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Joint Retreat: Enhancing our Values and Culture

Other articles in the March 2018 newsletter:

On February 23-24, 2018, the Joint Provost/Academic Senate Retreat focused on “Towards a 21st Century University: Culture, Concerns and Governance.”  This is part 1 of the 3 part summary of the sessions.

The first session of the retreat was focused on ‘Enhancing Our Values and Culture.” A panel was followed by breakout groups and report-backs. Much of the panel discussion was geared towards giving us the conceptual grounding to support the rest of the retreat, in particular to consider what sort of culture we want, what it will take to get us there, and ultimately to help us collectively determine what it will take to make us the 21st century university we want to become.

Chaired by Sofia Gruskin (Keck and Gould), the first panel discussion focused not simply on how we move towards a culture of compliance but a culture where everyone (!) can thrive.

Ed Finegan Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Law (Dornsife) presented the Task Force’s interim recommendations on core values. Despite being a presentation at a faculty retreat, he noted this cannot be a top-down or faculty-focused process alone. He emphasized the need to recognize, hear from and ensure the full participation of the entire USC community – faculty, staff and students — in reaching agreement on our core values and as they connect to our needs as a community. He stressed what is needed for us all to be responsible community members, noting it is not simply to say that this needs to be ingrained in the DNA of each member of the USC community, but to recognize that support is needed from all aspects of the system to make this happen, from the handbook, policies, and programs that exist within and across each unit, to a Campus Culture and Wellness Council.

He was followed by Paul Adler, the Harold Quinton Chair in Business Policy from the Marshall School, who then presented extremely helpful general thoughts about organizational culture, what it is, what kind we need, and how to get there. In particular, his presentation emphasized the need to distinguish and work to bring in line what we espouse individually and collectively, with how we act. He challenged us to think about our shared values, to recognize there is a crummy fit between our vision and our reality, and the need for serious commitment and resources if we are really to put into place the sort of collaborative culture we all espouse to want, with due respect for the heterogeneity of our organization. To implement this sort of change will truly be a long term process, it can’t happen overnight. It takes transparency and accountability, a robust system of assessment and long-term commitment and communication from every unit and from the top that this is important and a priority for how we operate as a university.

The final speaker was Sharoni Little, Faculty Diversity Recruitment Advisor and Professor of Clinical Business Communication at the Marshall School, who gave a thoughtful presentation on what it takes to sustain an inclusive and adaptive organizational culture. She noted that, as simple as this may seem, the way to reach alignment requires in the first instance realizing the root causes of misalignment. Digging to the bottom beyond simply what is espoused may be hard even as it is critical to do if meaningful change is to occur. She emphasized the need for the system to ensure ALL voices are heard, including that people receive sufficient feedback to know that they have been heard even if ultimately different approaches are prioritized by the institution. This requires that tools be created and shared widely to ensure participation can occur from all members of the community, and a recognition that extra effort may be needed to engage the voices of particularly vulnerable members. She focused on the need to build trust and transparency at every level. To truly respect diverse thought processes and perspectives, means that we must all walk the talk, and the more we are in leadership positions the more we must lead by example. And finally, that if we really do value a culture of inclusivity then we must put the resources towards it not only in a moment of crisis but over the long-term.

Five breakout groups followed where these issues were explored in more detail. Groups discussed: the critical core values that underlie the faculty culture we want to instill and be a part of; how to get buy in on and live/maintain core values and culture among faculty and academic administrators; issues of civility, toxicity and points in between for faculty and academic administrators; and how to involve students and educate them about these core values and the culture we want to achieve.

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Sofia Gruskin
Professor of Law and Preventive Medicine
Gould School of Law and Keck School of Medicine
Director, Program on Global Health & Human Rights