The final installment of this series is the most difficult for me to write. This may be due to the fact that, without a certain amount of administration creep, I would not have a job. It was only in the late 1990s that higher education institutions began creating positions like webmaster — my employment is entirely a product of the willingness to add a non-academic FTE to the payroll.
I came from 18 years in the private sector, and was not familiar with higher ed and the faculty/administration cultural divide. It took me a few years to understand the dynamic between the two forces that drive the engine of higher education, frequently grinding gears along the way. My employment takes budget money that could be used to fund a faculty position, plain and simple.
Do I feel guilty? I used to feel angry, then I felt guilty, but I’ve come around to feeling a heightened sense of responsibility to earn the right to work in higher education alongside people who made many more sacrifices than I to get a terminal degree and land a tenure-track position. In support of all those non-hired PhDs who wait for positions to open up, my husband among them, it is incumbent upon me to reflect on the ways administrative staffing costs have been choking the academic mission. I offer the following observations:
- Stagnant Hiring Standards: Being a citizen these days requires that you are conversant with technology. I don’t mean Microsoft Office (which you’ll see in every job description). I mean the now ubiquitous technologies of a connected society: If the person at that interview doesn’t at least understand blogging, social media, mobile computing, and the difference between a web application vs. a desktop application, they have no business in higher education today. When we re-hire vacant administrative support positions with a skillset that was created in the 1990s, we are not solving business issues for today. This will all but ensure that a new position will open up down the road to address those gaps. It’s the “We need a department webmaster/data guru/social media expert!” mentality. Creep, creep, creep…
- Faculty/Staff Tensions: Can we talk? Staff need to get over the big chip on our shoulders that grows from the realization that we are essentially the stagehands and will never be the lead roles in this industry. Faculty need to get over their egos and treat staff, no matter how low down the administrative food chain, like colleagues. This is not just for collegiality’s sake. It addresses the inefficiencies, duplication of effort, and communication breakdowns endemic to higher education. If you don’t know the staff like people, you will have no idea how to meet your teaching needs with the staff that are there. There are frequently people in ill-defined positions that have enormous abilities the institution does not tap. Have lunch with each other, say hi, facebook each other, get to know each other. You may not need that additional department admin afterall if you know the skills already at hand.
- FTE Budgeting Models: When academic or administrative departments have an FTE for administrative support, they will hoard it like no one’s business. That’s okay, and understandable, but there is then no conversation about how to share the skillsets among the various disciplines when the focus is on “our department administrative assistant.” Another model of shared staffing needs to be considered that guarantees each department is covered, but that folks can feel empowered to lend a hand to another department (horrors!) if they are particularly skillful in one area that another department needs. This also fosters a sense of cooperation and sharing among the staff as an organic result of shared work, not some ham-handed “we’re all in this together” company picnic where you wind up sitting with your department anyway. Will some folks be taken advantage of? Potentially, but if items 1 and 2 above are kept to, there should be a richer pool of talent, and we should have a cooperative enough atmosphere where we can talk it out and plan together.
- The False Efficiency Model: Technology does not make you more efficient. It does allow you to do more things, and creates a hunger to do even more things. Ah, the human mind. So all you VPs out there: Stop acquiring large technologies thinking it will save you money (MOOC-mania!). Start using technologies because they get you where you want to go.
- It’s Hard Work: I’ve heard, and shared, grumbling throughout the years about workload. Face it: We are in a time where there are fewer resources to get higher education done. As a member of the administration in a strained industry, I have to have the stomach for hard work. If you are looking to punch in, do a job, and get benefits, look somewhere else because higher education simply cannot support that kind of waiting-for-retirement model any longer. It needs people who like to work hard for the greater good.
Anecdotally, I can tell you that my own native curiosity about people, the audacity to sit at a faculty table in the cafeteria, to listen to what faculty and students do, has been of enormous benefit to me. But I know that others have better boundaries than I, or maybe greater fears of crossing that Rubicon. The culture of the institution needs to drive a sense of collegiality and shared purpose through shared work — not occasional “events” designed to throw a bone to the administrative staff with a paucity of faculty present. I think meaningful day-to-day connection works wonders for a sense of purpose in ways that a 5-year plaque or a free lunch never could.
Through shared dialogue and collaborative work, I no longer feel that resentment. The process of opening up the door to the academic side of the house has led me to ideas I simply would not have had if I had stayed in my office writing beautiful code and going to web developer conferences. Indeed, this blog was born on my realization that higher education needs to celebrate itself publicly in a world that has grown hostile to it. For my part, the open celebration of academics on the public web is possible ONLY with such administrative/faculty collaboration and understanding, and it’s becoming more important than ever. I am naive enough to believe that this type of “un-marketing” can better help to redefine public perception of higher education than any expensive branding campaign. Then again, I’ve been around higher education long enough to now believe in the unbelievable