Shifting the spotlight: how staff shape the ‘U’

(Ruby Wallau/Daily) Buy this photo

By Sam Gringlas, Daily News Editor
Published February 9, 2014

People call them Michigan Men.

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From a tract of wilderness, they molded one of the nation’s premier institutions of higher education. Even today, their names grace the University’s academic stone and brick edifices, a permanent testament to their enduring achievements and legacy.

These luminaries and legends are the professors, students, researchers and coaches who first number among the victors.

But across a history as storied as the University’s, the imagined narrative of the Michigan Men is far from nuanced.

On campus, many of the University’s 28,500 employees are hard to find. Most don’t have offices or professional webpages. They don’t have published work on reserve at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. Their daily triumphs won’t likely find their way into the bound volumes of University history.

University President Mary Sue Coleman may spin the Cube to start the day, but in many ways, it’s the University’s regular employees who truly make the University move.

Each morning, bus drivers rev up their engines to shuttle students to class. Staff warm loaves of French toast as custodians push their cleaning carts quietly past the doors of sleeping students. Others ready projectors for lecture, calm students overwhelmed by a deadline or treat patients at the University Health System.

These are the staff of the University of Michigan.

Jack Tyler: More than a job

Two-thirds of the way through the dinner shift, East Quad has run out of Broccoli Bake. At the entryway, a small electronic card reader shows the night’s tally of diners creeping closer and closer to 1,000.

It’s Monday, which means Jack Tyler is manning the greeter’s stand. Tyler swipes quickly, his arm rocking back and forth; sliding the yellow cards in a rhythm refined over a couple of decades. It’s easy to get caught up in the speed and pattern — swipe, return, swipe, punch, swipe.


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Ruby Wallau/Daily Jack Tyler manning the greeter's stand at East Quad.

But for Tyler, the five seconds it takes for a student to fumble with her wet mittens or dig for his wallet is just enough time to utter a greeting.

“Hey man, how are you doing?” Tyler calls out from behind his stand.

He’s beaming. It’s not always because he knows the student — though oftentimes he does — but at Jack Tyler’s East Quad card station, greetings are delivered like he’s been waiting for you all day.

Most times, students reciprocate. When Tyler smiles widely, his thin moustache stretching above his upper lip, it’s hard not to smile back. Many know him by name.

“I think it’s how I treat the student body,” Tyler said. “This is part of me — it’s not something I make up. I started saying I’m going to treat them like young adults, not like my kids and that’s the way I treat them.”

With 1,000 students funneling past his stand every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Tyler said he tries hard to learn names, but he can easily recognize the faces of his regular customers. And he knows who’s on the sports teams; Jack loves athletics.

Apart from a stint away at college in Jackson, Mich., Tyler has lived in Ann Arbor most of his life. His aunt has a picture of him in the Big House at age nine, back when the stadium was furnished with wooden benches. For the past 30 years, he’s spent football Saturdays as an usher at Michigan Stadium.

“When I put on that equipment, I go there like I’m supporting the football team,” he said. “We’re a team. But my position on the team is to make sure that the fans who come there leave and say ‘I had a nice time at Michigan Stadium.’ ”

For Tyler, the University is more than a job. It may have started that way though, back when his kids were little and he needed the additional income. Tyler has kept his day job — still gearing up with a lab coat each day as a technician at a nearby research lab. But Michigan is Tyler’s community — it’s the place where he unwinds after a stressful day at the lab, and the place where he takes his responsibility to students seriously.

“Maybe it’s a day where they were down and not doing too well,” Tyler said. “Maybe it’s a day when they didn’t do well on an exam. When they leave that station I want them to feel good.”

Still, when the line gets busy and the scents of pizza, stir-fry or dining hall sugar cookies waft over, students often develop tunnel vision for the food, rushing toward the sandwich line without much pause for the guy who lets them into the dining hall.

“It’s up to them because I’m always ready,” Tyler said.

Susan Rollins: The work mom

Standing in one of the hallways on Markley’s fourth floor, custodian Susan Rollins twirls a silver-colored necklace as she talks. The pendant spells out “Mom” in cursive. Rollins’ fingers rotate around the letters.

When she started working at the University 16 years ago, her own kids were young. But now that two of them are in college, she views students from the perspective of a parent, not just as the custodian who cleans their halls.

“When you look at it as these are people’s children, sometimes that interaction that we as staff can have with them can make the biggest difference,” she said.

Picking up hallway trash, vacuuming, cleaning restrooms — that’s the job. But making students feel at home, asking them how they’re doing, providing a friendly face during exam period — that’s the calling.

Though she never went away to college, Rollins understands move-in day and the excitement and nerves of the first month of freshman year. She gets why parents cry when they say goodbye. When Rollins dropped off her daughter last year for the first time, she cried too.

By making the effort to interact with students, Rollins hopes she can spread the same kind of comfort she would want staff in her own daughter’s residence hall to provide.

“Some people feel comfortable right away making that connection and others don’t,” she said. “Sometimes you say good morning and you get no response. It is a challenge sometimes.”

But Rollins, who said she is not naturally outgoing, has worked hard to step out of her comfort zone. For the past few years, she’s participated in a program that allows employees to try out a new assignment during the summer, where she has worked as a facilities supervisor.

It’s during the summer where she said she’s formed some of the best relationships with students, especially the student residence hall staff.

One move-in day, an RA from the previous summer was helping her younger sister move into Markley. Upon arrival, she went to find Rollins and brought her to meet her family.

“Mom, this is my work mom,” the girl said.

For Rollins, it’s those moments that make the hardest days bearable.

“Then you know you’ve made a difference even if it was just those three months,” Rollins said. “To me it’s so much more than work. If I can make that connection for anyone else, for the one or two semesters they’re here — it’s worth it.”

Voices of the staff

Tyler and Rollins are just two of the nearly 30,000 non-faculty staff members who set the University’s gears in motion.

The University’s staff is a diverse group of people. According to the 2013 human resources annual report, the average staff member has served for 11 years and is 44 years old. Seventy-one percent are women and 20 percent are members of a minority group. They work in units ranging from plant operations and finance to transportation, the hospital and the Office of Admissions.

A decade ago, Coleman called for the creation of an advisory board to channel input from staff members to the University administration. Today, Voices of the Staff is a organization composed of 120 volunteer members who serve on smaller project teams to advise the University’s administrators and build relationships across units.

Tim Kennedy, a Building Automation Systems manager, has been with the University for 26 years and has spent the last nine involved with Voices.

“Its membership represents a microcosm of the University so it really brings in staff from the four corners of the institution to work collaboratively on issues that are most important to staff,” Kennedy said.

In a bright office on the sixth floor of the Ross School of Business, Mary Ceccanese, research process coordinator at the Office of Tax Policy Research, lights up when she talks about her participation experience with the group.


Ceccanese

Ruby Wallau/Daily Mary Ceccanese the research process coordinator at the Office of Tax Policy Research of the Ross School of Business in her office.

Ceccanese, who started at the University 25 years ago as a secretary, spent the last two decades moving up in her position. As part of this role on Voices, Ceccanese helped a business school professor compile presentations related to positive workplace cultures. Soon, Ceccanese started doing the trainings herself. Now, she’s frequently requested to run sessions for units across campus, which often include improvisation, videos and hands-on activities.

“This has literally changed my life,” Ceccanese said. “I participated in Voices as a member of a team and as a facilitator. But now this has kicked off almost like a whole new career for me. Every day, I get up now and I’m absolutely ecstatic about what I get to do.”

Ceccanese said participation in Voices not only provided a forum to influence change at the University, but also empowerment for staff members trying to learn and grow personally and professionally.

“I’ve become more creative, more empowered,” Ceccanese said. “I’ve taken on projects in our office I never would have dreamed of. I’m not afraid to take a chance — to try something new.”

Snakebit: The shared services initiative

While Tyler, Rollins and Ceccanese had few complaints regarding the University’s treatment of its employees, the past four months have been particularly straining for staff in many of the University’s academic departments.

Since the University rolled out the shared services initiative, the administration has been intensely criticized for its failure to consult faculty or staff during most stages of the process. Shared services — a component of the Administrative Services Transformation Project —will relocate 275 department-level human resource and finance staff to a central services center. It is expected to save about $5 million annually.

In the fall, 19 LSA department chairs signed a letter to Coleman and Provost Martha Pollack voicing concerns about the project’s equity and transparency. The letter criticized the University for implementing the project with “an aura of secrecy,” which caused anxiety among members of the staff worried about layoffs and transfers.

A petition authored by Engineering Prof. Fawwaz Ulaby, which gained the signatures of 1,100 University faculty members, questioned the efficacy of the model as a way to reduce costs. Departments also sent a slew of letters to administrators contesting the process.

In response, the University convened a series of meetings and committees to seek input, but Coleman has said the University remains committed to the initiative.

History Prof. Brian Porter-Szücs said what’s most alarming about the initiative is the broader cultural change, both at the University and nationally, where public institutions are beginning to adopt corporate models of organizing their employees.

“Instead of seeing employees as part of an organization, (staff) are more perceived as interchangeable parts on an almost factory model,” Porter-Szücs said. “Once you do that, they are then cheaper and you have at least on a superficial level a savings of cost.”

Porter-Szücs said he deems the cost savings artificial because they lead to higher turnover, lower morale and lower productivity.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have walked past the department offices after working late, and the lights are still on,” he said. “These are people who are working like professionals; they are working like people who are dedicated to the task of making our department as successful as it can be. You start treating those people as replaceable parts who can be moved off site — if you create that culture — I’d like to see how many of them will ever stay late.”

History Prof. Maris Vinovskis said the shared services rollout revealed an indifference to the staff he had never seen before at the University.

“This used to be a University I could be proud of the way we handled our staff,” Vinovskis said, “Today, it isn’t. Now, my hope is this is an anomaly. We all make mistakes. We all can do better. But the way it was handled revealed a side of a University I wouldn’t want to be proud of, I’m not even sure I’d want to be part of.”

Since the uproar last semester, the University has attempted to make-good in light of the troubled rollout. Pollack and other officials involved in the initiative have vowed to improve communication and include faculty and staff in the process.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Laurita Thomas, associate vice president for human resources, said staff are ready to move on.

“Any change is going to get a range of reactions and it was clear to me as I talked to the 244 that were impacted by shared services there was a range of emotions,” Thomas said. “There was huge concern (but also) there was huge excitement among the staff.”

When asked to characterize the University’s communication or planning related to the initiative, Thomas deferred, saying, “We should look forward.”

But for Kathleen King, the History Department’s graduate services coordinator, and other department-level staff members, the pain does not subside so quickly.


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Ruby Wallau/Daily Kathleen King the graduate services coordinator of the History Department in her office.

The pain stems not only from losing a colleague — whose office will no longer bustle with students and faculty wandering in and out — but also from the broken trust between staff and the University’s leadership.

King compares the situation to a snakebite, a term she learned during her days as a consultant in the oil and gas industry.

“No amount of effort is going to fix this. It’s a dry hole,” she said.

Vinovskis and Porter-Szücs said they were more optimistic about the University’s ability to mend the relationship between staff, faculty and the administration. Both said new University leadership and President-elect Mark Schlissel would need to steer away from top-down governance, rather than simply improving communication.

King, however, isn’t so sure any efforts can fix what’s already been broken.

“Time will pass, memories will fade, people will retire,” King said. “People will leave and go elsewhere. Overtime, it will just become something we’ve always done. In terms of recovering what we had, I don’t think it can happen. I think it just has to fade away.”

History’s line of sight: the invisible participants

While many department-level staff members have felt marginalized by the shared services project, their feelings are likely compounded by a tradition that has failed to include staff members in the story of the University’s success.

James Tobin, a former Detroit News reporter who has written extensively about the University’s history, said apart from a few character studies of quirky University staff members in the early 19th century, the historical record has often forgotten the stories of staff.

“It’s true that histories of the University have largely ignored the role of staff in the development of the school,” he said. “The staff members have been the invisible participants in the University’s history.”

However, it seems the University has taken notice of its historical oversight. Recently, University officials launched “Stories of the Staff,” an online platform for the community to share the impact of staff members at the University.

Thomas said the project was conceived to showcase the role of staff in shaping the University experience.

“We’re trying to create a line of sight, so the person who cleans the offices, the person who washes our windows, the person who makes sure your paycheck is accurate, can know that in doing the work they do, they are supporting a faculty member that’s going to discover a cure for cancer, they are supporting the creativity of a chemist, that they are supporting the innovation of our business professors,” Thomas said. “If people can see and feel and hear the difference they make, they make an even bigger difference.”

As the University prepares to celebrate its bicentennial in 2017, plenty of professors, historians, alumni and administrators will begin combing through the University’s collective memory, pulling out tidbits of the past on the edge of the University’s next century.

But the stories of the University’s staff inhabit less tangible places than official histories or building facades. The stories of the staff live in East Quad and Markley, on buses and in classrooms. The stories are there — they just need to be found.