Senior Oregon Tech administration officials met with faculty senate president Don McDonnell Friday afternoon regarding low faculty morale at the Klamath Falls campus among other concerns.
Afterward, McDonnell shared hints of optimism about moving forward and a need for better communication between administration and employees.
“There were olive branches discussed,” McDonnell told Herald and News following the meeting. “What it comes down to is we need to have a better communication system.”
Even outside of ongoing union contract negotiations, the working relationship between faculty and senior administration officials at Oregon Tech had reached intensified levels recently and contributed to low morale among staff, according to McDonnell. But the Friday meeting appeared to deescalate some of those tensions amid acknowledgement of the difficulties presented to normal campus life by the pandemic.
“In the midst of COVID, negotiations for the union and things that are coming down from the state level, we’re under a tremendous amount of stress — all of us,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell had said prior to meeting with President Nagi Naganathan, morale among faculty is “as low as I’ve ever seen it and I’ve been here 14 years.” He said it was at its worst among long-tenured faculty.
One piece that caused friction was Naganathan’s plans to move his office and his staff from Snell Hall to a larger space in the brand new Center for Excellence in Engineering Technology building. The move was contested by the faculty senate, with some member citing it as an example of how they are left out of decision-making at the university.
Policies should go through the faculty senate before the senior administration seals its approval, according to McDonnell.
“Traditionally ... that would be vetted with faculty before making the decisions,” McDonnell said.
The faculty senate proposed a resolution formally opposing Naganathan’s plan to move himself and three staffers to new 1,800-square-foot office space that includes a conference room with a view of Upper Klamath Lake.
For his part, Naganathan said the move will open up more space in Snell for faculty returning to the Klamath Falls campus this fall. He said he had spoken with McDonnell a few times regarding the issue and that he was surprised by the resolution, given the many important issues “on the plate for the university and the president.”
“This move is not because the president is unhappy with his office,” Naganathan said during the meeting. “I am perfectly fine with where I am right now.”
Naganathan said when a proposal was made to him about the relocation, he was initially surprised but added that it made sense for space reasons.
“When staff return in person in fall, we cannot pack them in offices as we have them right now,” he said.
Naganathan said there is a need to keep staff and students socially distanced, and that a move from Snell could open up space for faculty as they return to in-person instruction.
“The Boivin Hall renovation is going to create a bunch of musical chairs in space (availability),” he said. “We have to somehow figure out a way to continue to provide service on the academic side and service side.”
He also sees relocation to the CEET building as an opportunity to be closer to students and faculty, and a place to showcase to guests and donors.
McDonnell said earlier on Friday that faculty representatives would have appreciated a heads-up that senior administration was considering moving the office of the president and his staff.
“Open communication would be helpful and give us a chance to weigh in on it,” McDonnell said. “We’re not out after Dr. Nagi. We want him to succeed something fierce because if he succeeds, our university succeeds and we succeed.”
Naganathan said during the meeting that he always welcomes input and took questions from faculty members after his address.
“I ask we stay focused on the positive,” Naganathan said. “While other universities are struggling, we have relatively stable enrollment, our finances are stable, our students are progressing.”
McDonnell said Friday he believes administrators are doing the best they can with what they have and expressed a desire to resolve issues that arise.
Naganathan addresses budget, vaccines
In other Oregon Tech news, Naganathan shared in his address to faculty senate on Tuesday that the university has a stable enrollment there has been a reduction in out-of-state students, most likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the university is forecasting a $2 million drop in tuition revenue this year compared to what the university budgeted.
“Our out-of-state students enrolled at a lot lesser level,” Naganathan said.
Naganathan said some universities are cutting programs but that he doesn’t want Oregon Tech to be “reactive.”
“We were bracing for a reduction in state revenue,” he said even though “the state ended up in a better place (financially than expected)), at least in the March forecast.”
Naganathan also said that he is one of the seven higher education presidents who actively lobbied Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to vaccinate university employees.
“All the university employees will be included for the May 1 deadline,” Naganathan said.
Naganathan will host a virtual forum for students on March 16.