The State of the Uni: A look at Uni's administrative structure
Published: Saturday, March 10, 2012 - 2:40pm
BEGINNING IN OCTOBER 2011, Uni began a series of administrative changes with the promotion of three teachers to assistant director positions. Only two months later, longtime assistant director Sue Kovacs retired, initiating another administrative overhaul. Now, just three months after that, Director Jeff Walkington has announced an entirely new structure that the school will adopt for coming years.
In the wake of these dramatic changes to the Uni administration, many questions and concerns have been raised: How long will the current assistant directors, who have continued to teach as well, keep their administrative positions? Has the power structure of Uni changed in the last several months? And finally, where are we headed?
We address these questions and more in the final installment of “The State of the Uni.”
This edition of the series makes use of data that the Gargoyle collected by surveying 294 Uni students. Selected statistics and results from those surveys can be found at the end of the article.
Part I: The Story
Administrative system history
Since Kovacs’s departure, Uni has been operating under a body of six administrators: Director Jeff Walkington; Assistant Director of Curriculum, Technology, and University of Illinois partnerships David Bergandine; Assistant Director of Student Life Craig Russell; Assistant Director of Faculty and Admissions David Stone; Athletic Director Sally Walker; and Advancement Director Marianne Downey.
Such a system differs significantly from that with which we started the academic year; at that time Kovacs was the sole Assistant Director, with Walkington, Walker, and Downey occupying the same positions they do currently. According to Steve Epperson, Walkington’s predecessor as Director and also a former Uni math teacher, a model with one Director and one Assistant Director was more or less followed when he taught here in the late 1980s too.
However, the current administrative structure with three assistant directors is not completely foreign; Epperson once served as the school’s Assistant Director of Curriculum, a position similar to that which Bergandine currently occupies. Perhaps the most pressing question, then, is not how Walkington came up with the idea of having multiple assistant directors, but rather why he chose to change the administrative structure when he did.
“I think that if we’re smart people, we adapt and we’re fluid and we change according to the situation,” he explained. “I think that the university [...] wanted me to do more external things—fundraising, communicating, work[ing] with people in the community [and] university, those kinds of things. They wanted and saw the need for—I did too—for help for Ms. Kovacs.”
He later continued: “[W]e needed more help to support her, so I liked [adding assistant directors] because I thought, 'Ms. Kovacs will still be in the center of things, but she’ll be getting help.'”
“It was not an attempt to replace Sue in where she was or force her out,” Russell clarified. “It was actually looking at how the Provost’s office has kind of redefined and broadened the expectations for the principal. And so he [Walkington] was looking at ways to accomplish other tasks which were more than any one other person could do, so he asked Mr. Bergandine, Mr. Stone, and me to try to help figure out what those additional roles ought to be, [...] and then Sue’s departure kind of left a vacuum.”
When asked about her retirement, Kovacs commented that Walkington “had left [her] only the job of walking the halls and making sure that kids did not go to Siebel.”
“The [assistant directors] had taken my job and gone over my head on discipline, dealing with parents, admissions, the lounge, scheduling, etc.,” she continued. “There was no way that I could stay at Uni when other people were doing my job."
Thus, to fill the vacuum created by the Kovacs’s departure, various faculty members stepped up to take on some of the duties she did while she was here. Currently, Uni has about 13 teachers, faculty members, and administrators fulfilling 16 different administrative roles in addition to their normal work.
Balance of power
While administrative duties may be spread amongst a large group of people, the power itself often seems to be more centralized. So how much do the voices of teachers, students, and other members of the Uni community actually factor into the administrative equation?
English teacher Suzanne Linder says she believes “Uni students and faculty have an incredible amount of input—far more input than [she] think[s] is customary in [a] secondary school.” However, she noted that the sudden appointment of the three assistant director this fall was something of an exception to this.
“I did not expect that information,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to be delivered in the way it was, which was, ‘This is done; this is how it’s going to be.’”
Walker, though an administrator herself, was similarly put off by how the new Uni Period schedule was instituted this year, saying that “there was never any discussion on an administrative level with the faculty” that discussed the potential academic repercussions of shortened classes.
Linder believes that such issues may stem partly from the fact that Uni teachers don’t have the same kind of collective organization that teachers in other schools generally do.
“If Uni faculty were unionized, it’s possible that decisions would be made differently because then faculty could have a collective voice,” she noted. “[...] I think without organization—without a union—it’s kind of hard to know if there’s consensus [among the faculty].”
"The biggest problem is that teachers have no ‘rights’ or ‘protections’ at Uni,” she said. “No union, no contract, etc. The director holds all the power and the teachers and staff have no recourse."
Indeed, when researching for this story, several members of the faculty declined to comment in order to avoid jeopardizing their jobs. Such concerns about voicing opinions and giving feedback have recently become troubling trends at Uni; however, Walkington believes that school community does have a voice.
“My personal opinion is it’s a pretty empowered faculty,” Walkington argued. “We’re on a university campus and people are used to the faculty having a lot of say. [...] There’s a whole lot of things I need to work through other people in order to do… to get more input, to empower other people as [compared to working] in other schools I’ve been at.”
English teacher Steve Rayburn agreed that Uni does better at balancing power than many other schools generally do.
“I've taught in more traditional public schools where the teachers didn't have any say about anything,” he said. “I've taught at private schools where it didn't matter what we thought. So at Uni, [...] if anything we've got too much of a say because you've got all of these different voices, all of which want to be heard, and we can't please everybody.”
Epperson, too, understands that members of the Uni community almost always want a say in changes.
“If you are talking about a policy-type issue or some type of major change in direction of the school, I think [for] those kind of things just wide open communication is extremely important,” he said. “And I’ve always felt like there needs to be plenty of notice so people have time so say what they feel.”
However, while those at Uni are generally afforded a great deal of power in giving feedback, according to the survey 36.5 percent of students who give feedback disagree or strongly disagree that the Director considers this feedback. In contrast, 18 percent and 8.5 percent of students who give feedback disagree or strongly disagree that the assistant directors and teachers, respectively, consider their feedback.
Thus, there seems to be a situation at Uni where many people have input to give, but are either afraid to do so or don’t believe it will have any bearing. After all, why give feedback if it doesn’t seem like it will be heard?
“Sometimes Doctor Walkington makes sure that [...] you know that he has heard your complaint,” said Linder. “[...] It’s not the same as changing something because of your complaint, but that’s part of what happens when he has the power to make decisions.”
However, Epperson points out that, even if all suggestions are heard, there is virtually no way they can all be reflected in the final decision.
“There are some decisions that administrators feel like are their decisions to make,” he said. “I think it is important to get input from teachers and students and parents too, as far as that goes, especially at a school like Uni where parents are so involved. I think that is really important to do, but there are times when the responsibility falls on the administrator to make a decision.
“And so I think input is really important,” he continued. “[...] But there are decisions sometimes that simply fall on the administrators, and they need to make them and live with them.”
Where is the administrative system headed?
After two major administrative changes in one year and, according to a recent email from Walkington, a search for an assistant director and dean of students coming up, we seem to be headed for a slightly altered administrative structure.
“We always said that the teacher/assistant directors were a temporary addition, and that if we had a major change, we would review the whole structure,” said Walkington. “That major
change happened with Ms. Kovacs’s retirement, and the whole system is under much more
stress than we originally planned when she was at the center of the daily operation
of the school.”
He added later: “I look forward to defining the new administrator’s role more sharply and then having a thorough search. Mr. Bergandine, Mr. Russell, Mr. Stone, and Mr. Radnitzer will continue to serve in various capacities, but with another full-time administrator coming on board who will want to have important work to do, I think they will want to dial back their long list of duties. Some of their current duties will be given to the new administrator.”
This was last Wednesday. Since then, Walkington has submitted two job descriptions to the Academic Human Resource Department at the University of Illinois.
The new administrative structure has Walkington continuing in his role as the director with a focus on external affairs such as communication, fundraising, finances, alumni and governmental relations, and interacting with the University,
The associate director position appears to take on a principal-like role, directing operations in the building and overseeing procedures and policies. The position includes jobs such as directing admissions and enrollment outreach, chairing the Curriculum and Executive Committees, and making sure Uni complies with University, state and federal policies.
The dean of students, who would report to the associate director, would take on many of the visible roles that students often think of when they remember what Kovacs did. This person would perform daily supervision and discipline of students, deal with attendance and tardies, supervise the hallways and building maintenance, and work on many other day-to-day affairs at Uni.
The other administrative positions, the director of advancement and the athletic director, will remain essentially the same.
In this new structure, the faculty and staff who have stepped up to take on additional duties for this semester would be able to return to their regular duties. However, they may stay involved for a short time as the new hires get adjusted and continue to work on some of their special projects like increasing technology at Uni.
The State of the Uni
It speaks volumes that teachers would decline to be interviewed by a high school newspaper for fear of losing their jobs. In this regard, there seems to be an excess of administrative power, amplified by the fact that teachers lack union protection and are also rehired on annual contracts.
Kovacs gives one example of an apparent administrative overstepping. According to her, she was contacted to give input when Walkington and the three new assistant directors were creating their job descriptions. She maintains that Walkington violated her job description "without due process."
Walkington believed he was helping Kovacs.
“It [her job before three more administrators were added] was really unfair to Ms. Kovacs in a lot of ways because it was just too much to deal with every minute of every student’s life,” Walkington said. “And then, on top of that, any time anything went wrong with the building, she had to supervise that."
However, it seems strange that Uni added administrators to help the longtime assistant director with all of her duties when she was known for her tireless efforts and bittersweet contentedness with her workload. It is situations like these and the opacity of the administration's motivations that make it difficult to assess what we hear from them and to feel that they will care about our feedback.
Thus, while we at the Gargoyle support the proposed new administrative structure because it splits the plethora of assistant director duties between two full-time individuals and allows the teachers who have stepped into administrative roles this year to resume their normal work, we feel that achieving a more equitable balance of power between teachers and administrators should be one of our foremost goals as Uni's ruling body is revamped.
We believe it would be to our benefit to separate the school’s overall director, who deals with such things as outreach and fundraising, from the person—or people—who makes the important decisions within the school that relate to students and faculty.
The Uni community is a complex group, and thus it is unreasonable to believe that one person can focus on the school’s image, finances, and connections to the outside world, while also fully understanding the needs and concerns of those within walls of the school. So why does one person have the power to preside over all those things?
The essence of Uni is its faculty; they are with us in the classroom every single day, and we trust them more than anyone to make the right decisions with regards to our education and the way Uni should be run. Thus, we believe that an administrative structure that equilibrates power among several administrators and grants more of a voice to teachers would work in the best interest of the school.
One way this could happen is through a decentralization of administrative power that makes it so that faculty can give honest feedback without fearing for the safety of their job. If that is not feasible, another suggestion is that teachers consider forming a union. According to Executive English teacher Elizabeth Majerus, teachers are on a contractual basis where they are either reappointed or not appointed at the beginning of each school year. As it is, teachers have some recourse with the University of Illinois, but not the kind of support that a union can provide.
While it is easy for students who aren't facing these issues to speculate about what teachers should and should not, or can and cannot do, if Uni teachers do come together in the formation of a union, we think that they would be supported by many students and parents.