Students Affairs may look like a revolving door in terms of personnel, which has raised concerns among current and former employees, but the Vice President of Student Affairs believes the changes are for the students.
In the past year, 13 staff members of the Division of Student Affairs have left, retired or have had their contract terminated. Some of these dismissals have come as a surprise to students who worked with the administrators closely.
Vice President for Student Affairs Esther Peralez has made changes — not just in personnel but in practice — based upon “involvement theory,” which she says will help retention and graduation rates by involving and including students in as many activities as possible.
“There were some issues when I came in,” Peralez said. “There was a limited view point of the role of Student Affairs when I got here. They thought they had a Student Affairs unit, and they had the components of it, but there wasn’t really an understanding of student affairs or why we really do need a Student Affairs.”
Peralez’s goal has been to teach the staff members of Student Affairs professional competencies and involvement theory. Several of her theories focus on developing students as individuals outside the classroom.
Creating a climate that is welcoming to many students from different backgrounds is important to Peralez.
“It’s very critical,” she said, “because, at this point students are making an initial commitment to whether they want to come to our school or not, and if you have a bad taste in your mouth, you’re going to walk.”
One of the first departures was former Non-Traditional Student Services Director Ellen Kisker, who retired in the fall of 2010. The reorganization of Student Affairs would have placed Kisker as Student Life Director.
At the time of her departure, Kisker felt the position would take too much time away from non-trad students.
“I was told that the non-trad students could take care of themselves and be interdependent,” Kisker said. “I didn’t agree with that philosophy.”
When Kisker retired, non-trads planned a protest to show their support for Kisker before the September Board of Governor’s meeting. The protest was called off in lieu of a meeting with Board Chair Kylee Strough, President Robert Vartabedian and leaders of the Non-Traditional Student Association.
“She was a pivotal resource,” non-trad Stacey Hersh said. “You knew that going to her you weren’t going to get the run around of ‘go here, go there.’”
Since Kisker left, the Missouri Western chapter of Omicron Psi, a national honor society that recognizes non-trads, hasn’t taken in any new members. According to Hersh, Kisker wasn’t the adviser, but played an instrumental role in planning the ceremonies and luncheons for Omicron Psi.
Non-trad Kimberly Wright was supposed to be inducted, but never got the opportunity.
“It was something that every year I watched friends do the ceremony,” Wright said. “It was something that excited me. I really worked hard to have my turn. Then it was gone.”
“I don’t expect any special treatment because I’m a non-trad,” Wright said. “I’m just a student like everybody else, but I want to be recognized too, just like an athlete would.”
Peralez said that there are plans to revive Omicron Psi, but that she wants non-trads to still include themselves with traditional students and their activities.
“It was so hard to convince them that I wanted them as role models, that they shouldn’t separate themselves from the traditional students,” Peralez said.
The Non-Traditional Student Lounge has been officially renamed The Non-Traditional Help/Resource Center. The couch that was donated to the room has been removed, and anyone wanting to use the center must sign a special agreement and turn over their student ID while in the room.
One of the policies for the room-use agreement form is that students must use appropriate language and behavior.
“A lot of students would complain,” Peralez said. “There was swearing and talk of sexual overtones and things like, and actually they were disrupting some of the other departments. We said, ‘you’ve got to be more academic.’”
The agreement also states that the computers in the center are for academic use only and that students should access personal Facebook and email accounts on their personal computers.
When Peralez worked at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., she said that nearly 80 percent of the student body was non-traditional students.
“They were kind of like the role models, and they brought in the traditional students,” Peralez said.
Another goal of Peralez’s reorganization was to eliminate individual sections of Student Affairs that didn’t communicate and coordinate with other sections. She also said that she wants divisions of Student Affairs to realize that they aren’t here just for themselves.
“I had all of these departments, different departments that everybody was in,” Peralez said. “I had a director of non-trads, a director of this and a director of that. So everybody stayed in their silos.”
Peralez wanted to eliminate these silos so each division of Student Affairs could focus on an overarching goal and communicate about that goal—student involvement.
“It’s a concept of, if we’re talking to each other then we can help each other,” she said.
Since the reorganization, students have seen the surprising departures of several personnel.
Don Willis, former assistant dean of student services, left the university over the summer. Willis worked closely with several student organizations, including Western Activities Council.
Lauren Dillon, vice chair for WAC, said that Willis’ departure was unexpected.
“I don’t think he gave us much notice, but I don’t think the university gave him much notice either,” Dillon said.
Dillon said that Willis did a lot of work behind the scenes as far as assisting WAC in the booking of events and even helping set up the spring concert. Dillon also said that the work now can be overwhelming.
“It’s difficult,” she said, “but we’re managing.”
Along with Willis, Huey Shi Chew, former international student services coordinator, is no longer employed by the university. In the last few years, Western has seen an increase in its international population at an average of 10 students per year.
Instead of an International Student Services Coordintor, Western has opened up a Global Engagement Director position, which will not just focus on international students but would also work with the campus as a whole to “internationalize” it.
According to Peralez, the director will also work with faculty to create curriculum and work with the existing study abroad program.
International student Toni Dance said that she found Chew’s departure sudden and unexpected.
“She basically helped me find a job on campus, and if I had any issues with my visa she’d help me with that,” Dance said.
“I wish she was still here,” Dance said.
Climate of fear
Former Testing and Assessment Coordinator Debra Webb was told on Sept. 7, her birthday, that her last day of employment would be Sept. 9.
Webb was offered the position below her, which was her secretary’s position.
“I was number 11, and it didn’t stop there,” Webb said. “Many people have either left, [Peralez will] make it look like by choice, but it wasn’t directly by choice, it was from things she was doing.”
Webb was told that her position was being eliminated due to budgetary reasons. As testing and assessment coordinator, Webb administered tests to Western students with disabilities and was responsible for national testing. Now, those duties are part of Western Institute.
“I’m a graduate of Missouri Western,” Webb said. “She has done nothing but given it a black mark as far as I’m concerned, and I can’t believe that the upper level is letting her get away with this.”
Webb said that once a month she attended a mandatory meeting that all staff under student services at the time had to attend. Webb said that this meeting interfered with giving tests to students.
“It took a big chunk out of the day,” Webb said. “I tried to explain this to my supervisor, and it didn’t matter.”
Kathy Kelly, administrative coordinator for the Student Government Association, said she has never felt like her job was in jeopardy. When Peralez first arrived, Kelly said she was frustrated.
“It took me to step back and say ‘it’s not her, it’s me,’” Kelly said. “Because she told me what her expectations were, and either I could quit my job or meet those expectations. I chose to meet those expectations because the person who wins in the student.”
She said she never felt like those expectations were too high and they made her job challenging. This year, Kelly played an instrumental role in organizing homecoming, something she said Dr. Peralez pushed her on.
“I’m glad she set them,” Kelly said. “I feel like we get stagnant in our jobs, and I worked and did my same job, same week, day in and day out and never went above and beyond that.”
A former employee of Western who worked in Student Affairs, but wishes to remain anonymous, said that she retired earlier and could have worked a couple of extra years.
“I think everybody was afraid they were going to lose their jobs,” she said. “You know, if she didn’t like you, like Huey Shi [Chew].”
Both sources recounted an incident where former International Student Services Coordinator Huey Shi Chew asked for time off to visit her mother, who was terminally ill in Malaysia. Chew wanted an extra week off after the fall 2010 Thanksgiving break.
“Well, Peralez will think about it and let her know” Webb said. “[Chew] kept telling her supervisor, which is Tay Triggs. Finally she told her that she was going to go talk to the President [Robert Vartabedian] if she didn’t make a decision. Miraculously, that afternoon, ‘Oh, you get to go.’”
Webb said that the next week, Chew was told by Triggs that Chew was going to be reviewed in January 2011 because she wasn’t working up to expectations.
“I’ve been a Gold Coat member for 25 or more years,” Webb said. “I will not buy Gold Coat tickets any more, I will not donate any money to the college anymore as long as that lady is still there. She has ruined too many lives.”
Peralez declined to comment on any personnel decisions. Willis and Chew declined to comment as well.