Sandy Sundstrom, and Milyon Trulove (a full list can be found on the college’s website), was tasked with, “gather[ing] information, conduct[ing] interviews, schedul[ing] group discussions, and propos[ing] solutions early this fall,” when President Bilger plans to report back to staff on “immediate steps [she] plan[s] to take.”

However, the seventy faculty signatories were concerned by the college’s choice to primarily consult only these senior staff members. The letter calls into question the college’s “long-standing traditions of democracy and equity,” which it claims are undermined by the “institutional crisis” of staff dissatisfaction. While the undersigned faculty are “pleased” with Bilger’s use of a group of Senior Staff members to address long-standing issues, the letter asks that faculty be given a greater voice in discussions, something which it describes as being “absolutely essential.” The letter ends with the request that President Bilger, “[ask] each of the five divisions to nominate one of their divisional colleagues to serve with Senior Staff as permanent members of the study group.” 

After being asked directly about the letter at the September 11 faculty meeting, President Bilger issued a formal response to signatories on September 18, a copy of which was obtained by the Quest. The president agreed that “staff deserve to be treated with respect and to find joy in their work,” and said she plans on expediting a review of Faculty Administrative Coordinator pay, while also extending this review to include, “all staff groups over the next year.” 

However, when it came to adding faculty to the Senior Staff board, President Bilger stressed that “[m]aking this group larger would not facilitate actions moving forward quickly,” and said that Dean of the Faculty Kathy Oleson will, “ensure the input of faculty supervisors of staff is gathered and included in the work we are doing.” 

Despite this, some faculty still see greater faculty involvement as essential. Spanish and Humanities Professor Elizabeth Drumm feels that an expansion of the 21-member Senior Staff group with faculty division representatives, “would be too big. I agree with [Bilger’s] point. But it does seem like there should be a way for faculty to be involved in this review that they’re doing so that our staff colleagues feel respected and appreciated.” According to Professor of Art Aki Miyoshi, who also signed the August 16 letter, faculty involvement was emphasized due to the protection tenure provides. “There’s certain things that we can say because we’re tenured,” Miyoshi explained, “and we worr[y] that even though the Senior Staff members are supposed to report to President Bilger, they do not have job security.” 

Former Administrative Coordinator Emily Hebbron, whose departure partially inspired the August 16 letter, said in an interview with the Quest that, “Reed’s governance model prioritizes faculty, in a lot of ways, and really I think it’s fair to say it just straight up ignores staff, which to a degree was kind of fine for a long time for a lot of staff members because a lot of staff felt that the faculty could always go to bat for the staff and the faculty. At the end of the day, we’d be listened to.” 

Cutting out faculty and only consulting a group of Senior Staff, Hebbron argued, constituted an unraveling of the faculty-centered system. The exclusion of faculty members from the decision-making group of Senior Staff, Hebbron said, is an example of a shift “from faculty governance to administration governance,” that was carried out, “largely under the cloak of the pandemic.”

Significantly, Hebbron also said such a shift in governance changed the relationship between administrators and staff. While administrators have frequently been presented to staff as staff themselves, Hebbron notes that “it became clear very quickly that the administration was setting themselves up as a third group entirely in opposition to faculty and staff instead.”

Hebbron claimed that the issue of faculty governance touches deeper issues in the ethos of the college, and that, “[g]oing back to a stronger faculty governance model is the only way for the college to move away from a corporate system and re-engage some of what makes Reed Reed.” Hebbron sees the two groups as having a deep interdependence, saying that, “where there’s fire for the staff, there’s smoke for the faculty … and the staff are on fire because faculty power has been denigrated so significantly.” 

However, some in the faculty question whether a system of faculty representation on staff issues is truly in the best interest of staff, despite the protection tenured faculty receive. Drumm called into question whether faculty can truly speak on the issues for all staff, and said, “The other issue would be that not all staff members work closely with faculty. So those of us who do work closely with staff, people are able to step up and say, ‘Wait a minute, you know, what’s going on? We were concerned about this.’ And other staff members who are working equally as hard, equally valued part[s] of the community don’t have that same direct relation.” 

Hebbron, similarly, said that “Reed tends to be pretty siloed … we didn’t know what the issues were for the other staff members.” As Miyoshi put it, members of the staff lower in the hierarchy, “should also have a way to participate, because their lives are really being impacted … isn’t that self-governance?” Addressing the potential for a representative governance model for the staff, Hebbron said, “There have been efforts over the years to try to achieve that one way or another. And it just never happened.” 

Hebbron believes that hope for staff at Reed lies in balancing the power of the staff-faculty-administrator relationship entirely. “For Reed, the only way forward would be for them to voluntarily recognize union membership for staff, and encourage staff to organize, invite staff to organize. If they’re willing to accept the concept of tenure for academic freedom, then they should accept good contractual work for staff similarly,” she argued. She also described Reed’s struggle with staff compensation as part of a national issue, saying that, “[h]igher education is absolutely in a crisis, don’t get me wrong. That much is really clear. If Reed wants to buy into the crisis, which so far they have, it creates a culture of scarcity that becomes really evident throughout the institution. And scarcity does not promote learning. And scarcity does not provide an environment that encourages the life of the mind.” 

Yet Hebbron believes that Reed’s identity as a unique institution amongst its peers can reject the notion of scarcity, as long as the college sets itself on a path to, “embrace the joys of a liberal arts education, engage with the work at all levels, and respect workers at all levels. If you have that, I think Reed could absolutely go from an institution of where it is today, when I left it, it felt very frankly mediocre. And it could very quickly attract a class of staff that would just be incredible. And when you have that, it becomes really easy for people to see ‘Why Reed?’ … I think Reed could really get to a place again of attracting the best and brightest at all levels of the college. And that would be revolutionary. And that would be Reed.”

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