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The Casual Disparagement of Higher Ed Staff

Costs, not assets.

August 17, 2017
 
 

This was the first comment that was contributed to my post on 8/15 on Higher Ed Jobs and ‘The End of Loyalty’:

"In the corporate world, an employee must produce something of value. In a higher ed admin role, one produces a lot--mostly useless bureaucracy.”

This comment is only notable for how typical, familiar, and expected such sentiments are in polite conversation about higher education.

Higher ed staff are acceptable targets for derision and disdain.

Staff on our campuses are frequent cited as the reason behind the loss of faculty autonomy and status, as well as the adjunctification of the professoriate.  In the perceived zero-sum competition for scarce institutional dollars, staff positions are viewed as diminishing the resources available for faculty recruitment and compensation.  Staff headcount growth is frequently contrasted with the declines hiring for full-time and tenure track faculty, with the former being assigned culpability for the latter.

Might it be time for our community to reconsider our casual disparagement of higher ed staff?

Of course, I have a dog in this fight - as I occupy a staff role.  My transition from faculty to staff - as well as training as a sociologist - has caused me to be acutely aware of issues around campus roles and status.

What I see in my daily work is that higher ed staff come to work each day committed to do whatever it takes to advance the goals - and the financial resilience - of the institutions that we work.  Staff are true believers in the missions of our institutions, and of the promise of higher education as a creator of opportunity.  In working to serve our students and our faculty and our alumni and our prospective students, the values and the goals of staff should be aligned with professors, as well as with everyone else who cares about the future of higher education.

In a perfect world, one without competition and regulation and where students come to campus completely ready to succeed, than many staff positions would be unnecessary.  If we could roll back the clock to the pre-digital era, a time before the internet and every other technology beyond chalk boards, than many staff would be redundant.  If online learning was not a thing - and if every student could move to our campuses for however long it takes to receive their degrees - than staff would not be needed to work with faculty on developing distance learning programs.

In short, if I higher education was simple, unregulated, and non-competitive - than staff roles would be unnecessary.  In the world that we live in, higher education is complex, highly regulated, and fiercely competitive.

So why is it that staff are almost always viewed as costs, rather than assets?

How have we gotten ourselves to a situation where staff understand their role to champion the centrality, autonomy, security, and status of faculty - but seldom is the reverse true?  This is not true of all faculty - or all critics and observers of higher education.  There are many in and around higher education who are vocal in their support of the work of those amongst us who work at colleges and universities that are not faculty.

What is also true is that broad-stroke condemnations of higher ed staff seldom go challenged, and they are frequent enough to almost float by without even being noticed.

The higher ed staff that I know are fully committed to the success of the colleges and the universities in which they work.  Staff are passionate about supporting the well-being and productivity of the faculty in which they partner, and of the students (and their parents and the taxpayers) in which their schools ultimately serve.  Staff are believers in the educational and discovery missions of their institutions.

Casual claims that staff produce nothing of value are both painful, and I think ultimately unhelpful as we fight for the legitimacy of higher education in our increasingly stratified society.

Those of us working in higher ed are all in this together.

How we talk about one another matters.

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