professionaldevelopment-02

Capable Colleagues: Key People Who Work Behind the Scenes

by Michael G. Cartwright
Vice President for University Mission  

This semester our focus is on persons whose lives exemplify aspects of the UIndy Mission Statement.

When we think about the many ways UIndy’s mission is lived out on this campus, plenty of people come to our minds. Some of us readily think of the University’s senior leadership team, deans, and department chairs. Various members of the faculty also come to mind. But as our colleague Dr. Greta Pennell aptly observes, “We have had so many key people who have stayed behind the scenes, but were (and are) absolutely critical to our ability to accomplish our mission.” Greta went on to mention several examples. I heartily concurred with her judgment. Between the two of us we identified four employees who are capable exemplars of “thought, judgment, communication, and action.

I admit that it is a bit artificial to link this quartet of well-respected UIndy employees to these four adjectives of the UIndy mission statement. On the other hand, I did not have to stretch words in order to describe ways that these office managers and administrative assistants display these forms of excellence in their work. In each case, I also could have named ways that they exhibit one or more of the other three adjectives.

Thoughtful Work: Anyone who has had the opportunity to work with Linda Corn knows that she is uncommonly thoughtful. So when I contacted her to ask her to comment about some of the ways that her work as an administrative assistant has changed, she told me several things right off the bat. The next day, she sent me a follow-up message that provided a more layered response. (No, I did not tell Linda that I would be praising her for being thoughtful about her work!).

When Linda was hired in the Registrar’s Office in 1994, there were less than 75 faculty in the CAS. Today the Shaheen College of Arts & Sciences has more than 120 faculty. This past year, Linda has taken on the challenges of training her successor (Lynette Curtis), as well as assisting the Lecture and Performance committee. The complexity of the tasks she now performs compared to what she once did is one of the most striking changes.

“We used to be more focused on the immediate dean. Now we are also budget managers. The number of meetings has increased. New programs have been added and there are a lot of extra departments that did not exist” when Linda was hired. She added: “Scheduling is also more of a challenge. There is an extra layer of administration (the role of Associate Provost) that wasn’t there when she assumed the role of administrative assistant for the College of Arts & Sciences in 1998. One area that Linda finds it easy to register is in her skill development. Once upon a time, she used SIS. Today, she works with Banner, as well as other databases. Part of her thinks that it would have been a good idea to write things down so that Lynette Curtis could have an “operations manual.” On the other hand, Linda knows that the rapidity of change makes it difficult to update all aspects of the job.

Meanwhile, Linda has taken on the responsibility of coordinating tasks associated with the work of the Lecture & Performance Committee, a set of responsibilities formerly carried out by faculty. “With my experience throughout the 23 and a half years I have been here, I feel that staff was hired in to work in what was considered at that time a secretarial/receptionist position. The work mainly entailed some paperwork, but also assisting the Dean, Department Chair, Faculty, and possibly other areas around campus, in supporting the students. Even though the title has changed to ‘Administrative Assistant,’ I believe we still offer the same support as we did in the past. In some cases, our job has evolved to more of an ‘Assistant to____’ title.  Because of the growth of the University, administration and faculty are busier than ever; therefore, what they do not have time to do administratively, AAs are now doing. We are now the front face of the college or department, working daily to meet the needs of not only our direct supervisors, but also faculty and other staff members. Some of us have also become managers in our own areas.”

Here are Linda’s comments about changes in technology. “Twenty-four years ago what is now considered an ancient typewriter, was still used to type letters, labels, and complete forms. We also kept hard copies of everything, whether it be student files or various documentation. With the computer age, we no longer use typewriters and records are now kept in hard drives.” Linda thinks that the university has done “a wonderful job” in helping administrative assistants keep “up to date” in the areas that affect them. I hope that is true. There should be no doubt, however, that Linda Corn is thoughtful about the work she does in the Shaheen College of Arts & Sciences.

Exercising Good Judgment: Over the years, there have been many occasions when I have depended on the good judgment of administrative assistants who have made it possible for me to do my job well. Let me tell you about one such occasion. Five years ago this past month, our University had the opportunity to host a national conference of church-related colleges and universities. I chaired the planning committee, but much of the work that took place from day to day was carried out by Cindy Sturgeon. She paid attention to when tasks had to be done, and she coordinated with various UIndy offices to make sure that we kept on track.

After more than a year of planning, the conference began on Friday afternoon. Plenary sessions were to be held in Ruth Lilly Performance Hall, and the eight discussion groups were assigned to spaces in the Schwitzer Student Center. Overnight, the heating system in Schwitzer Student Center malfunctioned. When we arrived on Saturday morning, the rooms in the basement of Schwitzer were 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Breakout discussion groups would need to be reassigned, but due to other activities occurring that day, changing locations was not straightforward.

Suffice it to say that when I stepped on the stage to introduce the speaker for the morning session of the conference, we did not yet have a resolution. But I was confident that Cindy would figure out how to address the problem. I am still not sure all of the steps that had to be taken, but I know that when I walked out on the stage of Ruth Lilly Performance Hall to address the plenary of the National Conference of the Lilly Fellows in Arts & Humanities, I did not have to worry about follow through. If there was a way to address the issue, I knew that Cindy would figure it out, and she would work with our colleague Jim Ream to make the necessary changes.

Cindy and I no longer work in the same office, but I am confident that in her work as the Office Manager for Ecumenical & Interfaith Programs, she has the chance to use her judgment virtually every day. Here are three examples. Cindy shares supervisory responsibility for the McCleary Chapel Stewards leadership development program. Four years ago she led the way in the design of The Soul Care room. For much of the past decade, she has coordinated the “Sharing My Story” series offered through the Lantz Center for Christian Vocations. She has a good memory for examples, and she is extremely loyal to this university and her fellow employees.

Indeed, when I was working on this month’s Mission Matters, I contacted Cindy to get her advice about how best to describe the other three persons that are the focus of this piece. Discernment is a word that is closely related to judgment. University employees need to know when it is premature to make a judgment call, as well as to recognize when it is too late. Our colleague Cindy Sturgeon displays the kind of discerning judgment that makes it possible for faculty and administrators to do their jobs well. In my case, the University of Indianapolis had the opportunity to host a national conference of church-related colleges and universities because of all the work that Cindy Sturgeon did behind the scenes.

Effective Communication: We can’t do our jobs well if employees fail to communicate effectively. Sometimes we can take things for granted. But effective employees communicate well. More than anyone else I know, Jan Knoop experienced the revolution in communications at Indiana Central and UIndy. Jan was hired as a secretary in 1966. She retired in 2013 after many years of service to the School of Education. During the five decades she worked here, she saw several significant shifts in the way communications were handled. At one time, the telephone was a primary source of communication. Today some administrative assistants (Linda Corn tells me) rarely have to answer the phone. “Most correspondence is done through email. Documents are sent across on or off campus via attachments through email or scanned through our copier directly to the recipient to expedite the process.”

Communications on public occasions are a different story. On such occasions, it is important that words are spoken face to face, and not just anyone is capable of representing employees. When Jerry Israel was inaugurated as president in April 1999, we asked Jan Knoop to bring greetings on behalf of the staff of the University. That was my third year and there were still quite a few gaps in my base of institutional knowledge. I talked with six or seven people about this matter. I remember being impressed that Jan Knoop’s name was the first name on the list of every person I consulted. In part, that may have been because of her seniority. Even so, such unanimity is rare in higher education!

As I recall, Jan was nervous about playing this part. Being on stage made her a bit uncomfortable. At the same time, she was proud to be asked to stand alongside Prof. Charlotte Templin (the faculty representative) at an occasion when it was important to display unity of purpose in the midst of our different kinds of work and various levels of responsibility. Not just anyone can represent the values of an institution, but by her words (on that occasion) as well as her 47 years of dedicated service, Jan Knoop communicated what is best about our University.

Careful Action: One of the ways that the ethos of our University is distinguished in comparison with other colleges and universities is the high respect that faculty have for staff employees. For those of us who have worked with Jan Thomas across the years, it is patently clear why. In the Fall of 2001, Jan Thomas was given the huge task of typing the manuscript of “Downright Devotion to the Cause,” the centennial history that Fred Hill had written about the University of Indianapolis. The published version was 420 pages long, but Jan worked with drafts beginning with Dr. Hill’s handwritten text, which was the basis for copyediting, etc. This was not the only occasion that Jan Thomas has been called upon to carry out an important task. She served in the Office of the President and for many years has assisted Dr. Mary Moore in the Office of Accreditation.

Several years ago, Jan received the Peters Good Neighbor Award. On that occasion, the person who nominated her for the recognition this way: “The most striking gift that she has given is the constant mentoring of her colleagues, especially women that serve as administrative and executive assistants” here at UIndy. “Jan has become known for being willing to answer questions and guide these persons through new or difficult tasks and does so with joy and compassion.” Those of us who are familiar with the responsibilities of the President’s Office and more recently the Office of Accreditation know this to be true: “Her daily work consists of handling a great deal of sensitive information. She not only protects the confidentiality of affected persons, but also protects their dignity.” Another of Jan’s colleagues said of her, “She’s a wonderful mentor and exemplifies the professional, yet caring persona of those who make UIndy the amazing university that it is.”

When our colleague Mary Moore brought Jan Thomas to the University faculty meeting in April 2017, there was a spontaneous standing ovation. Virtually everyone present for that occasion had in mind one or more examples of things Jan has done behind the scenes that have made a difference for all concerned. With the possible exception of Mary Moore, none of us is in the position to know the full range of Jan’s actions. I was not surprised to hear that Jan is continuing to oversee the IDEA course evaluations this year while Julie Cripps takes over for her in the Office of Accreditation.

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Linda Corn, Cindy Sturgeon, Jan Knoop, and Jan Thomas are by no means the only office managers and/or administrative assistants who display aspects of the University’s mission. Indeed, I would hope that as you read this piece, you found yourself thinking about employees you know who work “behind the scenes” taking care of chores that have to be done well in order for us to succeed in carrying out the mission of the University. Between them, these four employees account for more than a 135 years of full-time service to the University. That fact alone is significant, but those of us who have had the opportunity to work with one or more members of this quartet can testify that it is the way that our colleagues manage to harmonize thought, judgment, communication and action that makes us proud to work with them.

If you haven’t managed to keep count of the total number of UIndy employees, there are 734 of us (as of last Friday Dec. 8). We have 176 full time non-exempt employees (many of whom are administrative assistants). Another 280 employees are full time exempt staff and administrators. The remaining 278 are full time faculty. Plus we also have part-time faculty and staff employees.

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Next semester, Jeremiah Gibbs has agreed to write about exemplars of the ways portion of the UIndy mission statement that invites students to gain a deeper understanding of the teachings of the Christian faith and appreciation and respect for other religious traditions. If you have feedback to offer or suggestions, please send it to missionmatters@uindy.edu or contact me by phone. In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to reflect with me.

Remember: UIndy’s mission matters!