'Brave New Work' and the Crisis of Higher Ed Careers

How are you feeling about your job?

June 5, 2019

Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization? by Aaron Dignan

Published in February of 2019.

Brave New Work starts with the observation that two out of three people feel disengaged from their jobs.  The book seeks to answer the question of why work has become so miserable for so many people.

The problem, according to Dignan, is that employers persist in designing work around an outmoded model of industrial production. Workers are treated as parts of a machine that must be managed, controlled, supervised, and maximized.  The result is alienation, burnout, turnover, and mental absenteeism.

The theme of Brave New Work is that organizations have the power to reinvent the relationship between employer and employee.  Dignan profiles a range of companies that have rewired the employment culture to prioritize autonomy, trust, flexibility, and independence.  These “self-managed” organizations are “people-positive” and “complexity-conscious,” the two traits that Dignan believes are foundational mindsets for ensuring an engaged workforce.

While reading Brave New Work, I kept thinking about how a student of work might evaluate the world of higher ed employment.

Are the levels of employee disengagement at colleges and universities commensurate with the broader world of work?

Are faculty and staff as disengaged from their jobs as the average corporate, nonprofit, or government worker?

My initial response would be to answer “no.”  We higher ed people love our jobs.  Right?  We must, as how else can you explain the trade-offs and sacrifices necessary for a higher ed career.

Can we say, however, that those of us who work in higher education are better off than other workers?

In Brave New Work, Dignan makes a series of recommendations for how organizations can improve employee engagement and productivity.  He recommends that decision-making authority be pushed to the edges.  He thinks that organizations should be more transparent in their operations and decision making.

Employees, according to Dignan, should be trusted to manage their time and to make decisions without levels of approval and sign-off.

These all seem like sensible recommendations.  But how much do they apply to a higher education system where only a shrinking proportion of the workforce has any measure of job security, autonomy, and adequate compensation.

Today’s system of higher education resembles a pyramid, with a large base of adjuncts and contingent faculty supporting an ever smaller number of tenure track / tenured faculty.

University staff - who make up the majority of university employees - are treated as an inferior caste.  Staff remain outside of institutional governance processes and are not eligible for the job protections that come with tenure.

Everyone working for colleges and universities faces a sort of permanent scarcity.  A structural lack of resources brought on by diminishing public support, demographic headwinds, and costs that are rising faster than revenues.

As the core economic model of tuition funding combined with outside (public) support has eroded, colleges and universities have responded by cutting costs.  Demands of the 24/7/365 university have risen, while headcounts have decreased.  The result is that there are not enough faculty and staff available on our campuses to meet the demands of the work.

Despite all these problems, it is also true that almost everyone who works in higher education believes that the work is deeply important.  Higher education is our most important engine of opportunity creation.  In educating our students and creating new knowledge, colleges and universities are organizations committed to improving lives and communities.

The mission and promise of higher education seem to transcend the structural challenges of building a career in higher education.

Smart, ambitious, talented, and hardworking people continue to fight to overcome the barriers of building economically viable careers in higher education for the chance to teach and create knowledge.

How much do we know about what higher education employment looks like from the perspective of employees?

Are the same forces that are driving employee disengagement in sectors outside of higher education impacting the work experience for those of us working at colleges and universities?

Books like Brave New Work - books not about higher ed - can be useful in catalyzing discussions about the present and future of higher ed employment.

What are the factors that support or inhibit your engagement in your higher ed work?

What are the changes that you would like to see at your college or university that would make you feel engaged, empowered, and energized?

What books about work have you read that have helped you think about the world of higher ed employment?

What are you reading?


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