One of the first lessons I learned as a PhD student was to be nice to the department and graduate secretaries (we were still calling them that). Not just nice, but kind, gracious, and appreciative of all they did to make our lives, as graduate students, go as smoothly as possible. Positive graduate student experiences and completion rates rely on good faculty supervisors, but try to remember all the red tape the administrative assistants helped you cut through. All the affective labor they performed on your behalf. The ways in which they made the program and the institution function.
When I started as an adjunct, the first thing I did was make friends with the department’s administrative assistant. This university was a regional public comprehensive, designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Although the faculty was still largely white (at least at the time), when the students came into the department offices they more often than not saw faces that looked like theirs. With no office myself, I would often use the public computer in the main office to check my e-mail before class or finish a last-minute handout or in-class assignment outline. I would hear how some of the faculty members talked to the administrative assistant—disrespectfully, dismissively, and outright rudely. This same person greeted students warmly and welcomingly into the office, offering to help them when no faculty members were around or willing to assist with the administrative confusion that comes with being a first-generation college student.
My experience with colleagues isn’t unique. As the current MLA executive director, Paula Krebs, observed in 2003:
Colleges are set up . . . to encourage faculty members to think of ourselves as the center of the enterprise, the reason all of the others, including the students, are there. The result can be that we end up viewing other college employees the way upperclass Victorians thought of their servants. We ignore them when they are doing their jobs well. We talk in front of them as if they cannot hear us. We assume that they will work consistently to make our lives easier. And we are sure that they understand that the real point of the institution is what we do.
But taking administrative staff members for granted isn’t just bad manners, it’s a strategic failure—a lost opportunity to partner with our strongest allies.
What We Lose When We Ignore Staff
If the university is to be successful in its primary mission of educating students, we need staff. Universities have also decided that adjuncts are a more efficient way of providing the majority of said education to students. Thus, adjuncts and staff members have more in common with each other, and with our students, than we assume. Moving beyond the faculty (even adjunct faculty) and staff divide is essential to improving our working conditions, and thus the students’ learning conditions. Many staff members have stronger contracts than at-will adjuncts and can thus be important allies in speaking up and speaking out about labor conditions on campus.
There are many ways to define the kind of staff members I’m referring to, many of whom are now being placed under the alt-ac umbrella, as more and more PhDs are seeking full-time (and fulfilling!) work off the tenure track as staff. Matt Reed puts it thus:
Professional staff can be characterized as people with graduate degrees who do non-faculty work. They could be counselors, financial aid staff, librarians, registrars, disability-services providers, IT, instructional designers, or any number of other positions, depending on the campus. Some of them may have teaching backgrounds, and some may even teach on an adjunct basis while working as staff. Their positions are usually twelve month, five-day-a-week jobs. Some campuses have a tenure system for staff, and some have tenure for some staff (librarians) and not others.
But this excludes the other kinds of staff members who work at our institution and play an important role in our students’ lives: the cafeteria workers, the groundskeepers, the custodial staff, and so on. These nonprofessional jobs are invisible to us and are increasingly being outsourced, as personnel rotate in and out of buildings, unable to form any sort of connection with the people living or working there. A recent strike by the service workers in the University of California system highlights the fact that we are all affected by the defunding of higher education, and many marched in solidarity with the striking workers (Day). The opening lines of Meagan Day’s Jacobin article say it all: “‘Some of us have devoted our lives to the university,’ said Maricruz Manzanares, a custodian at the University of California at Berkeley. ‘I’ve worked here for nineteen years, providing a healthy environment for students to come and live away from home.’” To look at the faces walking that picket line is to see the black and brown faces of the students who attend these public institutions, particularly in the parallel Cal State system.
If we value diversity, inclusivity, and social justice, then we need to overcome the faculty-staff divide.
Look at the racial and gender makeup of the staff at your institution. There are plenty of women and people of color within higher education, but they aren’t administrators and they aren’t tenured faculty members. They are adjuncts, they are support staff, they are wage employees—often outsourced. If adjuncts are the not-so-new faculty majority, then so too are the staff (and not the highly paid upper administrators) the not-so-new administrative majority. If we want to build a more inclusive labor movement within higher education, then we must organize and stand in solidarity with our colleagues (yes, colleagues) from all areas of the institution.
Why We Need to Stop Devaluing Nonfaculty Professionals and Staff
I find myself right now in a strange and unfamiliar position: I am a part of the fifty percent of adjuncts who are happy with their position as an adjunct (American Academic 10)—I have full-time work elsewhere in the university, and my one class a semester is fulfilling and keeps me in contact with students, doing one of the things that I love. I also have to say that, for the first time in my academic career, I am being treated as a colleague, which says more about the individuals involved in the program I am teaching in than it does about the system in general that exists at my institution.
Regardless, as more and more PhDs and other terminal-degree holders find work inside academia but still work as adjuncts on the side, we need to start thinking about how we can build solidarity across those lines. Staff members are our allies in changing the culture of higher education.
We must also keep in mind that alt-ac staff positions carry their own limitations and challenges, particularly when it comes to extra work. At my former institution, University of Mary Washington, in part because of overtime rules, wage staff members are now barred from working as adjuncts. Many are making very little money and had used adjunct teaching to supplement their wages. My colleague Amanda Rutstein describes her experience this way:
On any given day, I am either treated as an integral member of the university community or reasonably dismissed. I navigate through a stunning array of ever‐changing bureaucracy whose intention is never fully made clear and rarely ever fully realized. I have been urged to advocate for myself and chastised for stepping out of line. I have tried (and failed) not to cry at work.
As a single mother by choice, I have been hugely supported and also felt the sting of impatience and judgement. I am condescended to and deferred to, sometimes in a single interaction. The inherent nurturing nature of a liberal arts atmosphere has boundaries, as I have learned, and those boundaries are relegated to specific spaces on the edge of campus where we discuss fiscal matters, setting precedents and the shelf life of paperwork. (2)
This is just one example of how the institution devalues and marginalizes the people who do the important work of keeping the institution running. This kind of treatment is not uncommon for both staff and adjuncts. As adjuncts, we may declare, At least staff members have a full-time salary! At least they have benefits. If you are at a public institution, however, I challenge you to look up the salaries and wages of the members of the support staff—those people who are at the front lines of serving students, of keeping the mechanisms of the institution running so that you can teach. They are often working in much more dehumanizing conditions than we are as adjuncts, if you can believe that is possible. They, too, are being required to do more with less and acutely feel the sting of budgetary cuts, stagnant wages, and the rigid hierarchies of academia. Researching wages across various positions in your institution is one way to build solidarity but also builds a case for increased wages, job retitling or reclassification, and information sharing within and across institutions. It provides hard statistics, paired with narratives such as Rutstein’s, to counter the simplistic argument about administrative bloat. We are the new majority on campus, for better or worse. And we all care about our students’ success. That shared value must be the core of any work done together, as adjuncts and staff members, to improve the working conditions on campus. If we value diversity, inclusivity, and social justice, then we need to overcome the faculty-staff divide.
Do We Really Need Administrative Staff?
In his Chronicle of Higher Education essay about “BS jobs” in academia, David Graeber attempts to differentiate between “valuable” support staff and “BS” dean jobs, but then for the rest of the piece attacks what could be called the administrative class rather than the support staff class. He ends up painting any nonacademic (i.e., teaching and research) role with the same brush—not to mention focusing on the people who he thinks should be making his job, as a faculty member, easier rather than on the students who may be served by the staff members he so blithely dismisses. If they don’t serve him any purpose, then certainly they must not serve any purpose at all.
Graeber is not the first person to attack administrative bloat in higher education; in 2011, Benjamin Ginsberg published The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. He basically makes the same arguments as Graeber but believes there are much more nefarious motivations behind the growth of administrative jobs:
[The administration’s] real goal is to reduce the centrality of the traditional curriculum and to partially supplant it with what might be called a “student life” curriculum consisting of activities, seminars, and even courses led by administrative staff rather than faculty. The traditional curriculum gives the faculty a privileged claim on university resources and decision-making priorities while the new curriculum enhances the power of administrators. . . . (10–11)
What Ginsberg ignores is that this so-called traditional curriculum is not working to retain and grant degrees to students. Browse recent issues of the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed: if you want to retain students (Field), you need collaborations between faculty and staff members; if you want your diversity and inclusion efforts to work (Alex-Assenoh), you need staff members; if you want to expand online course offerings (Lieberman), you need staff members. We know this in academia—that you cannot expect any kind of initiative on campus to succeed without staff to support it. Unfortunately, there is often very little nuanced thinking when faculty members (or pundits) talk about administrative bloat. The jobs and pay scales of staff members and mid-level administrators (think associate deans [“deanlets”] or vice or associate provosts or presidents) are quite different from each other but are often conflated.
Thankfully, Brian Rosenberg has a much-needed corrective in his piece “Are You in a ‘BS Job’? Thank You for Your Work. No, Really,” pointing out, particularly, how the numbers that Graeber cites aren’t telling the whole story:
Trends in Higher Education, published by the College Board, has collected data on student/staff ratios in higher education over time. From 1995 to 2015, the ratio of students to non-instructional staff members at public institutions rose from 8.6 to 9.2. In other words, there were more students per staff member in 2015 than there were two decades earlier. At private, nonprofit institutions, the ratio rose slightly, from 5.6 to 5.8. At both types of institutions, the number of students per instructional staff member declined over the same period, probably because of an influx of adjuncts and graduate instructors.
Fewer staff members per student. Fewer people to help students with financial aid, with housing issues, with food insecurity, with mental health challenges, with anything that a student may face outside (and sometimes even inside) the classroom. The research has shown that students persist and succeed if they connect with someone at the institution (see, e.g., Kim and Sax). But there are fewer and fewer of us, on either side of the faculty-staff divide, for them to connect with.
How Current Structures Reinforce Racism and Sexism
Graeber ignores the growth of adjunct labor in his piece but does make one important observation about the nature of support staff’s work:
I suspect that bullshitization has been so severe because academe is a kind of meeting place of the caring sector—defined in its broadest sense, as an occupation that involves looking after, nurturing, or furthering the health, well-being, or development of other human beings—and the creative sector.
What he doesn’t acknowledge is the heavily gendered and racialized elements of said “caring” and “creative” work. Again, the majority of the support staff at universities are women and people of color, who are expected to undertake the affective (but heavily undervalued) work of caring, while the faculty members, predominantly male, undertake the important work of being creative. It’s difficult to get numbers on the pay gap between faculty and staff salaries (and even harder to get differences in nonacademic staff salaries) because no one currently tracks them. One recent study, however, shows that
women of color are underrepresented in academe, compared with their representation in the U.S. population at large—especially in more lucrative faculty, professional, and administrative roles, versus lower-paying staff positions. And in three out of four job types (professional, staff, and faculty) women of color are paid less than white men, men of color, and white women. (Zahneis)
Pair this finding with the knowledge that when women and people of color get jobs teaching, they are more likely to be contingent or adjunct positions (Flaherty), and that women make up a majority of the adjunct teaching body (“Women”), not to mention that “[t]he proportion of African-Americans in non-tenure-track positions (15.2 percent) is more than 50 percent greater than that of whites (9.6 percent)” (“Status”). As Tressie McMillan Cottom points out: “Our current anger about class divides in higher education labor cannot be separated from its racist roots.” I would also add sexist roots. But somehow, for too many, these connections do not cross the divide between faculty and staff. By remaining loyal to this divide, we lose the ability to form solidarity, to forge connections to best help students and ourselves.
Building Solidarity within Institutions
While working at the University of Mary Washington, I participated in an on-campus leadership program that was open to anyone in the university community, to faculty and staff members of all levels. Most of the participants were staff members from across the university—custodial staff, bursar, financial aid, registrar, alumni affairs—it seemed no unit on campus was unrepresented. There were no high-level directors or administrators. As a group, we were much more diverse than the professoriat and much more representative of the state that we work in, if not of the student body of our school. We came together and learned a great deal from one another, particularly about how each of us interacts with students and plays a role in their success. We also learned about how budgetary cuts and persistent disrespect from faculty members have worn down morale.
This, I thought, is what inclusivity looks and sounds like in practice.
Members of the staff literally keep the lights on, the e-mail up and running, the students fed and housed and safe and financed—not to mention successful in their courses. They are the first and last people that students (and parents) deal with at the university, from registration to graduation. This year, at my institution, I suggested that all members of the professional staff be invited to attend commencement—not in the general crowd, but up on the stage, in full regalia, to celebrate those students we had a major hand in helping to succeed. I made the case that we deserved to be up there. The administration agreed, and I sat up on that stage this year, in the heat, to celebrate alongside my students and their professors.
As PhDs move increasingly away from working full-time as adjuncts and into alt-ac staff roles, we must not lose our commitment to justice and equity. We must learn the institutional mechanisms available to us, such as staff congress or other advisory or administrative bodies. If the faculty members are unionized but the staff members are not, are there ways to make connections between the groups? Are there ways to leverage shared concerns, speaking to various stakeholders at various meetings? These dual roles that many of us are taking on, adjunct faculty and staff, enable us to bridge the artificial divides and to change higher education.
The lines between our various roles at the university are, like just about everything, a social construct, and we have to work to try and overcome those imaginary hierarchical structures to achieve positive change.
Georgetown University understands the value of faculty and staff members working together. Annually, the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship offers a Productive Open Design Spaces program, “a series of design-centered workshops giving faculty and staff the time and space to collaborate with colleagues on curricular and pedagogical projects of their own design. . . . More than 40 faculty and staff worked in groups to draw connections between shared ideas, generate design criteria, present a mini pilot, and develop sustainable plans to execute their projects during the academic year” (Pluff). While a number of successful projects have come out of the annual opportunity (“Productive Open Design Spaces”), the feedback from both faculty and staff members shows that this opportunity allows them to understand what the other does for students and that both groups share a devotion to student learning and success. The institutions put in financial and administrative support to nurture and grow these collaborations, fostering a greater understanding and creating better teaching, learning, and working conditions for everyone.
There are things that you can do on your campus. In their article “Organizational Culture: Comparing Faculty and Staff Perspectives,” researchers Bela Florenthal and Yulia Tolstikov-Mast found the following:
A university’s organizational culture influences students’ overall educational experience. One critical aspect of a positive campus cultural experience is the strong sense of community largely established by a constructive working relationship between faculty and staff. The current study focuses on sources of potential conflict in faculty-staff relations that could negatively influence this organizational culture, and thus, inhibit positive student educational experiences. . . . Findings indicate that greater staff involvement in decision-making, clearer communication of roles and responsibilities, and an adequate rewards system can reduce faculty-staff tension. (81)
Note how the researchers directly connect student success with a positive campus cultural experience—faculty and staff members working together. Including staff members in leadership opportunities, as well as explicitly inviting them and making them feel welcome at academic events (like graduation), can be a good way to start. Krebs shows how the faculty worked with the staff for a fairer and more equitable contract for the staff but noted that doing so was challenging without an organization like the Association of American University Professors keeping careful records of staff salaries. The lines between our various roles at the university are, like just about everything, a social construct, and we have to work to try and overcome those imaginary hierarchical structures to achieve positive change.
There are unfortunately too few success stories of faculty and staff members working collaboratively to improve labor conditions, beyond unionized strikes in solidarity. In unionized institutions, members of the faculty and staff are often represented by different union bodies. Could we instead imagine one union that represents all knowledge workers employed by the university? That a PhD is a PhD regardless of whether the person is in a tenure-track job and thus should be compensated accordingly? That people are rewarded according to their contact with students? Or that there are paths forward for workers in all sectors of the university? These proposals all have their flaws, but can we think bigger than how we have usually thought about union representation and negotiation?
Remember those staff members who made a difference during your education, or when you were an adjunct. Remember that they were and are precarious workers making less than they should. These are the same people who are making a difference in your students’ educations, in the same way they made a difference in yours. As a faculty member, thank them. As an administrator, pay them. And finally, listen to them. Treat them like the colleagues they are. They are the front lines for students, and they see and hear the issues that keep students from being as successful as they could be every day.
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