College reviews escort policy while staff morale suffers, faces second discrimination lawsuit
CARRIAGE HOUSE, Division of Administration & Finance – After a rocky year for Hamilton College’s employee relations and morale, many issues remain for the school. Some members of Senior Staff say they're working to address the concerns, while those responsible for College employment policy did not respond to requests for comment.
Hamilton College hired an alum consultant earlier this semester to review its policy on escorting discharged employees, but has not shared who it is, the scope or timeline of the review, or whether it will lead to publicly shared findings.
Many College employees continue to have low morale, citing a work environment they say lacks transparent communication from institutional leadership on employment issues or assurances of job security in the wake of the Chaplaincy crisis.
Hamilton is facing its second discrimination lawsuit within a year, this time from a former Career Center employee who alleges she was fired for being pregnant back in 2021 because, with doctor support, she declined to get a Covid-19 vaccination until after giving birth.
At the contentious September 5th faculty meeting, President David Wippman announced, “I've been speaking to Senior Staff about our personnel policies and performance management process concerning how individuals are separated from the college. And we've invited an outside consultant to come and work with us. He's been to campus to meet with me, the Senior Staff, with COLT (the Compliance Oversight Leadership Team), with HR and with others.”
When July’s news that Rev. Jeff McArn had been fired without accusation of immoral behavior exploded across the Hamilton and Mohawk Valley communities, one part of the story drew significant ire: Campus Safety escorted him. Many said the move reflected disrespect toward McArn and his reputation, particularly given the College took 44 days after press inquiries to issue a statement affirming he was “a valued and respected member of our community” as some speculated without evidence that the termination’s cause and procedure was related to accusations of misconduct.
According to faculty’s meeting minutes, President David Wippman told concerned faculty that HR would normally “accompany” discharged employees, and the Director of Campus Safety was used instead under a belief that McArn “would feel more comfortable being accompanied by someone from his own division.” Faculty claimed Wippman said he realized now it was a bad idea, and that Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Life Chris Card had previously committed to working with them to change the policy.
Dean Card told the Monitor at the October 9th Student Government Alliance (SGA) meeting that “I think there's been ample acknowledgement that that might not have been the best thing,” referring to McArn’s escort. “What we engaged in is not far from, in fact [is] quite consistent with, the educational field,” but “I do think for a community like Hamilton that may have different expectations, it's worth an examination.”
He added that in cases where health and safety are not at risk, other options for separations are being examined, and that the consultant is an alum who is legal counsel and “has expertise in that space.”
“I think we'll see some changes. I think it may already have been changed a bit,” Card said.
Details on the policy and consultant review have been sparse since then. Vice President for Administration & Finance Karen Leach and her direct report Director of Human Resources Stephen Stemkoski, who oversee most of the College’s employment policy, did not respond to several inquiries by the Monitor.
“Nobody I know has heard anything about the policy review,” one long-time administrator told the Monitor on condition of anonymity. "Do we need that to change the escort policy? Can't we just decide we're not gonna do it? The issue is the transparency. Can’t you tell us who it is and what the process is?"
“The first I heard of the consultant was from the SGA minutes,” one department director said. "I appreciate the consultants, but when it comes to how the College approaches it, that means we will pay for the consultant, read the report, and do nothing.”
Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs Ngonidzashe (Ngoni) Munemo told the Monitor in a late September interview that, “There is a pre-existing level of distrust already that seems to make an announcement about substantive things fall on deaf ears, which otherwise you'd have thought, 'oh we're actually on the record stipulating that X is happening,' but it still is like 'mmm, we don't know about that.' So something else is going on here.”
While Hamilton officials have said accompanying discharged employees is a longstanding policy, the school has not provided a copy of it. The Employee Handbook makes no mention of the policy.
Addressing Low Staff Morale
“At least in my team, I feel very comfortable bringing concerns up,” LITS Digital Scholarship Librarian Dr. Sara Mohr told the Monitor. “It's more when it's quality of life things outside of the work itself that I feel a little more hesitant.”
“I know logically, for example, that it is illegal to prevent people from talking about their pay at work. But at the same time, seeing that people have been escorted off campus the same day that they were let go, no matter how many years they've been working here, it does make me think that could happen to me. And it doesn't feel great.”
Mohr’s feelings echo those of many other Hamilton staff, who were rattled by the handling of McArn’s termination and its aftermath. Most are not willing to put their names to those concerns out of fear of retaliation.
“We're just supporting each other amongst ourselves," the department director told the Monitor, adding the only communication from higher ups they’ve received was from their direct supervisor asking if they were OK.
Dean Munemo told the Monitor he had observed a sense of “unease” in employees over recent months. “The challenge we have is that there's some difficulty to address that head-on, as it invites conversations on the specifics of particulars,” he said, referencing the College’s required confidentiality on personnel matters.
“What I can do and say at this point is to acknowledge that I've heard it, and then in my own engagement and comportment with staff trying to be sensitive to that, to that worry and to that concern. There's structural things, process things that need to be looked at. But as it relates to how people feel, it seems to me that the request is for response at a similar register. So for those who have reached out to me, I've tried to be available.”
Munemo has been lauded by many faculty and staff for his role in McArn’s return to campus. McArn told the Spectator earlier this month he appreciated “Dean Munemo’s initiative to turn this support into an offer to return to campus, and the care he has taken to reach out to me during this bizarre chapter in my life.”
Dean Card said at the SGA meeting, in response to a question from the Monitor, that he’s promoting conversations about effective management and ways supervisors can have open conversations “with staff who feel either at risk or, in fact, are, at risk.” He continued, “I think our way that we conduct staff appraisals is a space that a lot of folks could benefit from training to really engage our colleagues on the staff about opportunities for improvement, or being able to talk directly about this.” Card noted the challenge of required confidentiality on personnel matters, affirmed his support for the policy, and said “if we were able to speak more about this last situation, I think, folks might have felt a little bit differently.”
“We've just conducted an employee satisfaction survey, so I'm sure there'll be certain reactions that come from that that will give us cause to find out where there may be opportunities for us to be better at whatever it is that we’re doing.” Card also discussed the difficult labor market as a reason to be even more intentional in these conversations.
Leach and Stemkoski sent out the annual employee Gallup survey earlier this semester. Last year, survey results showed Hamilton non-faculty employees’ engagement in the 55th percentile compared to other surveyed higher education institutions. 580 employees participated.
Some are critical, though, of the survey’s structure. One survey participant said, “They didn't ask, like, ‘did you have a good onboarding?' They don't ask, ‘do you feel you're compensated fairly?’ It's a matter of what they're not asking.”
The Monitor was unable to obtain this year’s questions, as employees it spoke with lost access after completing the survey, and Leach and Stemkoski did not respond to requests. Participants say they were similar to last year’s questions.
Samantha O’Neil, a former Discovery Team Coordinator for the Career Center, has sued Hamilton and many members of the Covid-19 Task Force over her firing in August 2021. Represented by Utica-based lawyer Zachary Oren, the federal suit in the Northern District of New York alleges that the Task Force denied O’Neil’s doctor-supported request for an exemption to the vaccine until giving birth, her expected due date being in September. Hamilton had required all employees, pending religious or medical exemptions, to be vaccinated entering the academic year.
Hamilton allegedly fired O’Neil in a “discriminatory discharge and illegal retaliation” as she continued to seek options for continued work until ready to be vaccinated, including working from home and regular testing. The suit says those requests for “reasonable accommodations” did not receive written responses from the College.
O’Neil requested the vaccine exemption due to “complications during her pregnancy” that could be “indicative of a child being still born or have Downs syndrome,” according to the suit. The suit claims O’Neil filed the exemption request with the support of her direct supervisor and doctor. The doctor’s note, Exhibit E, is sealed in the filing and cannot currently be viewed by the public.
Stephen Stemkoski notified O’Neil on August 13th, 2021 that “Hamilton's Vaccine Exemption Committee” denied the request. “As a result of this denial, you can choose to get vaccinated or work with Human Resources on various separation options,” Stemkoski wrote in an email included as evidence in the suit.
A “Vaccine Exemption Committee” is not named in Hamilton’s public Covid-19 communications from the time, and it is unclear who was on it or what its relationship to the Covid-19 Task Force was. Messages from the time told employees to direct exemption requests to HR.
Hamilton College declined to comment on the case, including to answer who had authority over exemption requests. O’Neil directed the Monitor to Oren, who did not return a request for comment. Hamilton is also battling a discrimination suit from a current professor.
Editor’s note: A member of Monitor’s editorial board was a member of the Covid-19 Task Force and is named in the lawsuit. They did not contribute to this article.