Here’s the thing. In the eternal battle between university faculty and administration, both sides are too busy entrenching their positions and launching zingers at the enemy to pay any attention to the third player on the battlefield.
Yes, there are the byzantine ranks of the faculty, where a multitude of micro-status-markers sort disciplines, programs, and individuals into very real pigeonholes.
Of course there are the administrators, who sometimes pretend that they are running a business instead of an ~institute of higher education~. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
And then there’s the third team: the staff.
Neither administration nor faculty, we exist to make sure that things get done. Whether we’re department managers, grant coordinators, graduate program coordinators, fiscal specialists, executive assistants, or whatever, we tend to focus much less on the politics of university life and much more on getting things done. We are the anonymous people who do the work.
When someone decides to once again apply organizational theory to the university setting, they tend to focus solely on students, faculty, and administration (ie, senior and executive leadership). Maybe they’ll focus on adjunct and non-tenured faculty, if they’re really being generous.
But nobody ever talks about the fact that every person in a leadership position has an assistant, or that there are many isolated workers (because silos are a real thing) whose sole function is to make sure that decisions get made, budgets get (sort of) balanced, and the life of the university continues to function.
For every person out there making headlines, I can pretty much guarantee that there’s somebody behind-the-scenes making things happen.
I am one of those people. I want to know more about those people. I want to know why we are so conveniently overlooked, like pieces of furniture instead of active members of university culture and organization.
We are the ones who do the operational things that keep the university running, like pay the bills and keep up compliance regulations. Without us, university life would be a whole lot more painful for the faculty and administration.
Perhaps, then, we are the problem. We are the bubble that allow universities to continue to function, despite incompetent leadership who cannot keep sound finances or a viable vision for the future.
This is something that I would like to know more about. I seriously want to know how many decisions are made de facto by staff as they’re just trying to get the job done, when the boss is waffling. I want to know how influential, or not, staff are in the shaping of their units and departments. I want to know how much of a difference we really do make.
And this isn’t to stir up grievances. I don’t want to start throwing around the victim card. Most of us derive satisfaction from our work in other ways than recognition or money; we’re the ones who care about doing a good job. I don’t want this to sound like “Oh, poor academic staff who are never recognized or appreciated, boo hoo hoo.”
At the same time, though, any “study” of university culture without taking into account the staff is like studying the body without taking into account the lymphatic system.
Sure, it’s not sexy or particularly photogenic, but it plays a huge role in human wellness much like staff are the lifeblood of a university.
If we’re serious about wanting to solve the education crisis, academic staff can do a lot to correctly diagnose and suggest solutions to fix problems. We have a very frank and up-close look with the issues that plague higher ed, and most of us are happy to talk about them.
Just no one thinks to ask.