Why Words Matter: Labels, Semantics, and Higher Education Leadership

If the past two decades as a world language and cross-cultural educator have taught me one thing, it is that words matter. Any labels we attach to things, actions, and people have the potential to elevate them to tremendous heights or reduce them to insignificance. Words can elicit a range of emotions and memories or contain obvious or veiled judgments that can make us desire, condemn, and question the value of the object of discussion.

As Yehuda Berg wrote in a 2010 op-ed in the Huffington Post, “Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.” And author Patrick Rothfuss wrote in The Name of the Wind: “Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”

Not only do I concur wholeheartedly with these statements, but I would also add that they encapsulate many of the problems and opportunities leaders face in 21st-century Western postsecondary education.

Before I dissect these issues further, let me briefly address how the historical context of words matters to their power to express, interrogate, or reinforce deeply-seated assumptions and world views. For instance, “teacher” was once a term that elicited respect and reverence, not just in non-Anglo-European contexts. Now, unfortunately, it is often used derogatorily about those who could not find a better-paying (white-collar) job than do the dirty work of educating spoiled, unwilling, and unruly children. All too conveniently, they also serve are scapegoats for most shortcomings of modern society.

The same can be said for “secretary.” In the middle of the 20th century, it denoted (almost exclusively) middle-class women who ran the administrative core of corporations large and small. Yet, there was arguably some dignity in that label – not just a function, but also a purpose. The semantics of this term have long since changed, especially now in a world of #MeToo, political correctness, and gender-critical or feminist readings. Yet, to my dismay, I still find it used when referring to administrative staff across our colleges and universities, irrespective of the fact that today’s connotation is that of a lowly and often poorly-educated paper pusher. As recently as last year, I overheard a faculty member refer to one of my colleagues, a departmental administrator, as “my secretary” – a sentiment I could not help but correct on the spot.

As a 2017 article pointed out, it is often and ironically those in academia who have built their scholarly career on fighting for social justice, equity, and equality who perpetuate a virtual caste system built on class differences manifest in a person’s attainment of a terminal degree, faculty status, and tenure, all of which determine whether and to what degree this individual is worthy of our respect.

I would argue that our primary social interaction in the academic workplace is dominated by labels which, in turn, define strict boundaries of responsibilities, duties, expertise, and value to the organization. Granted, many of us are quite content living with and within these boundaries because they make our professional lives more predictable and because they create a feeling of certainty and permanence in an increasingly uncertain and impermanent world. They also help us understand our own value relative to others and explain inequities in pay and status – for better or worse.

But as helpful as labels may be, they are also dangerous. The above examples demonstrate how we often view and categorize the people with whom we ought to collaborate on providing our students with meaningful educational experiences, not by who they are as human beings but by their function within our organizations: administrative assistant, professor, part-time instructor, dean, center director, advisor, etc. Consequently, we may wonder, for instance, why an administrative assistant would or should do anything – or want to do anything else, for that matter – than what behooves their title: assist others in administrative matters. Similarly, lecturers or – gasp! – adjunct instructors (despite many of them holding PhDs) cannot possibly be capable of making meaningful contributions to academic discourse because … well, they are not tenured or even on the tenure track and don’t have dozens of peer-reviewed articles and manuscripts to their name. Or so some believe.

Ironically, most members of an institution’s middle and upper leadership continue to emerge from a highly competitive and hierarchical professoriate. It is, therefore, no wonder that many in those positions may discard the very notion that adjunct faculty or, most saliently, non-academic staff can make any significant contribution to their college’s or university’s success.

Sadly enough, we often expect nothing less and – far more importantly – nothing more of those working around us than their titles lead us to assume. And nowhere, I would argue, is this more predominant than at two levels of relationship within our institutions: horizontally between faculty and staff; and vertically between those in formal leadership positions in the administration and those on the departmental front lines.

In short,

As long as we focus on labels, we face a major obstacle to building meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships between both administrative and teaching staff, and among faculty at various levels of the academic hierarchy.

This academic caste system is now so deeply embedded in our post-secondary institutions that it not only perpetuates inequities and obstructs the advancement of talented lower-level staff and faculty but also stifles initiative and innovation from which the entire campus community, especially our students, could benefit. Many professional staff members will sooner or later wonder why they should go the extra mile to help, advise, and mentor our learners when such activities will do nothing to enhance their standing within the organization or lead to better pay.

Such sentiments certainly present considerable challenges to formal and informal leaders in our colleges and universities. Ever the optimist, I see an opportunity, however. It may be a silly idea and perhaps barely worth the effort, but I cannot stop wondering what would happen if faculty and staff across all levels of our institutions dropped labels whenever practical and appropriate and referred to our administrative assistants, administrators, lecturers, or professors simply as colleagues.

Suggesting a more ubiquitous use of this word may seem like a trite, shallow, all-too-PC, and perhaps even woke attempt to make others (and ourselves) feel warm and fuzzy. I certainly admit that there is some truth to that. I believe firmly, though, that if we consistently refer to others as colleagues – especially those we would traditionally consider below or even “beneath” us – we will over time begin to view them, and ourselves, in more egalitarian terms and recognize the value all of us bring to our organizations.

Herein lies both a great challenge and opportunity for leaders. Because labels condense the purpose and value of those working in departments, centers, and administrative offices to rank and title, they also control our expectations, affect how we interact, and shape our organizational sense-making. However, we all have the power to choose our words more deliberately and wisely. Language is a fluid, adaptable, and marvelous tool for forging a social identity. I argue that we in academia ought to be capable of modifying and using our language accordingly to the benefit of everyone around us.

While leaders can certainly support a more egalitarian use of language, all of us, faculty and staff alike, can take the initiative to choose to think of others as colleagues and work toward a common goal. And even if those individuals pursue ends predominantly for personal advancement while maintaining the idea that we work for (and not with) them, I hope and expect that modeling how we think of and refer to each other will ultimately and positively affect the way they interact with others. And perhaps this strategy will help those traditionally thought of as sitting at the bottom of the organizational totem pole to find greater meaning in their work, as well.

This article was originally published on November 19, 2019, on LinkedIn.com, and may have been updated since its original publication.