IUP leadership: a D-minus in crisis communication

Michele Papakie, chair, IUP Journalism and Public Relations Department. Photo: New York Times.

By Michele Papakie

INDIANA — On Monday, Dec. 28, The New York Times published a front-page story about what’s happening at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and how it’s happening in higher education across the country. The upper deck of the headline blamed problems on the pandemic; only the subhead suggested “its financial problems were planted years ago.”

Years ago, I graduated from IUP in the very undergraduate program I now chair. It is one of many leadership roles in which I have served.

I enlisted in the military, then earned my commission. I served as a public affairs officer, a social equity officer and my unit’s inspector general. I deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 for six months, where I served as the sexual assault prevention and response program manager for Regional Command East.

Back home, I served as a township supervisor for nine years, and I served a term as the president of the Indiana County Association of Township Officials. This year, I volunteered as a poll worker, and I’ve already been asked to serve as the next judge of elections. I am the president of my Toastmasters International club, and in 2021, I will serve as the accreditation lead for the board of Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Pittsburgh.

I was a public relations coordinator for Chartiers Valley School District. I was the public information officer for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. I worked as the director of public relations for California University of Pennsylvania. In each of those positions, I was on “the command staff,” serving directly for the superintendent, chief of police and university president, providing communication counsel in good times and bad.

 

MY POINT IS, I’m no stranger to leadership — my own or others’. And, lately, I’m baffled by IUP’s leadership.

My wonderment at higher education leadership in general began when I was elected department chairwoman in 2012 after five years of teaching at IUP. I was awarded tenure, I assumed the chair position, and I’ve held it for eight years. It’s the only leadership position I’ve ever experienced where one assumes all the responsibility yet has zero authority.

When it came to budgeting, it made no sense to me. My budget to run the Journalism and Public Relations Department last academic year was $5,000. No one ever asked me what it would actually cost to run the department. I was just given some money – less and less each year – and told to make it work.

IUP President Michael Driscoll, 2019 commencement. Photo: Indiana Gazette

Yet, until March 2020, I still would have named IUP President Mike Driscoll as one of the leaders I held in high regard. He assumed his position when I assumed department chairmanship, in 2012. When he arrived at IUP, I invited him to one of my public relations classes. We helped him to shape his personal, leadership image, and he invited us – a team of undergraduate students and me – to lead IUP’s Strategic Visioning Project. In 2015, he had a beer with me when I was denied promotion. He recognized me that same year at commencement when I was selected for the 2015 University Senate Distinguished Faculty Award for Service. At the following year’s commencement ceremony, President Driscoll congratulated my son Derek, as he crossed the stage to accept his economics degree. In 2017, the president and his leadership team visited my Pennsylvania Air National Guard base to see what I did there on the weekends. President Driscoll even supported my hairbrained idea to live in the residence halls in spring 2019 as the Pennsylvania State System’s first Faculty-In-Residence. Trust had been built over the years; communication flowed freely.

 

BUT TO ME, A TRUE LEADER is defined in a time of crisis.

For example, when you are taking away people’s livelihoods and life’s passions – especially in the middle of a global pandemic, when they will be left without health insurance – I believe you owe them a face-to-face meeting, even if it has to be conducted via Zoom.

Yes, I did get a 30-minute meeting with the provost six weeks after I had to ask for it. Twice.

It wasn’t a one-on-one, or even a one-on-one with union representation. There were two administrators, two deans, two department chairs (including myself) and our local union president.

“The news isn’t complimentary,” the provost said, as if it were my fault that my department enrollment is declining when students are charged per-credit tuition, their room and board costs more than their tuition, the president of the United States is calling journalists “enemies of the state,” and we have countless admissions experts and paid enrollment-management consultants bleeding IUP drier and producing weaker results. I was told our program is losing $183,000 each year, and the job outlook in journalism and public relations is bleak.

The enrollment decline was not news to me, of course. I knew we were losing money. In fact, we, the journalism and public relations faculty, along with the communications media faculty, already had proposed a solution to this obvious and widely acknowledged dilemma.

In 2019, the provost initiated a collaborative program that challenged us as a university community to be creative and innovative and submit bold proposals to help right size IUP. He argued we needed to get ahead of cuts and changes that the statewide system would otherwise impose on us to balance our budget. We, as a university community, had to band together and do something drastic first.

Our proposal involved a merger of two communications-rooted academic units and two retirements. It was a win-win proposal that would save money and jobs. The bonus was that it was completely student-centered. The provost endorsed our proposal in February, and by summer, the plans were well underway. We held a joint faculty meeting in September, and all 14 of us were on board and excited for the future. Curriculum revision began.

 

IN OCTOBER, the bottom fell out, without any warning.

University administrators love to talk about “shared governance” and how we work together to solve problems. However, the president, provost and associate vice president for academic administration did us dirty this time. The research and solutions we provided in our proposal were used against us in the end, and the administrators blamed the pandemic for the abrupt pivot in plans.

On Oct. 28, the administration announced — on its website — that the journalism and public relations department would be “moved” to the communications media department, without its faculty, and a communications media professor would be retrenched, too.

When I was finally granted that Zoom meeting, six weeks later, I asked what the plan was to deliver our program without our faculty, and the provost responded, “There are no long-term plans for the journalism and public relations degree.”  

——————–

‘Good luck with that in your student-centered NextGen utopia, IUP.’

——————–

Well, there are no short-term plans either, because next fall, the communications media department will have eight faculty members to deliver four undergraduate majors, a master’s program and a doctoral program. Good luck with that in your student-centered NextGen utopia, IUP.

I hope the irony does not escape IUP’s leaders when they see stories in news media (journalism)  that could have been told in a more powerful, persuasive and coherent way (public relations) if they had been willing to collaborate and exercise the shared governance they hawk. Had the state system and university administrators truly worked with APSCUF, Pennsylvania public higher education could be serving as a model for other states and our nation. Instead, Pennsylvania public education is being decimated and is dying a slow, painful death thanks to years of leadership and legislative neglect.

I understand that our current leadership may be the ones holding the bag. The music has stopped, and they are the ones frantically searching for a seat of their own instead of offering theirs to us – the ones on the front lines caught seatless in the perpetual game of Musical Chairs. But a little personal communication and compassion would have gone a very long way.

Daniel Greenstein, chancellor, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Hadley Union Building, IUP, April 23, 2019. Photo: David Loomis

As a professor of journalism and public relations — and as a professional in the field for more than 20 years before teaching it — I was appalled that leaders’ voices were not included in a national story about our universities. The New York Times article reads: “Through the system spokesman, Dr. [Dan] Greenstein did not respond to request for additional comment.”

Dr. Greenstein, you would have failed my Introduction to PR course for that.

I am disappointed that President Driscoll hasn’t personally reached out to me and the other faculty he is letting go. This is our life’s work, and you are our leader. We have gotten two full months of radio silence. We deserve better than that.

And, finally, I am disgusted that our public institutions are behaving as if they are private companies that don’t owe taxpayers public explanations of their actions and inactions, particularly their inaction in planning for the future. It’s irresponsible and reprehensible. Shame on our local journalists, particularly at The Indiana Gazette and Renda Broadcasting, for doing little more than publishing and airing IUP’s press releases.

It’s been said that every problem can be traced to a failure to communicate – from a bad haircut to an international war. As a professional communicator, I tend to judge leaders on their ability to communicate and their capacity for compassion; especially during difficult times. IUP professors have been asked to pivot quickly to ever-changing circumstances, do more with less and show compassion to their students during this horrific year. Yet our leaders have modeled none of that.

If I had to grade IUP on its communication and leadership over the past three months, I would say it earned a low D.

I still do not know what will become of the Journalism and Public Relations Department that has served students for 40 years and put at least five Pulitzer Prize-winners and around 1,500 other professional communicators into the world. If past performance indicates future behavior, I won’t hold my breath to receive any kind of guidance from our leadership.

—————————-

Michele Papakie chairs the Journalism and Public Relations Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, from which she graduated in 1993. She lives in Eighty Four, Pa.

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5 Responses to IUP leadership: a D-minus in crisis communication

  1. Katie Buchan says:

    Poetic justice… enjoy the bad press, IUP. You deserve it.

  2. Laurie Miller says:

    Another thing baffles me.

    Following the meeting with the provost, Michele Papakie, in her effort to be transparent and keep faculty up-to-date about the status of the Journalism and Public Relations program, emailed faculty (including me) with results from the meeting. She reported the provost cited “a negative 2.3% decline in communication jobs.”

    Can you imagine what life would be like without credible information? In a year highlighted by a contentious presidential election and a pandemic in which hundreds of thousands of people have died in the United States, do you want to be without news, without information? Do you want to be without people trained to provide it?

    It simply isn’t true. Good researchers, information gatherers, communication specialists and yes, even journalists, are needed now, possibly more than ever. These are critical times. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, “Employment in media and communication occupations is projected to grow 4 percent from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations, and will result in about 46,200 new jobs.“

    https://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/home.htm

    • Michele Papakie says:

      Thanks, Laurie. I’m sure this data didn’t fit their narrative. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with you. I learned so much from you, and I appreciate all you do for our students.

  3. Jim Cahalan says:

    Dr. Papakie’s article is an excellent, searing indictment of IUP’s leadership. The NYT published my comment about their article (along with nearly 400 others), which includes most of a message that I sent President Driscoll:
    As an IUP professor emeritus, I received a Christmas card from IUP’s president that didn’t mention any financial difficulties but referred instead to IUP students’ supposed “bright futures.” I sent him this message:
    Unfortunately a card from a university president is a political document, and that’s where this card runs into difficulties. Given the grim situation at IUP, it seems off key to refer to “bright futures” and give the impression that all’s well at IUP, when everyone knows that’s not the case. Several other retired faculty said that they reacted much the same; one noted that he threw the card away immediately. An IUP PhD alumnus said that he’s stopped donating to IUP given what happened this fall, and added that the card might have been better if it had acknowledged the current crisis. Not doing so, instead implying that all’s rosy at IUP, insults the intelligence of those who know otherwise.
    I’m sorry to have to say this, but thought you should be aware of reactions to this card. Given the grim economic situation there, honestly it would probably be better next year to save a fair amount of money by not mailing out those cards at all.
    Good luck. Jim Cahalan
    James M. Cahalan
    Professor Emeritus of English
    Austin, Texas

  4. Michele Papakie says:

    Jim, Thanks for taking the time to comment. Unfortunately, the Christmas card was only one of many examples of a very tone deaf administration. When I received that card, all I could think about was the ridiculous amount of money that was spent to create, print and mail it. At least 75 of us faculty who received it are being fired. I would have appreciated being removed from the list this year. Actually, I would have appreciated receiving a personalized, sincere, heartfelt, holiday greeting from the president. I sent 50 handwritten Christmas cards this year. I think it took about three hours of my time, and I didn’t even get paid for it. A little investment of time and effort would go a very long way.

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