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Focus groups give SU staff a voice in
Focus groups give SU staff a voice inFebruary 24, 2005Matthew R. Snydermrsnyder@syr.edu
On the morning of Nov. 5, 2004, the Syracuse University campus lay under skies that were dark, threatening and swirling with graupel, a stinging mixture of sleet and hail. Yet more than 4,500 people-including hundreds of staff-braved the elements for the inauguration of Chancellor Nancy Cantor and the launch of her yearlong conversation, “University as Public Good: Exploring the Soul of Syracuse.” Their contribution did not go unnoticed; that same month an open letter to the campus from the inaugural organizers thanked the SU community, especially “the hundreds who participated, as part of their duties and as volunteers, [who] were critical to the success of the inauguration.”
Now, SU staff members have another chance to engage with inaugural themes in the form of “Soul of Syracuse” focus groups, sponsored by the Office of Human Resources. The hour and a half long free-form discussions, which began in January, are open to all staff; they will take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through March. Cantor plans to use feedback from the sessions as she prepares to address the campus and community in the spring. A full schedule, signups and more information are available by clicking on the “Soul of Syracuse Focus Groups” link at http://humanresources.syr.edu/.
“What do we mean by ‘Educating for the 21st Century’? What are the critical issues that really matter? How can we make a difference in the world? What is critical in this region?” Cantor invites feedback based on these questions in her video introduction to the focus groups; it is played at the beginning of each 90-minute session. She adds, “These focus groups are a very vital part of getting yet more input into what it means to ‘explore the soul of Syracuse.'”
Even from the first meeting, which was attended by more than 20 staff members, discussion has been lively. “I believe the ‘soul’ is a multilayered concept,” says Nicole M. Zervas, coordinator of academic services for the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP). Zervas was at the opening session and says that she appreciates the chance to share her take on the meaning of the inaugural year. “The idea of having focus groups to hear voices-all the voices-in the SU community allows us to think deeply and reflectively on what the ‘Soul of Syracuse’ means to us.”
Mark Coldren, director of organizational development and training and lead organizer of the groups, says that Zervas’ positive experience is a common one, and that more and more staff are becoming aware of the groups by e-mail messages, mailings and other means-especially word of mouth.
“I was leaving feeling energized,” says Eileen Fahey, office coordinator for undergraduate studies, of a recent focus group meeting. “[The focus groups are] a great opportunity to come together with other SU community members to discuss issues and vision.”
According to Neil B. Strodel, associate vice president and chief human resources officer, that awareness is important because the groups provide an important opportunity for staff to make their voices heard. “We have asked supervisors to be flexible, to encourage staff to take part in this important conversation, so that we can involve the broadest possible cross-section of staff. Staff all across the University played a huge role in the success of the inaugural day, and this is their chance to make the inaugural year just as successful.”
Organizers are recording the ideas that come out of each session, and will summarize their observations and present them to the inaugural year’s Gained Knowledge committee in advance of Cantor’s spring speech. “Chancellor Cantor has asked for this feedback from the staff, and we see this kind of face-to-face interaction as the best way to provide that. It is very much in keeping with the community-building emphasis of her inaugural year,” says Coldren. “The groups have been great-people from all across campus speaking frankly, building on each others’ ideas, really getting into the spirit of the conversation.”
Sessions continue through February and March, giving staff members ample opportunity to participate. The meetings are offered at different times of day-morning, midday and afternoon-and in multiple locations on North and South Campus. Refreshments are provided, and HR has asked supervisors to be flexible and encouraging to facilitate participation. For more information, staff should visit http://humanresources.syr.edu or contact their supervisors.