UI cuts big check for ‘Chief Inspiration Officer’

From the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

Deans, faculty disagree on value, necessity of independent contractor’s work

By Halley Griffin, Daily News staff writer
Posted on: Saturday, May 30, 2009

Magaly Rodriguez lives in Minnesota and occasionally travels to the University of Idaho to serve as an independent consultant and “Chief Inspiration Officer.”

The UI pays her $12,500 a month for her services, according to public records obtained by the Daily News.

Rodriguez is held on retainer by the UI, on a nine-month appointment that expires in June. The contract totals $112,500 and was signed during the same academic year that state holdbacks forced the UI to cut about $3.8 million from its budget.

She spends anywhere from zero to 10 days in Moscow per month, according to the contract between Rodriguez and the UI.

Deans and other administrators say the retainer with Rodriguez and consulting company Volentum is well worth the money spent, but the faculty who have participated in their workshops tell a different story.

While one dean praised the calming effect of the sessions, a professor likened them to “being sedated.”

Provost Doug Baker said Rodriguez’s consulting is one tool in adopting the university’s strategic plan.

He said she is “absolutely” worth the money.

“She’s helping us reshape our culture,” Baker said.

Rodriguez said she helps do that by building “global peacemaking communities,” and she claims to have coined the term “peacemaking.”

“If you want to know kind of really what I do, I’m interested in building communities,” she said in a phone interview Friday.

College of Science Dean Scott Wood called on Volentum’s services this February, when the university was considering the elimination of its undergraduate degrees in physics.

Rodriguez stepped in to facilitate a two-day workshop that ultimately helped save the program.

“We obviously got to a resolution,” Wood said. “I’m not convinced we would have gotten there without Magaly’s help.”

He said he’d bring her back “in a heartbeat.”

But physics professor Francesca Sammarruca wrote in an e-mail that she felt the workshop focused mainly on sharing feelings and resolving personal conflicts, while the problem facing the physics department did not arise from interpersonal conflicts.

“When I heard of a workshop with a professional facilitator, I was expecting a roundtable with a neutral moderator (who is knowledgeable in physics, science, and institutional planning). That would have been a format appropriate to the circumstances,” she wrote.

“The point is that her services cannot help with problems such as ours. The problem arose from a hasty decision. That decision needed to be discussed openly and thoroughly between the people involved in a (moderated) professional meeting, and at a much lower cost.”

Such retainer is “outrageous,” Sammarruca wrote, especially when everyone is being told to save money and resources where they can.

“That kind of money can support (seven) graduate students each month,” she wrote. “That’s a way to really help a department.”

Rodriguez’s travel, lodging and meal expenses are paid for by the university, but deducted from the $12,500 she receives monthly.

In fact, she takes home more pay during the months when she does not visit the university in person, and consults with administrators via telephone instead.

Baker has employed Rodriguez on an independent consulting basis for more than a year.

She and Volentum have signed one-time contracts for amounts from $10,000 to $15,500 for workshops that took place prior to the start of her retainer contract.

The $12,500 isn’t the sole cost each month. For each workshop there also are refreshments to be purchased and equipment to be rented.

One day’s lunch at a workshop for deans and administrators in May 2008 cost the UI $1,078.74.

But Baker said it is typical for a university to spend this kind of money on independent consultants.

“I think the university brings in that expertise on a variety of things,” he said. “You sometimes want to have (someone) on retainer for a period of time, and you do that to bring expertise that you don’t have.”

Baker said he does not yet know whether the contract with Volentum will be renewed after June. That decision will depend on the university’s budgetary capabilities.

Patricia Hartzell has been through about three Volentum workshops with the department of microbiology, molecular biology and biochemistry.

“I’m really perplexed as to what (administrators) thought the outcome would be, how it would change our life. Because it didn’t,” said Hartzell, a professor in the department. “I think they think they were successful.”

Many other faculty members interviewed for this story declined to be quoted, citing “fear of retaliation.”

Although they did not want their names used, their stories were the same. The consensus among them is Rodriguez is “a lovely person,” and is good at what she does. They question, however, her necessity to the university.

Faculty both on and off the record agree on another point: they feel patronized, and said the real issues are being swept under the carpet.

“The workshop reminded me of the “I’m OK, you’re OK,” workshops back in the 1970s. It focuses on improved relations, rather than solving problems,” computer science professor Paul Oman wrote in an e-mail. “The department members get along better, but we still have the same fundamental problems because all we do is agree to disagree rather than move in one direction for the good of the department.”

Licensed psychologist W. Rand Walker said the field has advanced significantly farther than the Volentum materials that he has reviewed.

“It is reminiscent of techniques that were developed in the 1960s by Carl Rogers and other humanistic psychologists,” said Walker, who has published materials on communication and therapeutic techniques. “It is also the same techniques that are used in ‘Natural Helpers’ programs that are used with junior high school students.”

Walker said the role consultants play in a university setting is important and shouldn’t be diminished.

“There are legitimate places for this, but you don’t pay $112,000 for it,” he said.

The computer science department had its first Volentum workshop in early 2008. Minutes from a faculty meeting last March summarize departmental reactions to the two-day retreat.

“While there appeared to be a general consensus that the retreat was beneficial, there were considerable mixed reactions to the specifics of the retreat,” read the minutes.

Specific comments reflect positively on the communication tools taught by Rodriguez, but include questions such as “Now what?” and “Can we address the real problems without her?” Faculty in numerous departments that have participated in Volentum workshops have said they feel the same way.

“I thought and I still think that she is a very nice woman and what she says is good information,” Hartzell said. “But I don’t think it solved our problems.”

Baker, however, believes most people have enjoyed and benefitted from their experiences with Rodriguez.

“I suspect you do have some sample bias,” he said. “My assessment is she’s done a pretty successful job.”

From the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

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