They work in every college house, installing and fixing equipment, troubleshooting over 3,000 student help requests a year and assisting house staff. They are responsible for overseeing the close to 120 student Information Technology Advisors in total across Penn’s 12 college houses.
And, say multiple members of Penn’s nine-person Office of College House Computing (CHC), they are members of an office divided against itself, rotting with continual staff turnover, a hostile work environment and widespread resentment toward the Penn administrators charged with managing them.
In interviews with four former CHC employees and two student ITAs — most of whom asked for their real name not to be used out of fear of retaliation from their bosses — the picture of a small office on the precipice of boiling over comes into focus.
The tension inside the office finally exploded on April 10 when Lewis, a 15-year veteran of the office, sent a scathing email to Vice Provost for Education Beth Winkelstein, who oversees college house staff. (Lewis let The Daily Pennsylvanian use identifying details to corroborate his story with other sources, but asked to be referred to by a pseudonym so an online search of his name would not connect him to a story about workplace turmoil.)
“You may not be aware, but I am the fourth person that has left the department of College House Computing this academic year,” he wrote in an email acquired by The Daily Pennsylvanian. “I feel this would be a red flag in other departments, but seemingly it feels no one is giving great attention to this matter. The morale is low and the leadership here is only what I can describe as toxic.”
Four employees did leave CHC within one year, which combined with three additional staffers who left in 2012, resulted in seven members of the nine-person department quitting within four years.
The email went on to describe widespread resentment toward the management style of Executive Director of College Houses & Academic Services (CHAS) Martin Redman and Director of IT Services Marilyn Spicer, whom Lewis said has been the subject of at least six employee complaints to Human Resources without any resolution. (Two other former staffers in addition to Lewis confirmed to the DP that they cited Spicer as reasons for leaving CHC in exit interviews with HR. The other three employees Lewis cited either could not be reached or declined to comment.)
Of Redman, who oversees all offices connected to college houses, Lewis wrote to Winkelstein, “He is abrasive, condesending [sic] and outright rude to most of the people he interacts with in CHAS. He, for a lack of a better term, is a workplace bully.”
Lewis said Winkelstein never replied to his email.
Spicer deferred comment to a statement released by Leo Charney, executive director of external affairs and communication in the Provost’s Office, which read in part, “HR cannot legally speak about specific cases and specific details.”
Redman addressed the employee concerns in an hour-long interview with the DP, where he initially shrugged off Lewis’ claim that he was a “workplace bully.”
“Sure, if that’s somebody’s opinion, I’m not going to say no,” he said. “I would generally say that’s not who I am and it depends upon the circumstance.”
Workplace frustration should not be surprising in a small, close-knit department where the tenure of some staffers exceeds that of their bosses and where Lewis himself said he was recently being passed over for a promotion months before quitting.
“Turnover is a natural part of the workplace. It is our understanding that each of the departing employees took an opportunity to grow in their careers,” said Vice President of Human Resources Jack Heuer in a statement sent to the DP. “We support this kind of professional development and career growth.”
But those seven departures, which occurred in three spurts from 2012 to 2016, were due mostly to frustration toward Spicer and Redman, former employees said.
Under their leadership, staffers interviewed said, Redman and Spicer were unwilling to compensate staffers for assuming the workload of their departed colleagues, unable to even respond to questions or emails and quick to condescend or humiliate longtime employees.
War of words over pay
When a colleague in charge of IT support on the west side of campus and a lead specialist quit CHC on Oct. 30, Lewis’ job became unbearable, he said. Already responsible for the east side of campus, which included all Quad houses, as well as Hill, Stouffer and Kings Court English, he now was additionally tasked with responding to student tech problems and managing ITAs in every college house and had to assume the responsibilities of the lead specialist, who was formerly his supervisor.
Because CHC is already broken up into smaller, informal divisions, Lewis said he was essentially doing the work of two other people with minimal to no help from his other colleagues in the department. Other workers within the office were tasked with running the college house websites and handling equipment and other devices, like the projection rooms in the rooftop lounge of each high-rise building.
“No one should be expected to manage that many computer labs,” said a student ITA who reported to Lewis and was familiar with his workload. “It’s not a one-person job.”
From Oct. 30, 2015 until Feb. 29, 2016 Lewis finished over 72 percent of all 133 “orders,” or routine maintenance requests, issued to CHC staff, according to work documents acquired by the DP. Lewis and one other employee finished over 95 percent of the requests between just the two of them in that time, effectively taking on work that had once been shared among Lewis and two other staffers.
In the beginning of February, Lewis asked Spicer and Redman to receive an “acting rate,” or extra compensation for assuming the workplace duties of his co-workers who left. According to the Penn HR website, “Acting Rates may be awarded to a staff member who has temporarily assumed major responsibility for, and performance of, a vacant position in a pay grade that is higher than that of his/her current position. Such assumed responsibility is usually in addition to his/her primary job responsibilities.”
Given that the lead specialist who quit had a higher salary than Lewis and supervised him, he assumed he would qualify for the policy.
Redman said he would speak to HR about whether Lewis qualified and, after being prodded for a progress update on a request Lewis issued on Feb. 1, responded in nine days later, “You will not get an answer for some time. I need to work on several things with others before I can respond.”
Redman continued, “Since two of our staff left on or about Nov 1 and you asked this question only on February 1 and today is February 10, I do not have the same sense of urgency that you do. I have other things to get accomplished that existed prior to your request.”
The request was eventually denied, Lewis said in an account independently verified by two of his former colleagues.
When asked about the shift in workload after Oct. 30, Redman said Lewis had been assisted by other employees in covering for his former colleagues. And other large-scale plans, which would have otherwise occupied Lewis’ time — such as a plan to introduce a computer loan system — were delayed.
As for the work order statistics that showed Lewis completing over 70 percent of student tech requests for the whole department, Redman joked, “Well, he wasn’t doing 100 percent, was he?” before explaining his comment.
“It may show that 70 percent of the work went through a particular plumber, just because that was the plumber that was assigned to it but that doesn’t mean [the] person necessarily had to physically do anything,” Redman said. “A huge amount of that work is being completed by the ITAs, who also fill out timesheets.”
Lewis admitted ITAs do complete the bulk of work in the department, but said they only bring work orders to professional staffers if senior ITAs and ITA managers both are unable to finish the case themselves.
Regardless of the amount of extra work he may have been given, Lewis would not have qualified for an acting rate because he was doing the work of his technical supervisor, the lead specialist.
According to the Penn HR website, extra pay is generally given for work performed “outside the scope of the staff member’s job classification” and “typically is not given for the staff member’s supervisor.”
Or, as Redman put it, “I can’t give an acting pay rate for a supervisor if you’re supervising yourself.”
A culture of distrust and fear
“You’re walking on eggshells and the eggshells are covered in lava,” said Lewis when asked to describe the workplace culture during his final few months at CHC.
Spicer would react tempestuously to even the slightest perceived error, employees said, and was nearly impossible to reach by email, even when they concerned timely personnel issues.
In one instance, an email Lewis sent on March 1 to Spicer asking about equipment improperly removed from his cubicle was not returned until April 10.
“It was a hostile workplace,” said Thomas, another former CHC employee who asked not to be identified using his real name.
The chain of command between CHAS administrators, professional staff and student ITAs contributed to workplace discord. The professional staffers were treated like children, employees said.
“They weren’t respected,” said the ITA, who has witnessed Spicer interact with professional staffers during a training session. “During training and stuff it was constant nagging. It was like [she was] talking to students.”
Susan Curran, the director of Human Resources, Provost Centers, responded to the description of staff turnover with a statement that read in part:
“Turnover is a normal part of any workplace and staff may leave for a variety of reasons, including other opportunities here on campus and opportunities in another industry or another part of the country.” After listing the different centers available to take workplace concerns, including the Office of the Ombudsman and Office of Affirmative Action, she added, “Any specifics regarding individuals, including any performance management, are confidential and are not shared.”
Lewis, who now works outside of academia, said the experience working for both managers was demoralizing and emotionally draining.
“You don’t want to stay in a place where you feel like you’re being shit on every day,” he said. “I made it my mission to get out of there. I did not waste time.”
Lewis said the enjoyment of overseeing student ITAs and a congenial relationship with his professional colleagues kept him in the job for so long, despite the tense atmosphere with management.
“I loved working with students. I would have still done that job. I loved being in their lives and working with them. It was just heartbreaking. It still is,” he said.
Coming forward to speak to the DP, he said, was a difficult decision because he did not wish to embarrass the new CHC workers who have since replaced his departed colleagues. And while he hopes his story will inspire some evolution in how management deals with professional staffers, he remains pessimistic.
“They’re not going to change,” he said. “And if you fight this battle, you’re the one that’s going to lose.”
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