Integrating Millennials Into Higher Ed Administration

As people in leadership positions start to leave higher education, it will be increasingly important to ensure that the best and brightest of the younger generations stick around, argues James Wicks.

July 19, 2017
 
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For the last 15 years, researchers have been trying to understand millennials -- people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s -- and their potential impacts on higher education institutions. Yet despite the wealth of accumulated knowledge, colleges still seem to have problems integrating younger people into the culture of higher education administration.

For millennials, educational institutions are considered among the least innovative and satisfying places to work, according to an article by Dian Schaffhauser in The Journal: Transforming Education Through Technology. That is particularly alarming for institutions of higher learning since, as boomer-generation administrators start to retire, upper administration and leadership turnover is predicted to hit record numbers. The U.S. Department of Education also projects enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions will increase 14 percent from 2013 to 2024, suggesting not only a high replacement demand from a millennial work force but also a need for their increased participation. In other words, as people in leadership positions start to leave higher education, it will be increasingly important to take measures to ensure that the best and brightest of Generation Y stick around.

Unfortunately, that is anything but guaranteed. In a survey of 600 millennials, as many as 61 percent complained of a lack of pathways to productive outcomes from innovative ideas. Schaffhauser’s article also noted that higher education has fairly low appeal among millennial workers due to perceived inflexible and outdated administrative practices regarding collaboration, brainstorming and incorporating innovative ideas into institutional policy. Moreover, millennials address those perceived deficiencies in ways that run counter to those from their nonmillennial colleagues and superiors. They can be brash, and they tend to ignore long-established institutional hierarchies when they make their opinions known -- such as voicing policy and procedural concerns when their boss’s boss is present. That can create feelings of disrespect among nonmillennial administrators and ultimately cause rifts.

Millennials also have distinct views about institutional hierarchy and politics. They value communication and collaboration, as well as individual empowerment. Likewise, they communicate in real time -- they text, tweet and make use of budding communication platforms more than any other generation -- and value continuing conversations over sporadic email streams and sparse evaluations.

Millennials also want to contribute meaningfully to their institutions, and so they try to interject themselves into important conversations with anyone who will engage. Unfortunately, that can look like entitlement and even hubris in institutions like colleges and universities that value strong hierarchies and seniority.

In addition, balance and overall well-being are important to millennial workers. That includes physical, mental and emotional well-being, as well as balance between work and personal life, as Micah Solomon wrote in Forbes. For them, innovation is not limited to the practices and procedures that lead to the achievement of specific goals but also extends to factors that influence employee morale -- including schedules, project loads and day-to-day operations.

Finally, millennials are idealistic. They work to develop their strengths as professionals and to contribute to the overall purpose of an institution. Where nonmillennials may have been more concerned about compensation, millennials are more concerned about institutional mission, vision and culture. This means that, to them, more is at stake when an institution is not maximizing its effectiveness in its efforts to reach its goals. That is not to say that nonmillennials are not concerned with institutional purpose and vision; rather, it just says that millennials have made this their No. 1 priority, despite institutional politics, and in ways that nonmillennials traditionally have not.

Overcoming Barriers

Fortunately, established upper-level administrators can use a number of strategies to address the aforementioned barriers and challenges. First, they can communicate their feelings about institutional practices and clarify why things are done a certain way. Millennials want coaches and mentors, not bosses, as Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, has written. They want to feel like they are involved in a dialogue with someone who is invested in their professional growth. Millennials also want to know that their superiors value their input and that it’s OK to ask questions about institutional procedures.

Second, understand that, to millennials, the job is life. Not only should they be integrated into office culture, but they should be given some stake in it as well. They should be encouraged as agents of change and not treated just as grunt workers fulfilling daily tasks. Likewise, they should be encouraged to critically examine how their office functions in ways that enhance its ability to achieve goals and contribute to an overall institutional vision. This kind of encouragement can foster such employees’ ties with the institution -- ties that are deeply meaningful and can balance the more mundane but necessary daily tasks.

Most important, do not tell millennials, “We can’t do that.” They come from a world where change is inevitable, if not highly encouraged. Just within higher education, millennials have seen changes that only a decade or two ago would have been perceived as ludicrous and near impossible: the positive impact of online resources on student access; software applications facilitating the collection and use of institutional data on unprecedented levels; the conducting of communications using mass student relations management strategies. Even more low-tech innovations -- block plans and flexible academic calendars -- are now significantly impacting higher education institutions.

In fact, innovation and change should be seen as the norm. Not only do millennials realize this, but they understand that the tools to make it happen are well within reach. (Go to any higher education administration conference and see the number of vendors introducing new platforms for every possible issue, spanning from mass course registration to forms processing.) That is why they become cynical when new ideas are dismissed outright. However, millennials aren’t stupid. They know about budget constraints and institutional priorities. All they ask is that their ideas be given a fair and sincere hearing.

To be clear, cultural integration for millennial workers is not a one-way street. Millennials can do a lot themselves to help with their integration. First, they can understand that many people have previously occupied the space into which they are stepping and that even outdated practices were successful at one point. Second, they can practice the kind of empathy that they are asking of their nonmillennial superiors. Change is difficult -- especially for institutions of higher learning -- and buy-in from experienced administrators is better earned with an understanding of where they have been as opposed to just a vision of where millennials want to go.

Ultimately, all of higher education will soon face the problem of record turnover and increased enrollment. We need to be able to count on millennials to fill the leadership gaps, but we cannot take their long-term participation for granted. If we want the best and brightest, we must be better facilitators of their integration into our campus’s administrative cultures.

Bio

James Wicks is a doctoral student of higher education and the associate director of recruitment and school relations at Texas A&M International University.

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