“Treat Them Well…” – And Why Higher Education Often Fails to Do So

I was recently reminded of a famous quote by Sir Richard Branson:

Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.

Sir Richard Branson

I have since thought a lot about this statement and how it applies to higher education. Much to my chagrin, I find that, more often than not, our institutions of higher learning fail to live up to Branson’s maxim. But why is that? What are some of the reasons that lead to often significant turnover and widespread unhappiness in an arguably people-centered field that is perfectly positioned to take care of its employees?

Before I continue, I need to qualify that the kind of “people” I am focusing on here are front-line professional administrative staff, although most of the reasons I outline in this piece apply directly to our teaching and research faculty, as well.

The reason why I have such a soft spot in my heart for departmental staff – other than the fact that I have spent a good part of my life being one of them – is that they are likely among the least-appreciated and least-researched, yet interminably crucial members of our campus communities. Lack of appreciation has become painfully obvious through personal observation and a myriad of conversations with colleagues and higher education administrators and leaders.

As most leaders and mid- and upper-level administrators with whom I have spoken acknowledge, departmental staff are generally taken for granted, and few see much reason to invest considerable thought or resources into them. Exacerbating such deficit or non-perceptions, a lack of relevant research on the activities and engagement of departmental staff and their effect on organizational outcomes is apparent by the gaping hole in the literature and a virtual absence of studies focused on staff-centered leadership and management – save a few notable examples by (mostly South African and Australian) scholars like Nicole Barkhuizen and her colleagues.

However, there is no doubt in my mind that it is these front-line administrators who are often the most visible and outward-facing university employees and the first points of contact for students and visitors to our campuses. I would also argue that in times of rampant educational neoliberalism and unfettered pursuit of prestige, image, and rankings, administrative staff members are becoming even more important as primary contacts and support mechanisms for our students.

After all, when more and more institutions try to attract or retain top research faculty by reducing or all but eliminating teaching duties, who else can students turn to for advisement and – if they are lucky – mentoring other than the professional staff in our departments and advisement centers?

When we fail to take care of these employees, when they leave for better opportunities on other campuses or outside of higher education, and when they stop caring beyond fulfilling the basic duties of their jobs, it is not the students who get the short end of the stick? Leaders should understand that when this happens, an entire institution’s success, image, and status are at risk.

So what are the obstacles in our postsecondary institutions to “train people well enough so they can leave,” but “treat them well enough so they don’t want to?”

Quantity over quality

The pervasive and seemingly insurmountable impact of neoliberalism in higher education now compels virtually all colleges and universities to be profitable, increase their revenue, and reconsider any investment in academic services, programs, and curricula that may not yield immediate benefits in financial returns or reputation. As a result, the free market dictates what programs are seen as ‘valuable’ based on the promise of high salaries, impressive titles, and rapid promotion for students after graduation. 

I don’t believe it is too far-fetched to take this line of thought further and propose that the value of an employee is manifest in one simple quantitative metric: salary. The fact that some staff employees with similar responsibilities earn at times vastly different wages depending on which unit employs them should serve as support of this argument. Of course, this is a vicious circle since employees to whom leaders attribute low value are likely not high on the priority list for pay raises or professional advancement opportunities.

My point is that if what ultimately counts are numbers and figures, if (as the saying goes) what can’t be counted doesn’t count, and if what doesn’t generate short-term profit is eliminated or disregarded, people’s needs will always come second. Unfortunately, neither most meaningful educational outcomes nor the lived experiences of employees can be logically quantified. Consequently, they are frequently discounted, which results in people perhaps trained “well enough” but eager to leave and take with them their expertise and institutional knowledge.

Organizational systems

A second reason why many of our institutions of higher learning fail to retain talented non-academic staff through strategic talent development and opportunities for professional advancement is that many colleges and universities adhere to grossly outdated organizational systems that are not set up to provide the necessary career pathways for those employees. In addition, people management is mostly relegated to human resources departments which are frequently more concerned with avoiding lawsuits rather than advancing its non-academic employees.

This observation may come as little surprise given our litigious society. However, a wave of college and university mergers that continue to give birth to ever larger campuses where resources and departments are consolidated and where the number of both staff and faculty grows to make it virtually impossible even for well-meaning HR units and their leadership to direct their focus on engaging staff.

Consequently, the onus of addressing the needs of lower-level administrators has moved to departments already strapped for resources, both in terms of finances and capacity. And even if a department chair or center/lab director identifies a promising staff member with the aspiration to move into more a prominent leadership position, they often run into a lack of mechanisms to support and mentor these employees individually. This organizational blind spot is further evident in the fact that few colleges have the equivalent of assistant or associate deans whose primary charge is staff relations and advancement.

In the end, what is missing are pathways and opportunities for non-academic staff to work their way ‘up’ through the ranks to attain formal mid- or even upper-level leadership roles (that exceed mere support functions) such as, for instance, assistant or associate deans or provosts of administrative services and staff relations. In essence, we need more professional staff leaders who are given a voice and hold positions of campus-wide influence.

Leadership priorities

Such structural inabilities to mentor and advance staff are often exacerbated by the fact that higher education management and leadership are practically decades behind the times. Many of our postsecondary institutions pride themselves on running like for-profit businesses and emulating a corporate mindset. Ironically, however, they often fail to embrace modern business and leadership models and instead espouse management styles reminiscent of Western corporations of the 1970s and ’80s with top-down and quantitative data-driven decision-making and little or no input from those in the lower strata of the organization. At the same time, they may foreground charismatic leaders driven by the desire to grow their reputation and ego and the exploitation of resources – be they material or human – to the benefit of growth and status attainment. 

I challenge my readers not to recognize their or a known postsecondary institution in the above description.

Ironically, much of the organizational leadership literature has moved far beyond such simplistic instrumental and transactional management paradigms. To provide only one (yet compelling) example, a recent report by the consulting firm Accenture stresses the need for 21st-century leaders to embrace holistic contemporary and much more nuanced, as well as people-centered, leadership approaches than those currently in place at most organizations, especially in the educational field. Given that emulating business models is so in vogue in today’s higher education, I wonder why our institutions don’t embrace current management leadership strategies, as well.

The answer to this puzzling question may well lie in the all-too-human biases of higher education leaders and mid-level to upper administrators who are ultimately the product of their own professional experiences – which, as I have found, are often at odds with those of front-line staff. The problem seems to be that the vast majority of our formal leaders emerge from the professoriate and hold faculty positions in addition to their administrative titles. Given a regrettable disconnect, lack of mutual appreciation, and at times outright resentment between university faculty and staff (see, for instance, here or here), many institutions may ultimately be limited in their ability to capitalize on the experience and expertise of professional administrators who are likely to have a better understanding of administrative processes and front-office realities.

As long as most formal leaders can only draw on their experiences as research-faculty-gone-administrators, they are wont to exclude lower-level staff members from vital decision-making. As a result, our colleges and universities are likely to continue catering solely to a university’s first and second mission (teaching and research) and the people directly associated with these institutional priorities. And front-line staff will continue to be viewed as serving the sole purpose of keeping the proverbial trains running on time and handling everyday tedious low-level bureaucratic tasks.

Hierarchies and lack of a Culture of Care

The organizational and leadership systems across our postsecondary institutions as I described them above have, over many years, resulted in a pervasive lack of a culture of care, especially for many professional staff members. Granted, the same could be said for faculty, many of whom suffer from burnout due to excessive workloads, unrelenting pressures to publish, petrified hierarchies, and professional interactions marred by hyper-critical and dismissive attitudes toward each other’s work. And the latter – as I mentioned previously – often also directly affects the way professional staff are seen and treated in our institutions.

The unfortunate effect of all this is that most members up and down our hallowed halls are no longer willing or able to make personal sacrifices for the good of the organization and educational community, which includes sharing resources such as knowledge, expertise, and time.

This invariably brings me back to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s recent book, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Although her compelling arguments in favor of greater generosity in dealing with, supporting, and sharing with our peers, colleagues, and communities center primarily on academic faculty, the fundamental idea that abandoning a purely competitive what’s-in-it-for-me mindset to the benefit of relationships and collaboration could not be more applicable to the realm of professional staff. To quote the author: “As long as faculty success is organized around individual competition – as long as universities’ incentives and reward structures are largely focused on valorizing individual labor toward competitive ends – community-oriented activities will fall to those of lower status, and will perpetuate that hierarchy” (p. 210). And “those of lower status” are, unfortunately, too often employees working 9 to 5 in the front offices of our departments, centers, and institutes.

Besides the effects of hierarchical and punitive quasi-corporate institutional cultures, I believe that a pervasive lack of shared experiences not only between faculty members and administrative staff but also between middle and upper-level administrators and front-line employees is largely to blame for institutional cultures that fail to care for many of their most valuable human ‘assets’ (to borrow a neoliberal term). Consequently, professional and academic staff alike often suffer from a stifling inability to articulate – let alone embrace – shared values that guide our daily practice as members of the larger educational community. (And, as a result of this fragmentation, we are frequently unable to respond concisely, coherently, and collectively when asked why higher education still matters. But this is a topic for another time.)

A Call for Diverse and Multi-dimensional Leadership

Given the tremendous complexity of this issue and the myriad reasons why we often fail to take care of our own, one may wonder what can be done. There is, of course, no panacea. But just as students thrive when they feel like a part of a network of meaningful and beneficial relationships, constructing and maintaining systems of support, mentorship, and communities of practice for and by administrative staff members may well be a first step in the right direction.

Naturally, this requires leaders adept not only at navigating the politics and neoliberal pressures concerning the first, second, and perhaps third missions of higher education; it also calls for individuals in positions of power who can understand the needs and unique challenges faced by members of our college and university communities on the administrative front lines.

Once we establish teams of formal leaders from diverse (i.e., both academic and non-academic) backgrounds who represent, and can grasp, all facets of the human experience working in postsecondary institutions, we will be better positioned to treat our employees in ways that compel them to stick around. Such an approach includes creating a culture that transcends hierarchies and labels, allows all members of our educational communities to have shared experiences, and eventually see each other as human beings who pursue the same purpose and goal: educating young people for the betterment of society. 

This article was originally published on February 1, 2020, on LinkedIn.com, and may have been updated since its original publication.