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People walk through a large, dark room toward an exit door, carrying boxes and various bags, indicating that they are relocating or have been laid off.

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The academic year has barely begun and already a number of urgent issues are clamoring for a college president’s attention. Challenges to DEI programs, increases in cyberattacks, volatility in ranking methodologies and the implications of AI are but a few examples. In the midst of it all, it would be easy to put on the back burner an additional pressing topic: employee engagement.

But it would also be unwise. Following a summer of high-profile labor actions across many employment sectors, as well as continued tensions around hybrid work and the ongoing wave of retirements across higher education, the stakes have rarely been higher to get the employer-employee relationship right.

While most coverage of campus labor actions has focused on academic staffers like adjunct instructors and graduate teaching assistants, there is ample evidence of staff unrest beyond those serving directly in the classroom. Take, for example, the most recent employment survey from CUPA, higher education’s human resources association. Researchers found that, while job turnover is high across the higher ed landscape, it is especially acute in admissions, where the average employee tenure is three years or less.

Combine a high-churn staffing landscape with one of the tightest labor markets in recent memory and you have a recipe for volatility in a sector trying hard for post-pandemic stability. With prospective students and families persistently skeptical about college cost relative to value, retaining staff members across all sectors of an institution is more crucial than ever.

This point is made powerfully, if indirectly, in Connections Are Everything: A College Student’s Guide to Relationship-Rich Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023), a student-facing guide to getting the most out of the college experience. Elon University teaching and learning expert Peter Felten and colleagues devote an entire chapter to the powerful role of staff in student success: “At many institutions, for every one professor there are two individuals who work in a non-teaching role—from librarians, technology experts, student life professionals, plumbers, and landscapers, to physical and mental health care professionals, tutors, and office assistants.” Students the authors interviewed “shared stories of relationships with academic advisers, dining hall workers, student life professionals, athletics staff, and more.”

Especially in the context of a residential campus, taking staff for granted risks squandering the shared ethos of commitment that makes a community function. Presidents who value staff members and their contributions to institutional mission approach staff relations intentionally and proactively, recognizing that the development and retention of high-performing employees is a vital institutional asset. Hollins University president Mary Dana Hinton, for example, creates intentional opportunities for staff and faculty members to learn in greater detail about where the university stands and what’s on the horizon. Topics of group sessions include fundraising and endowment, budgeting and finances, admissions and the shifting challenges of demographics and socioeconomics, campus planning, and branding and marketing.

Campus leaders who value staff take four key steps. They:

  • Support without pandering. Too often, reports of diminished staff morale are met with remedies unmatched to the gravity of the situation or misaligned with employees’ actual needs and preferences. Sure, subsidized yoga classes, free food and social activities can be nice. But they can miss the mark and appear mollifying and distracting if what a staff member would truly value is professional development opportunities or flexibility to meet work-life demands. St. Lawrence University president Kathryn Morris’s investments in staff well-being model ways to build programming that is responsive to staff needs rather than bestowed from the top down.
  • Respond promptly to emerging concerns. When organizational culture experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management set out to identify the hallmarks of toxic workplaces, disrespect—described as “lack of consideration, courtesy and dignity for others”—topped the list. In a context where some employees carry the protections of tenure while others do not, administrators must stay vigilant to complaints that might start as low-level frictions but escalate into patterns of toxicity. Many colleges and universities have recognized the importance of an ombudsperson to help individual employees work through problems; ideally, that individual is also empowered to regularly inform leadership of patterns of problematic incidents or endemic culture challenges.
  • Recognize that managing people is a skill. A hallmark of academic culture is regular rotation of faculty members into management roles, whether as department chairs, center directors, deans or program heads. Some are seasoned administrators; others are new to their role and receive little orientation to the people-focused dimensions of their new responsibilities, which include directing and evaluating staff. Ensuring that new managers obtain formal training in the people-focused aspects of their jobs is not only smart practice but a sign of respect to the staff they now manage, many of whom bring important accumulated experience and institutional knowledge to the table.
  • Take campus climate issues seriously. Despite the premium that higher education places on evidence and data, administrators have often diagnosed issues around campus climate, particularly the climate for staff, via broad assumptions or anecdotes. By contrast, higher education leaders who value staff members and the employee experience survey their employees regularly, investing in validated survey instruments customized to their campus. Most important, they take the process seriously, communicate results openly and commit publicly to making progress toward needed change. Texas Christian University, for example, worked with Rankin Climate to assess how members of their medical school community experienced the institution’s social and academic climate and used that knowledge to develop, shift and further support programs and policies that increase inclusivity.

Valuing staff is respectful, kind and the right thing to do. It is also smart business and a distinct source of competitive advantage. Employee satisfaction is a deposit in the bank of goodwill, a hedge for the inevitable moments when the campus will be challenged. Engaged employees are an institution’s first and best brand ambassadors, the human exemplars of its values. If staff members don’t feel the respect an institution promises, it shows.

As founder and principal of L. Fenlason Consulting and senior counselor at RW Jones Agency, Laurie Fenlason advises higher education boards, leaders and teams on strategy, visibility and high-stakes communications. She previously served as vice president for public affairs and strategic initiatives at Smith College and in news and public affairs roles at the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.

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