Collaboration Moves at the Speed of Trust

To work in higher ed these days is to grapple with institutional change. There’s no escaping it. Within our organizations, we’re experiencing structural, financial, curricular, pedagogical, or technological change — likely some combination thereof. We are working in a turbulent time. 

This turbulence churns up doubt and creates strong ripple effects: suspicion and fear, not to mention low morale. Yet successfully navigating these waves of institutional change requires confidence in our leadership, in a shared vision, in our ability to collaborate. 

You’ve heard that saying, collaboration moves at the speed of trust? We asked some librarians for their thoughts on the trust problems they’re seeing and how they’re building trust with their colleagues. Given the subject matter, we opted to anonymize this post. 

Have thoughts you’d like to share, too? Drop us a line in the comments. 

Have you seen the trust-in-higher-ed problem playing out in your past/current institutions? How so?

Response: One of my Directors of Libraries did not exactly instill trust among library staff. The Director claimed to be transparent in their decision-making, but library staff questioned their direction, with questionable decisions on budgeting, hiring, and new library services and technology. When asked respectfully, the Director was evasive and somewhat confrontational. This distrust feeds into work culture, creating a culture of fear and suspicion; it’s not a great place to work when that happens.

Response: At my institution, we had a very unfortunate situation play out with a partner that has seemed to pit the university vs. the local community. It was a PR nightmare, to say the least, and although the university is an anchor in this town and area of the country it’s severely wounded the local trust. As an example – social media posts that have nothing to do with said situation get comments about it because folks are so upset.

Response: As the budget situation at my public institution has worsened since the pandemic, we’re seeing very low levels of trust by faculty and staff in the upper administration. Several new administrators have come in over the past few years who have said they value communication, collaboration, and shared governance, though they have embarked on new, costly initiatives without input and now seem surprised at the pushback they’re receiving. While it can absolutely be true that higher educational institutions can be slow to change, especially if feedback is truly sought and accommodated, I think that often the lack of transparency and collaboration ends up dooming new initiatives from the outset, making things harder for faculty, staff, and ultimately for administrators.

What has undermined your trust in your past/current institutions? 

Response: At both my past and current institution, a boys club mentality has undermined my trust in these institutions. When sitting on committees at a campus level, it’s disappointing to spend time and energy in those meetings but feel like the men in the room, and in positions of power, already have an agenda and we are there simply to go through the motions. It feels both difficult to make progress and is frustrating to think that your ideas (and ideas of your colleagues not in this club) are dismissed and not taken seriously. 

Response: One thing that has undermined trust where I’ve worked is fake consultation. This is where library staff have been consulted on decisions, or appear to be part of the decision-making process in some capacity, but when recommendations are proposed, the decision seems to have been made from the start, as they would have been without consultation. When this happens over, and over, and over, trust is undermined.

Response: In my institution, the stark contrast between our leader in libraries and the broader administration (president, provost, etc) undermines the trust in the latter. Our Dean of Libraries is clear, transparent, and refers to a “life-work” balance instead of the other way around. We feel supported by them, and know that they are a staunch advocate for the Libraries in the many broader campus meetings they take part in. 

The president and provost, however, are not as transparent. Once asked (or sometimes forced to an answer by tuition-paying parents) they willingly talk about things like the university budget and the new process about hiring. But they didn’t choose to speak about it on their own. Without explanations, there has been a new admin hired right at the end of spring semester last year (so, once most faculty left) and now there is a new position in the provost’s office, which has also not been elaborated on. That position was posted at around 4:15pm on a Friday. It’s like they either don’t see the optics problem, or they simply don’t care. 

Oh, and did I mention we’re moving to a zero-based budget university-wide with mere weeks to submit, with an administration that prides themselves (overly so) on being data-driven? It doesn’t exactly build any trust whatsoever. 

Response: I’ve also been struck by a boys club mentality in a previous institution, which was coupled with a lack of transparency from the president and head of finance about budgeting. The impression I had was that the president knew best how to allocate funds, and the library was far down the list of priorities for him. It was difficult for us in the library to plan from semester to semester because we could not trust that resources would be available for us to do our jobs, and morale was (not unexpectedly) a challenge.

What has fueled, reinforced, or stabilized your trust in your past/current institutions? 

Response: In the last year, the institution I currently work at has brought in a new president, provost, and CFO. When sitting in the crowd for the president’s remarks upon the announcement of her hire, I felt hopeful about the future of the institution. Both the president and provost have done the work of showing up for events across campus, making time in their schedule to come to the library and listen to our ideas and concerns, and have communicated transparently about their work and external factors impacting our institution. I have seen the impact of this energy, on the dean of our library, the people I supervise, and colleagues outside the library. While our campus and budget problems aren’t completely solved, there’s a new level of trust that has re-energized us and made us feel a little more hopeful. 

Response: Transparency; give me the reasons why a decision is being made. I don’t necessarily have to agree, but at least I can see the reason and I don’t have to guess or speak with colleagues for their opinions, which fuels gossip and can worsen work culture.

Response: I echo transparency. The gossip at my institution is out of control because the higher-ups are making moves without making sure that folks understand where those moves come from. I’m not saying that everything needs to be qualified and explained; I am saying you need to consider how things look to everyone that works under you, and make decisions about how to explain your actions.

What have you done to build trust with colleagues and teams? 

Response: I’ve thought about this a lot. I’m a big fan of confiding in others and being vulnerable. I think this helps build long-term relationships that are built on a solid foundation of trust. Honesty and empathy, which can be common in long-term relationships, are huge components of building trust. 

Response: My past professional experiences have shown me the importance of consistency in building trust. As a department head, I work to consistently show up for my team and for people within the library. In my current context, that plays out with me being on-site, keeping an open door and drop-in policy, and having frequent conversations with the department about workload and capacity. I do my best to communicate what I know, build consensus and make collaborative decisions as much as I can, and celebrate successes. I feel like it’s always a work in progress and maintaining trust is a verb, not something that can be attained and then you can coast. 

Response: The open-door policy I have with members of my department has been crucial for the team to build trust in one another, especially with half of the entire department being new in one year. I know I can go to anyone’s office with a question, even our chair, and either get an answer or have a discussion on where we might find said answer. Us newbies have also been trying to build rapport with other departments in the library, which have historically been a bit siloed. 

What kind of institutional change are you encountering?

To kick off our institutional change theme, we asked some librarians this question: In the New Year, what kind of institutional change are you encountering? Are you looking forward to it, dreading it, or some kind of in-between feeling? Given the subject matter, we opted to anonymize this post. If you have thoughts on institutional change, sound off in the comments or reach out to us to do a guest post!

Blogger 1: At my university, we have a fairly new president and provost. This has led to a complete overhaul of the way that positions are approved, along with a number of other changes. There has been a lot of faculty rumblings that ultimately came to a head with a letter from anonymous faculty to the President, listing both their concerns and rumors that had been swirling around the new administration. It was brought to everyone’s attention via a faculty senate motion. I shared some of the concerns, but there were also portions of the letter that were either untrue or petty in comparison to the real concerns. I did not feel it was representative of all faculty. 

As you might imagine, this caused an absolute tizzy throughout campus. Faculty senate motions are public, so the letter was seen by everyone; even the student newspaper reported on it. The senate ultimately held an all-faculty meeting to go over the concerns, which are being compiled into a report (minus the rumors). There had been discussion at the library about administration, but this really brought it all into hard focus. A good portion of our department meetings have been spent on compiling and articulating our own concerns, which focus on the (lack of) communication from admin and staffing, since that aforementioned position approval process has slowed the hiring process down considerably. In my opinion, the whole debacle could have been avoided with a better communication strategy. Maybe needless to say, but it’s caused a lot of dread and anxiety overall for me; I do hope that it leads to change in the new admins’ approaches, though. 

Blogger 2: I almost feel like the question might actually be what institutional change aren’t we encountering. In some ways, this year just seems to hold more of the same as the last few: a steady trickle of folks leaving all levels of positions whether for retirement or other positions and places; continuing enrollment troubles; growing budget challenges; and so on. These issues certainly aren’t new (or unique to my institution) but it does feel like they’re really piling up. On one hand, these converging and intensifying challenges are just adding a hearty dose of uncertainty and instability to the burnout and morale issues we’re already confronting. On the other hand, though, I do respect how the new university leadership seems to be addressing the challenges head on, rather than letting issues continue to fester. I admire how library leadership is transparent about the challenges and the decision-making processes being used to address them. I also appreciate how leadership is so far framing our organizational response to the (yes, mounting and increasingly consequential) challenges as opportunities for innovation, not just setbacks and hardships. Of course, they absolutely are setbacks and hardships — let’s not kid ourselves. But it helps to remember that we might actually be able to do something about it. 

Blogger 3: At my library, we’re having a hard time hiring librarians. It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly we’re not getting positions filled; some positions it seems like aren’t appealing enough to attract candidates (e.g. job responsibilities and/or compensation) and some may be because of institutional issues (e.g. timing of searches, which vacant positions are prioritized, length of time to complete a search, and failed searches for one reason or another).

Related to length of time, the hiring process is an arduous process, with many librarians on search committees, getting job descriptions and advertisements approved from our institution’s administration, and the longlisting, shortlisting, and interviewing. When this results in a failed search—whether that’s due to a lack of applicants or procedural issues—this only exacerbates the issue to get the position filled timely. This is disheartening, to say the least.

We’re trying different approaches to attract candidates, to put them in the best position to succeed and feel adequately compensated. While our library can adapt our hiring practices, we still have to operate within our institutional policies on recruiting. In the meantime, we continue to cover positions in different ways and have our fingers crossed that we can finally get a full complement of librarians.