The Changing Roles of Academic Administrative Assistants

Observing and trying to understand an evolving profession.

October 28, 2014

The role an academic administrative assistant is changing.  This work is morphing from a support role to a creative collaborative profession.  The title of “administrative” and “assistant” doubly fails to capture the work that these professionals do.  “Administrative” is too narrow a term for colleagues who daily juggle project management, resource planning, communications, scheduling, finances, and logistics.  “Assistant” is not well specified, as all of our work is collaborative.  We need to constantly be assisting each other if we are to be effective and productive.

Have you witnessed levels of autonomy and status evolve on your campus with the changing nature of the work of administrative assistants?  Are job classifications and titles keeping pace with the daily realities of the position?  Are there alternative ways to classify these roles beyond the traditional “support staff” model?  

Have you experienced (or witnessed) the growing demands on the administrative assistant role that I have observed?  

My colleagues in administrative assistant roles are amongst my most in-demand co-workers.  The pace of requests, tasks, and fire to put out, seems not only intense but increasing.  What makes the logistical, planning and communications work of an administrative assistant even more challenging is the frequent interruptions.  One of the roles that administrative assistants often play is a public one.  Their offices and desks are located in areas where people will walk up and ask questions.   They will often field the phone calls.  Given what we know about the challenges around multi-tasking it is a source of constant amazement to me that my administrative assistant colleagues can move through their to-do lists as they do.

Why has the pace and importance of the administrative assistant role grown faster and more prominent?

On the pace question, I would hypothesize that the demands of the position have increased as the Web and e-mail have ramped up density and throughput of all of our communications. Administrative assistants are often on the front-lines of connecting people.  They help schedule events and programming.   They mediate and align the demands of the people they work with on campus with those outside the campus gates.   More collaborative work requires more people figuring out how that collaboration can occur.   Everyone on campus is struggling to gain greater levels of productivity and efficiency, as demands continuously outstrip available people and resources.  

Why has the work of administrative assistants grown more prominent?  I have seen a general flattening out of administrative hierarchies.  Middle management jobs are being re-organized to push authority to the edges.   There is a pressing need to have everyone on campus engaged in tasks that benefit the core mission of teaching and research.   Routine jobs are moving to software, and work that does not constitute core competencies is being sourced.  Very few jobs now have defined roadmaps and procedures.  Everyone needs to collaborate, learn constantly, and adapt to changing needs and circumstances.  In this sort of environment an administrative assistant is critical to the running of daily operations, and to the development of new projects.  They bring skills, networks, and experience to the table that is critical to the success of everyone's work.   

If you are an administrative assistant, how would you describe how your job is changing?  What are your biggest challenges and joys in your role?

If you work with administrative assistants, how do you see and explain the changes in this role?

What do you think will be the future of the academic administrative assistant?


Back to Top