Under the heading of hard bargaining tactics gone bad (and bad lawyer advice), we can now add this story. When a group of eight faculty members at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan decided to stop working in order to protest their newly hired dean and president, Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, all purgatory broke loose. Under advice of their counsel, the faculty wrote a rather strongly worded letter outlining their demands regarding the dean. (See the nasty details of the dean’s behavior here).
Unimpressed with the tone of the letter, the Board of Trustees for the Seminary considered the letter, instead of the opening bid that the faculty intended, as a mass resignation. They dismissed the eight faculty members (leaving the students at the Seminary with only two instructors.) In this case, the eight faculty members’ hard bargaining tactic to have their foul-mouthed, micromanaging (in their descriptions) dean dismissed ended up focusing attention on their perceived “bad” behavior rather than that of their dean.
Earlier this month, seven of the faculty members were reinstated (one of them accepted a severance package and moved on). And only now, (finally) the faculty and board of trustees are using mediation to see if their interests can be met.
When we talk about expanding the pie, we should also be talking about shrinking the pie. This is a great example of just that–and woe for the unlucky students. (Hat tip to my colleague Bruce Boyden for this awesome storyline)
14 thoughts on “Peace Be With You…And With You?”
I find this very sad for the faculty, but I find this even more disheartening for the students. I know how much I pay to attend school and I can imagine the students at this school are in a similar situation. Not only are the students being thrown around through this process, their complaints about the new Dean went unanswered until the faculty jumped on board. It is upsetting that it took the faculty getting upset for someone to look into the issues at this school. There should have been action when the students complained about the disturbances and inappropriateness. I think that the students should fight back and demand to have a mediation. They have suffered losses, like missing school and not having the atmosphere they signed up for when agreeing to go to this school. Overall, I think the faculty and the students are in the right and action should have taken place a long time ago and the faculty should have never been treated the way they were for standing up for a good reason.
This is a very unfortunate situation indeed. I believe that that both sides could have handled it a lot easier and the students would not have been the ones most severely penalized. First, I think the teachers could have directly confronted the Dean in a less threatening way than they did and try to work out a resolution where he could have changed his ways. Maybe sitting down and talking with him (negotiating in a calm and peaceful manner gets more movement) would have changed things. Secondly, the Board could have asked that the parties negotiate and come together to talk things out and if that did not work, bring in a mediator to facilitate discussions of how to solve the problem. Heck, a transformative mediation style could have worked because what is really at issue here is the relationship between the parties going forward. There is no reason why the students should have to suffer for lack of communication by everyone involved.
Sounds like the seminary needs an ombuds!
Obviously this was a very unfortunate situation for the students considering they are paying money to become educated, and there was no one to educate them. However, I think what is downplayed in this article is the bad advice on the counsel’s behalf. Given the situation, there was a lot of emotion involved. I don’t think using a hard-bargaining tactic was the best way to resolve the faculty’s issues with the Dean. A good relationship between the Dean and faculty is imperative for a school to have a positive atmosphere and to be some place students will want to come to. With that being said, the lawyers representing the faculty should have suggested mediation from the get go. Going in with a “win-lose” mindset when important relationships (and also students’ futures) were involved was not the smartest avenue to follow. It’s good to hear that seven of the faculty members were reinstated and mediation began!
While this was an unfortunate situation, my dad has always taught me to see what I can learn from a situation rather then just want happened. With this situation, it is important to note that now both the faculty and the Board of Trustees have had their eyes opened to the ADR and Mediation processes and perhaps in the future rather then responding emotionally with the binary, fire or not fire, they will approach their problems through the new lens of talking it out and finding a creative solution they can both live with. ADR is a great process, if individuals in situations like this knew of these processes or considered them before they chose to react, these types of negative impacts on the students and other repercussions may not have needed to happen.
Both sides could have taken less aggressive stances towards this situation. The faculty, on advice from their attorney, could have not threatened to strike, or at least given the board more time to investigate the matter. The board could have taken the faculty more serious earlier, and not fired them merely because they issued a letter demanding the board take the faculty seriously. Both sides anchored their positions too far from the center and took actions that caused equally harsh reactions from the other side. If they had sat down and negotiated, the faculty could have listed all of their grievances and explained their issues to the board in a more cohesive and persuasive manner. Similarly, the board could have heard all of the issues the faculty had, seen firsthand the effect it was having on the faculty, and explained their views and feelings prior to taking any sort of action. Sadly, the party affected most by this situation was the innocents party, the students. Mediation may fix the problem in the end, but initiating the dispute resolution system earlier, and negotiating from the beginning, may have avoided the problem altogether.
The entire situation is unfortunate because it could have been avoided if the parties would simply have thought through the issues and sat down to talk with each other. Here, the board seems to have been very deferential to the actions of the Dean and placed very little weight in the complaints. It is hard to understand the logic of finding demands “untenable” and simply doing away with a problem that creates another larger issue without even having fruitful conversations to try to resolve the differences. In my opinion the situation erupted because of how the conflict was framed. In the letter to the board, the complaint was apparently read as an ultimatum. The “hardball” tactics used by the professor’s lawyers were said to be common for negotiation, yet did they even get to the negotiating table? It is unclear why those particular tactics were used when the parties were so far off base and all that the professors wanted was to meet with the board. Here, both sides underestimated the potential reactions of the other and the situation escalated quickly. As an alternative, perhaps mediation could have been used to get the parties to the table to resolve the dispute. The understanding of each other’s perspective may have helped in this case. As a final note, I find it sad that the situation clearly lacked compassion and cooperation in an arena that one might expect it to be prevalent.
Mirroring Connor Peterson’s comment, the focus in this situation should be on the counsel given to the aggrieved professors. Their attorney should have made every attempt to maintain an amicable environment between the Dean and the professors. It would seem the only outcome possible from the hard bargaining approach that the professor’s implemented, would be to inflame an already tense situation. As the article mentions the professors simply wanted to be heard and taken seriously by the Board. It appears as though the attorney did not fully attempt to uncover his client’s true interests and motivations. When the situation involves the workplace and a sensitive conflict with serious ramifications, it is important to take the time to understand the interests of the aggrieved party. Had the attorney helped the professors approach the situation less aggressively, possibly this would not have been a news story.
Written communications can be easily misconstrued. A lot of times, even when you know the person writing the message, there is simply no way of knowing the tone in which to read a letter, email, or text message. In this instance, perhaps, the Board of Trustees missed the overall message that the faculty was trying to convey because it read their letter in the wrong tone. In my opinion, an initial letter that called for a meeting to discuss the issues in person would have allowed the teachers to better express their sentiments towards the Dean and their work environment. Difficult conversations, like complaining about the Dean saying inappropriate things towards minorities (women, Asians, etc.), are conversations to be held in person. Trying to explain how offensive the Dean’s behavior was and the type of remedies that the faculty wanted, all in the same letter, left the Board of Trustees with too much room for interpretation.
I agree with Angel’s assertion that written communications are easily misconstrued. This is especially true when the subject matter is negative, or demanding, as the faculty’s letter seemed to be. The Board likely felt defensive and unimpressed with the faculty’s letter and reacted accordingly. While it may have been understandable to take a firm, hard bargaining stance with the dean directly (although this still would have been problematic), the Board reacted as the faculty should have predicted. Rather than skipping straight to a hostile tone, the entire matter likely could have been resolved if the faculty had calmly voiced their concerns, in writing or in person, and included their reasoning. It is generally easier to work with someone who is acting reasonably, so the Board likely would have been more receptive to the faculty’s concerns. Overall, the students were the true victims in this situation.
As has been stated previously, the group of individuals hurt the most is the students. As also said, a face-to-face dialogue about there issues might have resolved this issue long before today. What I don’t think has been said is whether the actions of the teachers was necessarily the wrong move. The faculty acted in collaboration to address specific concerns that they had. What isn’t mentioned is the kind of conversations between the board and the faculty prior to this incident. With that said, the school’s response is more likely unreasonable and harmful to the situation. A proportional response should be expected when in contract negotiations (especially when it could effect the educational experience of students).
With that said, both parties acted outside the stroke of reasonability and hurt the students. This is a prime example of negotiation gone wrong.
Mediation would have a been a better tactic to resolve things quicker, but I believe the board acted unreasonably by assuming that the faculty letters were resignations. The dean’s apparent misogynistic and racist behavior would create a hostile environment with any faculty. Shouldn’t the board have considered the faculty’s demands, however written, on the merits before jumping to conclusions that were not clearly expressed. Not only were the students affected, but the board members’ credibility may be affected when they considered hiring faculty in the future. The board members should have taken a stronger leadership role in considering the faculty’s demands and the dean’s position, rather than focusing their decision on a supposed “unruly” faculty without looking at the reasons for their anger and discontent.
Clearly, the attorney who drafted the letter doesn’t get snaps for his idea to draft the demanding letter. He didn’t seem to really understand what the Faculty wanted. Perhaps after hearing all the demands the attorney could have realized that some face-to-face interaction would have been the best method to achieve the desired results that the Faculty was seeking. However, even if the letter were chosen as the method to begin a dialogue between the Faculty and Board, a less aggressive letter would have been a better choice. As previous stated, the letter was so broad it allowed the Board to misconstrue what the Faculty was trying to achieve. If the letter had been drafted to allow for a more open dialogue between the Faculty and Board, rather than just demands, this could have turned out a lot differently
This is an unfortunate situation of when hard bargaining tactics negatively effect all parties involved. Hard bargaining should only be used as a last resort. In this situation, the professor’s should not have made such harsh demands, without giving the board ample time to investigate the matter. The Board should have at least given the professors the opportunity to be heard, even if they could not render a decision immediately. The most important aspect of any dispute is open communication, and when this breaks down, disputes can escalate. Mediation should be able to fix this current problem, but the most important things to fix will be the relationship and trust between the parties. These are vital things to fix in order for the seminary to run smoothly. Mediation provides parties to vent about their frustrations, and then the parties won’t have to take such hard stances because each side gets to understand where the other party is coming from.