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Deconstructing "The Berkeley Way"
Workshop Examines Our Love-Hate Relationship with the Campus and its Culture

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
Posted February 16, 2000

It's invisible but omnipresent. Most know it exists but few can actually define it. Newcomers are perplexed by it. Confronting it head on can be dangerous.

The name of this nebulous creature? It's known on campus as "The Berkeley Way" -- an unwritten code of conduct that governs how people go about their business.

Ask any number of long-time employees to describe it, and you may hear such adjectives as bureaucratic, ineffcient, hierarchical and inequitable.

Though these remarks sound disparaging, many of these same people say they are proud to work here and laud the campus as creative, diverse and brimming with intelligent and talented people.

This love-hate relationship says a lot about the complex culture at Berkeley. The values that make working here a rewarding experience are often the same ones that lead to frustration.

While most muddle through this dichotomy to get their work done, few understand why the phenomena exists.

But comprehending this culture is crucial if the campus wants to successfully adapt to the rapid change taking place all around, says Ellie Schindelman, a senior employee development specialist with the Human Resources office.

"In order to adapt to changes at Berkeley, like BFS and other reorganizations, we need to recognize the characteristics of our culture and use that information to make change efforts successful," she said. "Their are also strengths in our culture, and we should use them to our advantage."

To shed light on Berkeley's organizational culture, Schindelman created a workshop to help employees better understand "The Berkeley Way" and provide tools to help effect change in their own work environments.

Through exercises, discussions and presentations by administrators and faculty, workshop participants gain valuable insights into Berkeley's culture, such as:

  • There are historical antecedents for the way things are at Berkeley, much of it stemming from our faculty's strong voice. The academic senate and shared-governance structure between faculty and administration is unique among universities in the country.

  • The core values for faculty -- academic freedom, debating issues and working independently -- helps make Berkeley one of the top research universities in the country.

  • But academic values differ from those that staff are expected to embrace -- like following directions without question, little or no input in decision-making and working in teams. These differences can result in culture clashes and incivility between faculty and staff.

  • Over the years, the academic model has influenced much of the campus's administrative processes. For example, input is encouraged by top-level shareholders when proposals are brought forth, but extended dialogue often slows implementation of much-needed improvements.

  • Faculty are recruited to supervise departments, but most are not trained in this area nor do they want to be. Hardworking staff are often promoted to supervisor positions as a reward, but lack the skills or training to manage people effectively.

  • Generally, we are a campus of speakers, not listeners, whose love of debate thwarts attempts to celebrate and collaborate. We take ourselves too seriously, to the point where even an office picnic can become controversial.

While these systems are deeply embedded in Berkeley's culture, change is possible, Schindelman said.

"It's easy to say we don't like something about where we work and feel like we can't do anything about it," said Schindelman. "But everyone can get involved in trying to influence culture, even if only in small ways."

Planning celebrations and other community-building events; increasing communication through newsletters, e-mail forums and meetings; clarifying the mission of your department and encouraging employee training and development are some ways to impact office culture.

Schindelman's workshop is one of several cultural-change efforts currently under way on campus.

The chancellor has implemented the Center for Organizational Effectiveness, or COrE, to help departments streamline decision making and reduce bureaucracy.

Sandra Haire, assistant vice chancellor for human resources, is taking a close look at her operations to find ways to improve customer service, expand communication and streamline the applicant process. Other units, such as Undergraduate Affairs and the Library, are also in the process of examining their culture and leading change efforts.

Christina Maslach, incoming chairwoman of the academic senate, said faculty-staff relationships will be one of the top issues during her tenure. This commitment dovetails with a recently-released systemwide report on fostering positive faculty-staff partnerships.

While Schindelman is encouraged by these developments, she cautions that culture change is a slow process and takes a long-term effort.

"We need to celebrate the changes we make along the way," she said, "and encourage ourselves to keep up the good work."

The next workshop series on organizational culture, sponsored by the Employee Development and Training office, will be offered in fall 2000. Additional resources can be found at (


February 16 - 22, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 22)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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