Monday, November 18, 2002

Open Letter: SCSU's Culutral Audit Survey by Nichols & Associates

Dear Provost & Vice President Spitzer: (sent 11/15/02)

Thank you for releasing yesterday the report produced from the cultural audit that was conducted by Nichols & Associates. Your open solicitation of our constructive feedback is a breath of fresh air that I welcome on this campus.

Until yesterday I honestly did not know the answers to the questions I had been raising over the past several days on SCSU�s discussion list about the status of the audit. However, it is accurate to say that I was among those who last spring criticized the design and administration of the Nichols� on-line survey. Having now read the report of its findings, I offer the following observations, hoping that my comments may help us move toward freshening the climate on this campus that so many of us have grown to love.

The ultimate purpose of my remarks is the same of that of Nichols: �to identify barriers - both real and perceived - to achieving career success at SCSU.� Although I believe that the survey and report by Nichols & Associates were well intentioned, because they are both so fatally flawed they run the risk of serving to divide rather than unite our campus.

For example, it�s simply too easy to disagree vigorously with the authors� assertion on page 12 that �the cultural survey, within its design methodology, is a sound instrument offering accurate information to SCSU.� Objective professors trained in survey design, study methodology, and the English language would have to give the effort of Nichols a failing grade on too many fronts:

Many scholars on this campus were shocked last May, not only by the poor grammar employed in the design of several questions, but also by their framing bias and potential for eliciting ambiguous responses.

While the authors talk about the survey�s reliability, they conveniently ignore any discussion about its obvious lack of validity. With a total of self-selected responses from only 164 students (of which its 55% white representation is in no way reflective of our student-body population), 127 faculty, and 110 administrators and staff, why should any self-respecting researcher pay any attention the the findings of this survey? The authors� discussion of their study�s limitations is woefully inadequate.

A lack of adequate testing of its survey�s administration by Nichols last May resulted in numerous on-line technical problems that frustrated and turned away many potential survey respondents.

With such small samples, it is not surprising that results are all over the map. But that doesn�t stop Nichols from continually misusing the word �majority,� rather than �plurality� when referring to 41-46% of respondents.

English professors would blanch when reading a report that uses the collective singular noun, �majority,� as if it were plural...and the plural noun, �data,� as if it were singular.

As you say, Dr. Spitzer, it is �clear that there are recommendations from the Nichols Report that are difficult to link to the survey data.� Others seem to reflect the authors� lack of understanding of SCSU, a self-interest in conducting follow-up audits, and the bias of their firm�s founder.

It�s reasonable that the SCSU Administration believed that �receiving a third-party review would be important in evaluating the climate on this campus.� I just hope that the many outstanding and well qualified researchers on our campus, including those trained in the fields of organizational behavior and development, as well as survey design, do not long remain offended by their having been slighted after they read the academically failed work produced by Nichols & Associates.

Perhaps future studies commissioned by SCSU could be open to a new competitive bidding process that would invite teams of scholars - including those from this campus - to submit their proposals to a review committee that would include the outside Board of the Anderson Entrepreneurial Center. One potential and positive result of the Nichols study is that we might begin to seek more creative answers to the question, �How can we use the HAEC to help our own scholars remove �barriers to achieving career success at SCSU�?� A positive synergy and enthusiasm manifested by teams of inter-collegiate researchers on this campus could serve to unite, rather than divide us.

At the very least, I hope we have learned from our experience with this study that the qualifications, backgrounds, and biases of future researchers of our issues on this campus should be well scrutinized. Before the report was released yesterday, I had been unable to find any web site for Nichols & Associates, nor any list of publications authored by Edwin J. Nichols. However, I had uncovered three links that shed a little light on the background and beliefs of the founder of Nichols & Associates.

Some readers may dismiss the libertarian bias apparent in the second of these three reviews; but read as a whole, I believe that most readers would be troubled by the apparent willingness of Nichols to push the envelope of cultural axiology to the point of perpetuating, rather than stripping away stereotypes.

The one recommendation of the Nichols report with which I agree strongly appears on the top of page 99. It underscores the need for immediate, forceful, and bold new public-relations initiatives from the leadership of SCSU. Especially with our state facing growing budget deficits, our future vitality as a campus depends greatly on our family of generous alumni, friends, and business leaders. Maybe the Nichols report will unite us in crying out with one voice the same message:

�Yes, we�ve had problems in the past. Yes, we�ve made mistakes is the past. Yes, we demand accountability as well as take responsibility for our mistakes. But make no mistake, more than any campus in this state, we�ll be zealous and totally open about our efforts to correct and minimize the future mistakes we may make.

�At the same time, we�re going to become much more vocal about the extraordinarily positive and unique educational experiences that we offer. Our vibrant community of dedicated scholars, staff, and administrators stands united as a university, dedicated to perpetuating what we value among our colleagues and in our students - tomorrow�s consumers, career professionals, and citizens:

- absolute academic integrity;
- a thirst for knowledge and an openness to be proven wrong;
- a desire for lifelong improvement of skills;
- absolute intolerance of any prejudging or discriminatory actions practiced or threatened against any individual, regardless of his or her age, gender, race, religion, national origin, political persuasion, [income level], or sexual orientation;
- an ability to understand, appreciate, agree with, and respectfully disagree with a wide variety of perspectives and opinions - regardless of the age, gender, race, religion, national origin, political persuasion, [income level] or sexual orientation of the individual; and
- an understanding that within-group differences dwarf in importance and significance any between-group differences found with respect to knowledge, skills, or values held.�

Thank you again for your openness in inviting our constructive input, Dr. Spitzer.

David L. Christopherson, PhD, CLU
G.R. Herberger Distinguished Professor of Business - 2002
President's Club Colleague