Saturday, June 15, 2024

Ousted MSU Safe Place director alleges traumatic work environment

June 9, 2024
A Michigan State University sign on Beal Street on Aug. 23, 2019.
A Michigan State University sign on Beal Street on Aug. 23, 2019.

After nearly 30 years as director of Michigan State University Safe Place, Holly Rosen no longer felt safe at work.

Tasked with leading a nationally respected relationship violence shelter and support program on campus, Rosen said she endured months of manipulative, confusing and even traumatizing leadership under a new supervisor. 

After being presented with “fabricated and exaggerated disciplinary concerns” that resulted in a five day suspension and a warning that termination could follow, Rosen, who helped start the program in 1994 and was once named an "inspirational woman of the year" by the university, said she had to leave.

rosen

“I felt I had to retire to avoid future fabrications that could result in my being fired, even though I believe I had done nothing to warrant disciplinary action,” Rosen wrote in a statement to The State News.

Her former supervisors insist their leadership and decisions — which Rosen decried as at times “harmful” to Safe Place staff and clients — had survivors' best interests in mind.

Employment records instead claim Rosen “placed the University and Safe Place at risk” by mishandling a workplace “incident” and by telling her staff about an internal discussion that was supposed to be kept confidential.

Rosen was suspended for five days without pay in February 2024. Days later, she resigned.

The university is currently hiring for two full-time positions to fill her former role.

A new supervisor

Safe Place merged with Center for Survivors in June 2023, a department that offers supportive measures and resources to survivors of sexual assault and interpersonal violence.

Combining the programs “reduced barriers to accessing services for survivors of relationship violence and sexual misconduct and increased coordination and collaboration between service providers,” said University Health and Wellbeing Executive Director Alexis Travis. 

“Now, regardless of the type of abuse a survivor has experienced, they can contact (Center for Survivors) and find the support they need,” Travis told The State News.

The move meant Rosen would have a new direct supervisor, Center for Survivors Director Tana Fedewa, whose decisions would override her own.

Rosen said she was at first excited to “collaborate and share ideas” with her new boss. But Fedewa’s leadership style made that impossible, Rosen said.

“There were inconsistent, not always honest, unclear, and one-way communications from Ms. Fedewa that were upsetting, confusing, traumatizing, and resulted in my staff and I feeling silenced, unsettled, fearful, and that our professional experiences and expertise were disregarded,” she wrote.

Rosen said her staff were not encouraged to share concerns with Fedewa and University Health and Wellbeing leadership during the transition.

Division leadership held weekly meetings during the transition “to pulse check how employees were feeling and address any concerns,” according to Travis. But Rosen said Fedewa was “too busy” to meet with her even monthly about her concerns.

Fedewa and Travis, in statements to The State News, insisted that there were ample opportunities for open communication during the transition.

After Safe Place merged with Center for Survivors, Rosen was “immediately” invited to the department’s leadership meetings, Fedewa said.

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“All of the leaders are invited to share feedback, ideas and participate in discussions during the leadership meetings as well as in 1:1 supervision meetings,” Fedewa wrote.

Travis defended Fedewa’s leadership, saying she “exemplifies compassion, expertise, and strong leadership qualities.” 

“I have complete confidence in her ability to lead and make sound decisions that benefit not only survivors, but also her team,” Travis told The State News.

Disagreement over who Safe Place serves

Under Rosen’s leadership, Safe Place had been holding empty shelter units for MSU-affiliated survivors, sometimes turning away survivors from Ingham County who needed emergency shelter, Fedewa said.

But grant contracts with local agencies require Safe Place to fully serve the wider community, Fedewa said. 

After reviewing the contracts and talking with funders, Fedewa told Rosen she was considering officially mandating that Safe Place house survivors from across Ingham County, without any preference for MSU survivors.

“There is a national shortage of housing for survivors of interpersonal violence,” Fedewa told The State News. “When local shelters are at capacity it is common practice to support the survivor seeking shelter by contacting other shelters to inquire about space availability.”

Rosen disagreed with Fedewa’s decision, saying it could potentially harm survivors from MSU.

Expanding the scope of Safe Place would attract more outside clients, which risked burning out staff and straining MSU resources, she said. Rosen feared the shelter would have to start turning away MSU clients, or forcing individuals to share shelter space.

Fedewa told The State News that while the shelter saw more clients in the past year, the increase did not have an effect on its services or staff. The shelter was able to fully serve all clients that requested services. Safe Place staff “have room on their caseloads and have been able to accommodate the needs of both residential and non-residential clients," she said.

But to Rosen, MSU Safe Place has always been a “MSU program, that serves non-MSU affiliated survivors when shelter space, and staffing levels, allow for it.” 

Distraught by the prospect of losing the shelter's MSU focus, Rosen informed Safe Place staff of the proposed change. She later relayed her staff’s concerns to department leadership.

Fedewa was upset that she shared details of the potential change with her staff, despite never telling Rosen the decision was meant to be kept confidential, Rosen said.

"'We don't do that until a decision has been made,'" Rosen said she was told.

It was one of Fedewa's many inconsistent communications, Rosen said. And it was one that came back to bite Rosen.

Incidents

In her three decades at MSU, Rosen never faced any sort of disciplinary action, according to her personnel file.

“I have had 30 years of nothing but excellent MSU evaluations stating that I either met or exceeded expectations,” Rosen said.

Then, in February 2024, she was suspended for five days without pay for “poor work performance.”

Rosen said the issues that led to her suspension were exaggerated, taken out of context and contained falsehoods. She faults the “poor and inconsistent communications” of her former supervisors for her perceived missteps.

Two incidents were cited as the reason for Rosen’s suspension. 

The first was Rosen’s announcement to Safe Place staff that her supervisor intended to change the shelter’s scope of services. She was reprimanded for not consulting Fedewa beforehand, according to her personnel file.

“...this issue should have been brought to me for discussion and consultation before communicating a decision with staff,” Fedewa emailed Rosen, according to the records.

Not long after, an “incident involving Safe Place” occurred, details of which were also redacted in the records.

Rosen said the incident involved “conduct initiated by one of my staff.” She had decided not to discipline a staff member for their actions, Rosen said.

“I did not feel that disciplining the staff that I supervise was warranted since I had discussions with that employee, and I brought one of the concerns related to this incident to the full Safe Place staff, to remind them of our policies and to learn from past mistakes,” Rosen said.

Rosen and Fedewa declined to provide more information on what the staff member did, citing client confidentiality.

The State News attempted to appeal the redactions, but the university’s Freedom of Information Act Office upheld them, arguing that the redacted information could identify Safe Place clients.

Rosen’s handling of the incident “placed the University and Safe Place at risk,” according to the personnel records.

It was also “not the first (redacted) situation wherein Holly lacked the leadership skills and judgement required to make informed decisions,” according to records.

Fedewa said the incident didn’t have a lasting impact on Safe Place.

Suspension and resignation

An investigatory meeting was held on Feb. 2 to discuss the incidents. Fedewa and Travis also consulted MSU’s Office of General Counsel, according to the records.

She was served notice of her suspension six days later, for “neglect of duty and/or lack of due care or diligence in the performance of duties,” and “unsatisfactory work performance or failure to maintain reasonable standards of performance, production, or professionalism.”

The five day suspension was originally unpaid, until Rosen’s Administrative Professional Supervisors Association union representative got MSU to reimburse her.

Rosen said she was “ambushed with threats of termination and unpaid suspension” instead of being given the chance to address her former supervisors’ concerns.

“A discussion about my supervisor's concerns, opinions and clarification of expectations could have resulted in changes in Safe Place policy or practices, without the need for disciplinary action of this nature,” she wrote.

On Feb. 17, Rosen signed her resignation agreement, effective Feb. 24.

In her first few months of retirement, Rosen says she’s continued serving as an expert witness for domestic violence and sexual assault cases. She’s also been traveling more, reading, watching movies and going on walks.

“I really am enjoying it, but it's still very traumatic when I think of how it happened,” Rosen said.

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