Campus mood at UNC-CH suffering from poor communication, ombudsman says

A man whose job is to keep track of the campus mood at UNC-Chapel Hill says it’s suffering of late because people there aren’t doing as well as they might in dealing with conflict and disagreement.

Wayne Blair, the university’s ombudsman, told the Faculty Council the problem is showing up in several ways, including what he termed a habit of “shopping for violations” of campus policies. And a campus culture that values the avoidance of conflict isn’t helping, in his view.

“From my position, our position, in the ombuds office, better ideas come from professional and appropriate disagreement,” Blair said during his comments to the council, UNC’s version of a faculty senate. “But we do not disagree well.”

Blair’s office, which answers directly to Chancellor Carol Folt, is an out-of-channels place professors, staff and students can turn to air any problems they’re having on campus. While it’s not a dispute-resolution service, it does have the authority to advise officials on the need to make “institutional change[s] where appropriate.”

Opening his comments, Blair said he wanted to give professors on the council a sense of the sort of problems people have been bringing to him and his staff over the past two years.

The list began with some familiar ones from the headlines, including “job insecurity,” race and diversity, immigration and international travel, and academic freedom.

But it turned to the campus-culture factor quickly, with Blair saying the ombuds office has observed “a dramatic increase in what I’m going to [call] poorly managed conflicts and confrontations.”

Even among the faculty, “tempers are short, patience is lessening, everything is becoming an issue,” he said. “Where things could’ve been resolved with a basic conversation, we’re avoiding those conversations and they’re escalating. And there’s a price to be paid for that.”

He noted the distinction between hearing and listening, and continued that people on campus are “listening less and less as we’re hardening in our positions about certain things,” to the point that it’s triggering stress.

“People take disagreements and things personally,” Blair said. “But we have to admit that sometimes people construct their disagreements in ways that encourage people to take it personally — broad, sweeping accusations, things that are too general, a position that is lacking reason and rationale. We’re leaving information vacuums and therefore people will fill that with whatever they think, and it’s not always accurate. Of course, underlying all that is that we’re not communicating well.”

He added that faculty and administrators don’t necessarily “appreciate how we role-model this for students, graduate and undergraduate,” and that social media and a reliance on email isn’t helping.

Blair said his office is also seeing an increase in faculty/student quarrels, mostly involving graduate students, but also with post-docs and to a lesser degree with undergraduates. All that follows given that “a student’s status and job opportunities are generally tied to one person, you the faculty,” he said.

Another issue, related to aging faculty demographics, is that people are having a hard time figuring out how to “manage diminishing productivity,” particularly with “respected and accomplished former mentors,” he said, adding he and his staff have seen people “who’ve been literally in tears about” specific situations.

“It is agonizing for us, this is on the rise, and it’s not going to go away,” he said.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg