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Open Forums at Plymouth State

By Nick Pulliam
On October 19, 2018

Open forums were held on September 25 and 26 to meet the need for a campus dialogue. Four constituency groups organized the event. The four groups were the PAT, the OSS, the faculty, and the Student Senate. In total, there were twenty-six faculty, five teaching lecturers, seven operating staff, forty-two administrative and technical professionals, and eleven students.

Mike Nikitas, a former News Broadcaster, moderated the event. He is also the founder of Nikitas Communications. Nikitas was chosen because he didn’t have a connection to the university.

The forums were held because members of the PSU community felt a need for more communication across constituencies. Topics that were discussed included: the Kristie Torbick case, clusters, communication between faculty and students, a growing cultural shift, and how everyone can communicate better in general.

Jo-Ann Guilmett is the Director of Client Services and Academic Technology, as well as the PAT Speaker. She said, “At their September 7meeting, the PATs discussed campus culture, communication and the statement put out by the Student Senate. This discussion resulted in the PATs putting forth a motion and it was unanimously approved by the group.”

Guilmett contacted the administration with the proposal, and President Birx approved of it. Once they received approval, Guilmett and the speakers from the three other constituencies.

When asked about why the decision was made to have multiple forums, instead of just one for everyone to attend, Guilmett said, “One of the goals for the campus conversations was to ensure that everyone who wanted to attend could attend.  This resulted in multiple sessions held at a variety of time in order to accommodate everyone’s schedules.”

In total, there were 7 forums held and while notes were taken, everyone who spoke was made anonymous. Before each forum, ground rules were set, essentially saying that everyone should remain respectful and professional.

One of the major topics of discussion was Kristie Torbick; specifically, her trial and PSU’s involvement. It is an issue that has divided many on the campus, so it is not surprising that there was so much discussion over it. The notes say that many felt like what happened with the Torbick Case was the tip of the iceberg for growing unrest over the past few years.

The discussion on Torbick also included the sense of tension that formed between students and faculty when five members of the Student Senate released a letter in support of the administration. Some faculty took issue with the content of the letter, even going so far as to say that the student senators were coached by the administration. Students involved say they received negative letters from faculty in response and that some letters had threats in them.

The response to the letter from faculty wasn’t universally negative, some were in support of the students for sending it. When it was mentioned at the forum that threats were made, a faculty member suggested that any faculty who sent a threatening letter should face some kind of consequence. The idea of creating a hotline for students who are victim to unprofessional conduct from professors was also proposed.

There has been mention in the past of a climate of fear, and it was brought up again during these forums. Faculty expressed fears of losing their positions at PSU for disagreeing with the administration’s decisions around the Torbick case. Many shared their frustration and anger over how actions were taken against three faculty members involved with the Torbick case. Faculty also discussed their frustration with how the entire Torbick case was represented in the media, with many feeling that quotes were taken out of context and the story was misrepresented. 

Staff and faculty brought up their issues with the changes that have been made and are still being made in order to solves PSU’s financial problems. There is major concern over job security, and confusion over why some respected members of this school have been let go. On top of that many are feeling an increasing workload placed in their laps in order to accommodate for all the people who have been laid off in recent years.

The loss of employees has created concern over how those who remain are supposed to serve members of PSU.

One person suggested that having an updated directory would make it easier for interested parties to know where everyone is, because right now, there are many cases of emails being sent out that never get responses. This suggestion was met with praise.

Concerning the economic issues, people also shared how they didn’t feel valued anymore and that many were afraid they were all seen as expendable.

It should be no surprise that clusters entered the discussion. People talked about how they support the idea of the clusters, just not the execution of them so far. Some people who worked on the clusters said that when they would work on organizing clusters, the administration would not approve of all the work they did. One anonymous speaker said, “It was like being asked to draw a circle. We did and they [administration] said, ‘Well can you make it more like a square?’ So we did. Then they [administration] said, ‘We were really thinking more of a rhombus.’ And we wanted to scream, “Why didn’t you just tell us you wanted a rhombus in the first place?!”

Students also chimed in on the clusters conversation by saying that they weren’t entirely sure what the clusters are, because there hasn’t been a clear explanation. This is something that many faculty and staff agree with.

Despite all the venting that occured during these forums, there was also an effort to discuss how things can improve. People described a need for more forums like these ones and more two-way communication. 

When asked how she thought the forums went, Guilmett said, “The feedback I received from students, faculty and staff has been very positive.”

Gary McCool, the Coordinator for Reference Services at the library, had positive things to say about the forums; specifically Mike Nikitas. McCool said, “I thought he was very good; I was amazed. Because he seemed to be genuinely listening to what was said and then was asking clarifying questions in a way that I thought was helpful. Sometimes people just, you know, repeat back something but you can see their brain is somewhere else.” 

Joseph Scala, the USNH Board of Trustees Student Body Representative, also said the forum he attended went well. As a student, he felt like his voice was heard. He said, “As a student I do believe that my personal concerns were heard. I received really positive feedback from faculty and staff that were in attendance that my additions to the conversation were valid and appreciated. I think that if students are passionate about something that concerns them, they will be heard on a larger platform, such as a community forum and respected for speaking up.”

Since the forums, some progress has been made to address what was discussed. On October 15, a Town Hall Meeting was held in the Merrill Place Conference room, and Mike Nikitas returned. At the meeting, the administration announced their plan to have a campus-wide internal audit. The goal of this audit is to create better methods of communication on campus.

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