Andrew Witthaus, sophomore audio major, used to love working in the Media Center. After being hired on work study in August 2010, Witthaus worked almost 40 hours a week in the summers and throughout the school year, repairing and loaning digital equipment for students.
But in the past months, the Media Center has undergone changes in department processes and chain of command, which have left Witthaus with a less optimistic opinion about his work place.
“Morale is really low and negative,” Witthaus said. “We feel very helpless.”
Now, Witthaus dreads coming in to work. The once productive and pleasant atmosphere of the Media Center has turned hostile, he said. Junior film major Margaret Klotz can feel it too.
“I go in to work now and the air feels like it’s closing in on you,” said Klotz, who has worked in the media center for two years.
The shift in attitude came this past summer when media center employees like service clerk Renae Washington were informed they were merging with Desktop Technical Services (DTS), under the Information Technology division of Webster.
Washington has been with the Media Center since 2005. She worked as a student employee until she graduated Webster with a bachelor’s degree in Media Communication in 2009, then joined the staff as a part-time worker.
“We are told we are IT now,” Washington said. “We got no explanation why we were placed under them.”
Much of the negativity centers around allegations that threats have been made against both work-study students and full-time employees and their job security. When Witthaus noticed changes during the summer in regards to inventory, he said he emailed Interim Vice President of IT William Kenneth Freeman asking the reason for the merger. The next day, Witthaus said Louis Lindsay, assistant director of the Media Center, told him to refrain from asking questions.
“(Louis told me) I was threatened (by IT) I would lose my job,” Witthaus said. “And this coming from (a department with) an open door policy.”
Lindsay was approached by The Journal for comment, but said any questions must be sent to Freeman first, to approve answers. The Journal approached Freeman on three occasions seeking a comment about student concerns regarding change in the Media Center. Freeman said he was unavailable to comment until after Dec. 12.
Washington said she was told by a full-time Media Center staff member not to ask questions.
“I sent an email to Ken Freeman (asking about the changes) and I didn’t receive a response as to why the Media Center was merging with IT,” Washington said. “I was told not to email him again by my boss Louis.”
Debra Carpenter, dean of the School of Communications (SOC) which represents the majority of the faculty and students serviced by the Media Center, said the Media Center was taken out of Academic Affairs in 2002 and placed under IT.
In April 2011, Webster removed Larry Haffner from the vice-president position in IT after nearly nine years, making him a chief policy analyst for the university. Freeman, a former telecommunications analyst for IBM and employee of Monsanto, took over as interim VP the same month.
“We had a great relationship with Larry,” Jorge Oliver, chair of the electronic and photographic media department, said. “He was always interested in the students. He was really wonderful to the School of Communications in terms of working with us.
“(Now) there are a lot of unhappy staff and students. Do they (in IT) want to hear what we have to say? Is our input important? We don’t know. Maybe that’s why there are so many unhappy people,” Oliver said.
Andrew Ryan, senior film production major and work-study employee of the Media Center since January, said he and other students wrote a petition over the summer wanting answers about new procedures and management, but never circulated it for fear Lindsay and other staff members would be fired.
“We never took it that far,” Ryan said.
Work-study employees even attempted to organize a sit-down protest outside the Media Center earlier this semester. Witthaus and four other student employees who approached The Journal with their concerns said they were told by Mike Williams, instructional support specialist, the act would be seen as a failure of Media Center staff to control their work-study students, and employees could lose their jobs.
“It always comes back on Louis,” Witthaus said. “We don’t want (the staff) to be fired because we voice our opinions.”
Now, Oliver and the work-study students who spoke to The Journal have no confidence in where the Media Center is headed. Since IT began requiring increased inventory logs and paperwork using Key Process Indicators (KPIs) this summer, work-study students said they are concerned customer service is becoming secondary to bureaucratic procedures. Oliver said his faculty have been complaining that Media Center staff have been unavailable to answer questions or help with equipment problems due to prolonged meetings during the day.
“I don’t know what the meetings are for,” Washington said. “It’s necessary to structure, but there are too many to count. With two to three meetings a day, I’m it (the only employee working in the Media Center). If there’s an emergency, of course I can call. But it puts a lot on the back burner.”
Oliver said he has concerns about the Media Center becoming too far removed from the SOC. He believes if SOC faculty and Media Center employees are not informed why this merger is taking place or what the eventual changes will be, the university as a whole will suffer.
“My first reaction was that the Media Center should really be under the supervision of the SOC because it is an essential part of the functioning and infrastructure of the SOC, for all three departments, not just mine,” Oliver said. “We need to have a good relationship. Our concerns and feedback (from the SOC) are necessary regarding any decision with the Media Center. We have to have administrators who understand the issues and who we know are making decisions that are good for our school.”
Oliver believes IT and Freeman could relieve many of his faculty’s and students’ fears by increasing communication as to why changes are being made and how those decisions are reached. Meetings have been held by IT for both work-study students and SOC faculty to explain changes and address questions.
Klotz said during the meeting between DTS and the Media Center involving work-study students, she felt answers were very blocked.
“It was like talking to a wall,” Klotz said. “It wasn’t a dialogue about if (the change) works for the Media Center or not.”
Oliver said while the Media Center can always undergo tweaks and evolve to better benefit students, both students and faculty are concerned what these changes mean for the future of the Media Center and the direction in which Webster is headed.
“(Media Center staff) all feel they are not going to be here next year, and they don’t know what the vision will be,” Oliver said. “Will the SOC be lessened? I feel that (Media Center employees) feel they can’t speak their mind or they will get fired. I don’t think anyone should feel they can’t come forward and speak their mind. What kind of university is this?”
Washington said for the moment, students borrowing Media Center equipment are not being affected by the changes. It is only in the stress of the employees and the air of the Media Center that any change is noticeable.
“There is a lot of tension and hostility,” Washington said. “In speaking with certain colleagues, their outlook is very bleak. We’ve been told no one is going to be fired but we can’t trust that. It doesn’t look good.”