In any situation where resources are tight, the natural human inclination is to try to do more with less—to stretch dollars as far as they will possibly go. At Western, the bottom line has been an ongoing concern for many decades as Colorado’s education funding lags.
Unfortunately, those real financial concerns have fostered an untenable culture of overwork at Western that is undermining the university’s ability to serve students effectively.
Within the last year, the university has lost three Residence Directors, our Title IX Coordinator, our Sustainability Specialist, our Director of Campus Safety and Security (recently replaced), and three of our library staff. And that’s just to touch on a few key staff positions that impact much of campus—not an attempt to establish a full departure count.
The departed Sustainability Specialist, and the departed Title IX Coordinator were with the university for less than three years combined. Both were highly capable young professionals with huge workloads on thorny issues—conduct, Title IX compliance, climate planning, and pushing sustainable transformation.
Some turnover in any organization is natural, even welcome, as people ascend in their careers or seek out new beginnings. Yet an excessive turnover rate suggests internal issues that are weighing on employees and hurrying them towards the exit. Failure to retain university employees for a minimum of three years is particularly alarming.
Adding to this bleak assessment is the fact that for many professional staff, and likely most professors, Western is the only viable employer. External factors like housing and a high cost of living within the valley, which Western does not exert as much control over as university leaders would like, are certainly key. But these issues alone cannot explain the exodus.
It’s also fair to consider that 2022 might be seeing a particularly large departure for a couple reasons. One: the job market is favorable towards job seekers now, and employees can often find greener pastures elsewhere—perhaps quite literally, in a monetary sense.
Another factor is the loosening of pandemic restrictions and controls. After two years of off-and-on lockdowns and quarantines, working from home, and staying predominantly put for many, some people are ready to take on new adventures, new locales, and a new gig. But these broader factors don’t change the underlying fact that Western is hemorrhaging key personnel.
And the real root cause is quite simple—and I’ve heard it more and more recently. Western places a heavy burden on many of its employees and faculty, and the university’s pay and benefits are simply not commensurate with the stress loaded onto employees.
Tenure track and tenured faculty at Western are typically expected to teach four classes per semester, mentor students, serve on committees, and fulfill other obligations of academia. Adjunct faculty are asked for less on the service side but are often expected to teach five courses for a salary which often comes out under $40,000.
In a town where a one-bedroom apartment may run $1200 or more per month, recruiting and retaining faculty is obviously going to be difficult. No matter your current stage in life, Gunnison is poised to offer you less for more in the housing market. Tantalizing, right?
On the staff level, dedicated individuals like Dean of Students Gary Pierson shoulder heavy workloads and stress on a day-to-day basis. But what happens when Dean Pierson takes his well-deserved retirement? This university would be a far lesser place without these dedicated people, but replacing Herculean individual efforts is not a sustainable operations model over the long term.
Too often, Western staff members are plugging gaps across campus: assisting students with personal and mental hardships, assuming duties outside their job descriptions, sitting on multiple leadership and advisory committees, and taking it upon themselves to educate students, as well as other staff and faculty, about mental health, gender, race, and LGBTQ+ issues.
These roles individually—and up to a certain point, are reasonable. It’s when they are consistently layered on top of each other—with no foreseeable end in sight, that they become untenable. And that is what we are seeing now—Western employees stretched to the brink are taking definitive action: they’re leaving.
Western has lost three Residence Directors (RDs) within the last six months—a result of overwork, lacking pay, and a broader absence of institutional support. Several of the departing RDs were leading the way on providing support for LGBTQIA+ issues and educating Western’s community on topics like queer theory. Losing these employees is a big hit to Western’s queer community, to the Residence Life staff, and to the university more holistically.
Training in new RDs—assuming that suitable, similarly qualified replacements can be found and enticed to come here, will nevertheless entail a setback from the critical work the previous RDs were undertaking—a substantial loss to our on-campus and queer communities.
All across campus, you can find individuals that are working below the paygrade they could achieve elsewhere, and well beyond the established parameters of their positions. Why? Because they love this valley—many of them have family and fond memories here, and deep ties to our physical surroundings.
There is a natural tendency among caring people—of which there are many at Western—to stretch their own capacities in order to fill out structural needs. A certain amount of this behavior is natural, and even worthy of encouragement.
But without limitations and structural support from the institution the practice can easily extend further, in both time and scale, into the realm of the unsustainable. This path only leads to one destination: burnout, and ultimately to resignation.
Western cannot continue to rely on the amazing dedication of its faculty and staff—and their ties to this beautiful place—in perpetuity. Eventually, everyone reaches their breaking point. And when a job offer arises for more pay, less stress, and a lower workload, often in an area where dollars go further towards housing, the choice for many becomes eminently clear.
So, what can be done? Well, Western should make faculty and staff raises a priority of its new fundraising campaign. Boosting salaries may not be as sexy of a sale for donors as funding student scholarships, new buildings, or new programs, but it’s sorely needed to secure stability and continuity at Western, and to halt the brain drain out of the Gunnison Valley.
Fundraising efforts should dovetail nicely with the university’s new committee examining salary equity across campus. A recent email announcement proclaimed that faculty and staff will be receiving a three percent raise across the board. This is a welcome development, but it’s not even enough to tread water in a year where inflation topped eight percent.
For decades, housing has proved a thorn in the side of both local government and the university, despite recent, earnest efforts at building. It’s unrealistic to anticipate that Gunnison will build itself out of its crisis in the next decade—larger market trends in investing, vacation rentals, ZOOM towns, post-pandemic priorities, and other factors will likely make that impossible. That’s not to discount endeavors to build new units, which should still be encouraged.
But one area where Western does maintain full control is in what it asks of its faculty and staff. The university should work to lower workloads university-wide to improve retention. Constructing boundaries and limitations on mentoring, committee service, and other similar commitments would be a good place to start.
Hiring more faculty and staff to appropriately cover for giving staff and faculty a healthier work-life balance will not be cheap, but neither is constantly training new hires, and existing in a constant state of search committee overdrive, which only heaps more work onto the remaining faculty and staff.
The current tactic of asking Western’s staff and faculty for the moon is not sustainable. If Western is serious about fixing the core issue at hand, it must look inward and examine its workplace culture by speaking to, and really hearing from, its faculty and staff.
Then Western must go about making real, systemic changes to university culture on a foundational level—for the sake of our students, faculty, and staff alike.