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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
Volume 5, Number 1, Sept 2004

A Tale of Two Colleges:
Diversity, Conflict, and
Conflict Resolution

"Well, how should we go about this? Should we work out a proposal for a child-care program and present that to the Provost?" Janice was eager to get down to brass tacks. She did not like fumbling around with a lot of vague discussions. Put something together. Show it to the administration and see what they have to say about it. That was her approach.

"I'm not sure that would be the most effective approach," Beverly offered. "We haven't had any communication with the administration on this at all. Word about our meeting is bound to have found its way to them by the time we see the Provost. Who knows what they will be thinking about what we want. If we come in there with some fixed demands, they might well think it is a take-it-or-leave-it deal and react negatively."

"So what?" Janice rejoined. "I have no desire to pussy foot around on this. The sooner we let them know where we stand and find out where they stand, the better, as far as I'm concerned. We have to be firm. Otherwise we'll just get pushed around."

"I agree that we have to pursue our interests vigorously," Beverly replied. "But we will not advance them by making a show of force that leads to an unnecessary confrontation. As I said yesterday, we will not get this done without their cooperation, and the first thing we need to do is establish contact. I suggest that we get an appointment with the Provost, tell him that we want to see him about a need for child care, and invite him to have anyone that he would like sit in on the meeting."

"So, what do we say when we get to the meeting?" Janice asked. "I don't want to provoke a fight if it can be avoided. But I want to make sure we don't engage in some mushy-headed generalities that get us nowhere."

Georgette, who was just finishing her sandwich, chimed in, "Well, why don't we just lay out what we talked about at the meeting yesterday. Explain that the lack of child care is causing us problems personally and show how we think that finding a solution to that problem will be in the interests of the college. We could state that we are not there to advocate for any particular solution, although we have some ideas on what might work, but to ask the administration to join with us in finding a solution that will work for both of us."

After some more discussion about the matter, the four representatives agreed that they would take the approach proposed by Georgette and asked Beverly to set up the meeting at a time they could all be present.

Beverly got back to the other three the next day with a date two weeks later. She said she would work up a little outline for what she would say to the Provost and run a draft past them before the meeting. Georgette had agreed at the luncheon meeting to do some research about child care programs at other colleges and work places. Martha had said that she would look into the existing child care options in the vicinity of Carlsberg College and try to find out an average cost. Both she and Georgette would contribute the results of their work during the conversation with the Provost as it became relevant.

While they were meeting, Janice mentioned that women weren't the only parents on campus with child care responsibilities. She had learned of a few divorced men who were in the same boat. Moreover, even the married men should be interested in a good child-care solution. Janice suggested that they bring in some men to help strengthen the group.

Beverly, Georgette, and Martha agreed that they could use all the support available. However, they felt they should not postpone the meeting with the Provost. They could invite the men to the next meeting of the group as a whole, when they would report on their meeting with the Provost.

The two weeks passed fairly quickly, at least for Georgette and Martha, who found their homework more of a challenge than they realized. By the time they met with Beverly and Janice, they had enough data compiled to make a convincing case that Carlsberg College would have to hustle to keep up with the trend. It seems that several of the leading colleges in the state had already implemented comprehensive parental assistance programs, including child care services. Some provided a stipend as part of a so-called cafeteria benefits plan with special fee agreements negotiated with off-site service providers. Others had set up on-site programs. The four women were armed with significantly more knowledge about child care than when they started, which they could use as a standard of legitimacy for assessing the state of things at their own college. They felt confident that they could make a persuasive case for the institution of a program at Carlsberg.

As they walked into the conference room for the meeting with the Provost, each of the women was slightly nervous. None of them had ever had an official meeting with the Provost. The conference room was rather grandiose and imposing. However, they knew why they were there and had prepared as thoroughly as they could.

Richard Sutherland had been Provost of Carlsberg College for a little over three years. Before coming to Carlsberg, he was academic dean at a small, liberal arts college in the midwest. He earned his Ph.D. from Stanford in English literature about 20 years ago and had never held a job outside of academia. He was exceptionally accomplished in his field and had hit the ground running at Carlsberg. Nevertheless, he still felt like a newcomer with a lot to learn in his new job.

Dr. Sutherland was not personally acquainted with any of the women coming to the meeting. He knew, of course, that Dr. Schlessinger and Dr. Deloria were faculty members with excellent reputations. Dr. Schlessinger was a tenured sociology professor, and Dr. Deloria, an assistant professor of mathematics, was one year away from tenure review. His assistant had filled him in on the current jobs of Beverly Cooper and Georgette Smiley. Ms. Cooper worked in the controller's office and Ms. Smiley ran the financial aid department. Both should be comfortable with numbers, he thought, and understanding of the financial squeeze the college found itself in at this time.

After the meeting was arranged, Dr. Sutherland made an effort to find out more about what the women's group might be wanting to accomplish in the meeting. But he did not learn more than some sketchy information about the original group meeting. Otherwise, he decided to wait to see what the visitors had in mind.

The women were seated comfortably with a cup of coffee when Dr. Schlessinger asked what they wanted to see him about. Ms. Cooper began by expressing her thanks to Dr. Schlessinger for working them into his schedule at such a busy time in the year. She stated that many women on campus, both faculty and staff, felt it necessary to put a child-care program in place at Carlsberg. They had met to discuss the matter, had come up with some reasons why this was not only important for them but in the interests of the college as well. They were here today to share their initial thoughts on the subject with Dr. Schlessinger and to propose that the formation of a task force to work out a mutually acceptable solution to the problem.

Ms. Cooper then proceeded to summarize the reasons why the group considered a good child-care program important for parents at the college and essential for the continued vitality of Carlsberg. Dr. Schlessinger and Ms. Smiley added information about what other colleges in the state were doing and what child care costs were in the area.

At the end of their presentation, Dr. Sutherland stated that he was glad they came. He could not promise them anything. Indeed, he was fairly sure that the college would not be able to contribute financially to a child-care program in the coming year. But he did not want to rule anything out at this stage and felt the task force idea was a good one. "It is important to find a solution," he said, "But it must be one that everyone can live with."

Ms. Cooper stated that, while the task force was their idea, they did not want it to be perceived as simply window dressing or a means for delay. She suggested, therefore, that they agree on a time table for creating the task force and deadlines by which the task force must report to the Provost and the ad hoc child-care group.

"How can we assure that the ad hoc group represents all of the faculty and staff with an interest in this problem? Do you have any male parents in the group?" Dr. Sutherland asked.

"Not yet," replied Ms. Cooper, "But we're working on that. We'll put out posters inviting anyone with an interest to come to the next meeting."

"I want to repeat that I am not in a position to make any promises and cannot guarantee even that the college will support any kind of day-care program," Dr. Sutherland mentioned once again. "But I see that it is a legitimate problem that requires some kind of solution and will work with you in good faith to explore possible solutions."

"And we for our part want to reiterate our conviction that this is a problem that will not go away; nor will we," Ms. Cooper replied. "We want to work with you to devise a solution to it, but it will do neither of us any good simple to dabble around the edges of it. We must roll up our sleeves and get busy creating that solution. We are grateful for your commitment to work with us on this matter and believe that we should make substantial progress within the next six months."

The parties parted with positive feelings. When the four women met for coffee later that day, however, Janice Deloria was not all sunshine. "I don't know," she said. "Did we just get put off with an agreement to engage in some busy work for the next six months?"

Georgette Smiley thought she should answer that question. "Well, the task force was our idea. Remember, when we analyzed the situation, we concluded that there was no way the college would put a child-care program in place immediately; nor can it afford to do so. Besides, we don't want the college coming up with some program without our involvement in what it looks like. We will be better off working on the inside, helping to fashion what it is. If the administration drags it feet and refuses to work with us to find a solution, then we can always pursue our best alternative to a negotiated agreement. But, as you will recall, we were not able to find an alternative that was particularly appealing. We need the college on this, as much as--perhaps more than--it needs us. We need to make this negotiation process work if at all possible."

Over the next six months, administration officials and representatives from the ad hoc child-care group met a total of 18 times. Some of the meetings were difficult, especially at the beginning. But over time, they built a relationship of rapport and trust that served them well in the common effort. The faculty and staff group learned to appreciate some of the financial difficulties of the college, and the administrators learned more than they thought possible about the importance of early child care and different ways for attending to it.

The negotiators finally worked out a plan none of them thought of, or probably could have thought of, at the outset. With different people contributing ideas throughout, they literally created something new. The final agreement calls for a program to be phased in over the next three years, with faculty and staff being able to choose either on-site child-care facility or a set stipend to be paid directly to one of four different providers in the area.

The college has negotiated agreements with the off-site providers on price and standards of care. By guaranteeing a minimum number of children for each off-site provider, the college has been able to obtain a better price per child than any of the parents could have negotiated on their own.

The on-site program involves an innovation in which students at the college will assist as interns as part of their training as future educators. In fact, the college learned that early childhood education is part of the cutting edge work going on in public education. By integrating its on-site day care program with its academic mission, Carlsberg will be offering future teachers opportunities that few other colleges make available.

The President of the Carlsberg was extremely pleased with the way Provost Sutherland had handled the matter. "You took a potentially explosive situation and turned it into a plus for the college. We need more leadership like that." Beverly, Martha, Janice, and Georgette did not mind the misplaced glory landing on the Provost's head. Sure, it would have been nice to be recognized for having developed a strategy that led to a better outcome for all. But, for the moment, they were satisfied to have helped bring about a very positive result for themselves and other college employees.

Michael Palmer, J.D., Ph.D., is President of Strategies for Good Outcomes in Middlebury Vermont. He teaches negotiation and conflict management at Middlebury College.

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