Serious trust issues identified at St. Jerome's University

  • May 8, 2009
{mosimage}There’s plenty of blame to go around in the furor at St. Jerome’s University , and it’s going to take the Christian value of forgiveness to get the small, Catholic liberal arts college back on track, according to a consultant who spent two months investigating the university’s troubles.

“The Gospel values that are included in the mission statement are a very good reference point for everybody in this particular exercise. Some part of that involves good Christian value of forgiveness,” Ken Snowdon told The Catholic Register.

The St. Jerome’s board of governors hired Snowdon to sort out an atmosphere on the Waterloo, Ont., campus that has prompted several professors to decamp, the chaplaincy team to resign and professors to form a union. Snowdon and his consulting company interviewed 70 professors, students, support workers, senior administrators and board members in February and March.

When St. Jerome’s introduced a new president in 2007 on the heels of a new academic dean and vice president the transition was badly handled. The new senior leadership failed to adapt to the culture of the college, said Snowdon in his report to the St. Jerome’s board of governors. Communication and consultation were neglected, he said.

“It is quite clear that the lack of sufficient consultation on a number of issues and a lack of understanding regarding the fundamental role of College Council generated significant repercussions,” Snowdon wrote. “Matters worsened as concerns about ‘trust’ evolved into dogmatic assertions about authority.”

President and vice chancellor Fr. David Perrin found the report difficult to read.

“Though difficult in places for me personally, this report has achieved what we intended: to elevate the discourse and provide direction for making changes compatible to all parties,” Perrin said in a written response to the Snowdon report.

The board of governors promised to get to work on Snowdon’s recommendations.

“The suggestions included in this report, and those that the board will add in the weeks and months ahead, will address the serious challenges and untapped opportunities that lie ahead,” said a statement from the board of governors.

Board chair Dorothee Retterath and Perrin failed to respond to requests for interviews from The Catholic Register.

Professors Chris Burris and John Rempel told The Catholic Register that Snowdon’s report confirms their own trust study of St. Jerome’s faculty and staff. A year ago Burris and Rempel — both of whom teach psychology and related fields — canvassed St. Jerome’s employees and found high levels of distrust among staff directed at senior administration.

Mystery about the goals and objectives of St. Jerome’s administration has left professors and staff wondering about their job security, said Rempel.

“Whatever changes have been made, and it’s not clear why they’ve been made, it’s not clear the direction that we’re headed,” Rempel said. “And it’s not clear that the outcomes have been anything but negative.”

While the report might clarify the issues, it doesn’t necessarily bring St. Jerome’s nearer to solving its problems, said Burris.

“Trust is still shaky in the sense that now it’s clear as the nose on people’s faces that there are things that need to be done,” Burris said. “Are people in positions of power willing to do those? And what accountability is in place?”

While forgiveness is a Gospel value and something St. Jerome’s should strive for, there are steps that must take place before general reconciliation is possible, said Rempel.

“You really only get to forgiveness if there’s some sense of seeing that people want to work together, that people want to change,” he said.

Meanwhile the president of the professors’ new union thinks it will be a year to 18 months before it signs a first contract with St. Jerome’s administration.

An attempt by Perrin to unilaterally change the process for granting tenure to professors illustrates the teaching staff’s need for a union, said Prof. David Seljak.

“We have policies about tenure and policy,” he said. “If the president doesn’t like those procedures, if he doesn’t like that policy, he can initiate change. But we also have a policy on how to change policy.”

The professors don’t oppose all change, Seljak said.

“There have been several initiatives to refocus the registrar’s office,” he said. “I don’t think anyone opposes that. I think everyone is happy about those initiatives.”

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