The workplace has been upended. The COVID-19 pandemic has called into question many assumptions regarding how and where we work and which elements of the workplace are necessary and effective and for whom. New consideration is being given to the lived experiences and the needs of Black people, of other racial and gender minorities, and of neurodivergent workers in a way that was rare just a short time ago. And workers themselves are making different choices about what constitutes acceptable pay and working conditions, and in so doing, they are shifting the long-standing worker/employer balance of power. The workplace is changing in positive and necessary ways, but it also feels in permanent flux.
This has an impact on us as educators; we are people who work, too. But it also affects our students, with implications for the years they will spend in the workforce after leaving our programs. Right now, too many higher education institutions do not reflect positive and proactive workplace cultures and values.
For example, shared governance structures are in too many cases poorly implemented or approached cynically. Long-standing hierarchies within institutions (faculty over staff, tenure track over nontenurable) privilege certain voices and, as a result, often silence members of minority groups. Faculty administrators lack preparation and competencies for management, in part because evaluations by the institution do not place value on these skills.
And while other sectors are certainly facing their own challenges these days, one can find within them books, articles and events focused on workplace culture and how to improve it. That kind of ongoing discussion seems to be largely absent within higher education, which desperately needs to evolve as a workplace, both for our own sake and for that of our students.
The tools that colleges and universities rely on to prepare students for careers are also insufficient to meet today’s needs. Networking and résumé development only go so far when we don’t know the employers of the future, nor how they will connect with prospective employees. Even experiential learning has limits when we can’t foresee fundamental components of how work will be experienced 30 years from now.
So, what do our students need to be prepared for their professional futures? Certainly, they need knowledge from their fields of study, good fundamental communication and computation skills, and, ideally, a strong grounding in the humanities and sciences. Just as important, however, are the attributes of flexibility and adaptability, curiosity, empathy, resilience, and proactive thinking—each of which is needed to grapple successfully with unpredictable future circumstances. Amid so much upheaval, workplace success now depends, in part, on an individual’s ability to manage uncertainty and navigate through ambiguity, adapt to new technologies, speak up and advocate constructively, and step outside their personal echo chambers to connect with those of differing perspectives and backgrounds.
As educators, we must determine how best to help students develop those attributes. Unfortunately, there aren’t many guideposts to help us do so; theoretical models to help educators reflect on the future of work and its implications for our own practice are scarce. Those that do exist are either vague and conceptual futuristic visions that fail to provide direction or, in attempting to be concrete and directive, become instead simplistic and reductive.
The vast majority of our students attend college largely (if not solely) to prepare themselves for jobs and careers, so we owe it to them to better support them in this preparation. What should that look like? And what does it mean for us to fully engage with this work at a time when so many of our own programs and institutions are at risk, and many of us are struggling personally?
In this environment, effective workforce preparation requires going beyond the limitations of the curriculum and even the extracurricular programs we offer into the realm of institutional performance. Individual attributes such as flexibility, empathy and resiliency directly translate into workplace values and culture. What does that mean specifically?
An educational institution that functions well in this time of massive transition and exhibits characteristics that will help students to navigate these transitions:
- Acts transparently in decision making, so that faculty and staff can make connections between their own work and organizational priorities, with choices and trade-offs openly acknowledged;
- Is clear about its goals, with a sense of shared mission and accountability and opportunities for individuals to help shape those goals;
- Demonstrates trust in faculty and staff members, with a presumption of good faith and commitment on the part of everyone involved in the educational enterprise;
- Acts to concretely and measurably improve equity, diversity and inclusion for all;
- Commits to continuous assessment and improvement and has a sense of urgency in making needed changes;
- Is willing to act outside organizational hierarchies;
- Supports informed risk taking and a demonstrating a willingness to make difficult decisions; and finally,
- Operates with humility, perspective and an awareness of both individual and organizational flaws and limitations.
The school I lead at Tulane University works hard to manifest these values; the resulting positive culture has led to a strong sense of mission and higher levels of engagement across our community. While we are by no means perfect, we do see some results from our efforts. It is apparent in the quality and relevance of our academic programs as acknowledged by peers and accreditors, positive student feedback, growing networks of engaged alumni, and the degree to which we are able to successfully address racial and other inequities that plague so many institutions of higher education. We still have a ways to go, but we are constantly working to improve how we operate.
Making our institutions into workplaces that model and reflect the characteristics that we want to develop in our students is a key component of preparing them for their own futures. When educators demonstrate that their own workplaces manifest these values and actions, students can tell.
Taking advantage of opportunities to teach and model behaviors improves students’ experiences and solidifies their connections with us. It also benefits our institutions by making us more effective educators and even, potentially, more committed to our work. With turmoil and upheaval becoming the norm in the workplace, doing this is also vital for educating the next generation of students to function optimally and productively and to fully participate in shaping their own workplaces.
Let’s take more responsibility for our own work cultures and values and in the process provide potentially career-transforming models and support for our students.