The Complicated Lives of Our Colleagues

Kids and parents, to start with.

March 16, 2017

A university is its people.  

Yes, there is history and a brand and buildings, and some other things. But it it the people who are connected with the university that make the place what it is.  

Without the students and the professors and the staff coming together to do something together there would be no there there. When it comes to higher ed, people are everything.

That is why we should all be aware of just how complicated the lives are of the people who make up the university. None of us who work at a university works alone. We are dependent on our colleagues in almost everything that we do.  

As we work with our colleagues, we should be aware that we likely don’t know about everything going on in our colleagues non-work lives. There is a good chance that the people that we work with are juggling demands and stressors in their personal lives. At a time when the line between work and home is blurry, owing to the fact that we are always connected to work with our laptops and our phones, the complications of of home are bound to bleed into the tasks at work.

We can predict with good confidence that the already complicated lives of our higher ed workforce will become more complex in the future. Two of the largest factors that will drive the complexity of our lives are our kids, and our parents.


Not everyone that we work with has kids. But we all work with people who have kids. And combining work and kids can be hard.  

Let’s start with the biggest challenge. Child care. It is amazing to me that higher ed leaders have not put the availability of high quality and affordable child care at the top of their agenda. Each time that I attend a professional educational technology meeting, particularly one about leadership, I find myself wishing that there were fewer sessions on optimizing for the cloud - and more sessions on optimizing child care. The lack of reliable, affordable, and robust child care makes the work/life balance unnecessarily difficult for the higher ed parents of young children. 

Not that things get that much easier once the kids are school age. Aligning work and school calendars can be a challenges. Kids get sick. There are teacher in-service days. Snow days. Long spans of summer with little in the way of camp options. 

The good news is that the growth of health life expectancy means that grandparents are more likely to be living, and possibly around to help. The bad news is that increased mobility means that there is a good chance that the grandparents don’t live anywhere near enough to help out.  

The kids of higher ed people will eventually want to go to college themselves. If you haven’t heard, college has gotten somewhat expensive in recent years.  

If you have colleagues with college-age children, don’t be surprised if those colleagues are a little bit stressed out. The days when the kids of university employees got a great deal on tuition (at the school the parent worked or a comparable school) are rapidly disappearing. Besides, those benefits are not available to large proportions of university employees, if they are available at all. 

Higher ed parents are single parents and dual working parents. We have partners who work, and partners who stay at home. We are diverse in our composition, but united in our struggle to balance it all. 


While not all of us have kids, most of us have parents (or other close relatives). Those parents are aging. 

Combing higher ed work with parenting may be a challenge, but at least there are (usually) resources to help us out. Child care centers exist. Kids may get sick, but usually they get better and can head back to school. 

Our parents, on the other hand, are going to be a challenge. They will live longer than any generation, but when they get sick they are likely to get very sick. Demographers call this the compression of morbidity - which basically means that illnesses are intense and often associated with multiple things going wrong at once. 

Very few of us live in the same towns as our aging parents, and even fewer of us in the same household.  As our folks age and need more help, we will need to travel to them.  As they get sick, we will need to be with them. Every colleague that I have with older parents has a story to tell about spending time in doctors offices and hospitals.  With home health aids and caregivers. 

There is precious little societal support or resources for caring for aging family members. The further away our elderly parents are geographically, the harder the challenge becomes. We have fewer siblings than previous generations to share the responsibilities of being there for our aging parents. Many of us will will torn between obligations to our work, our own kids, and our folks. 

Kids and parents. I’ve only named two of the reasons why our higher ed colleagues are leading complicated lives. There are many many others. 

All of us bring all of our lives to work - to campus. The extent to which we are effective, productive, and creative in our higher ed jobs will depend on the degree in which our whole person is recognized and supported.  

Higher ed leaders must be interested in more than just what happens to their people when they are at work. 

All of us should remember to keep in mind that the colleague that we are working with may be dealing with some challenging issue in their personal lives. 

We should remember that our higher ed co-workers have complicated lives, and we should approach our work with our colleagues with compassion and empathy.



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