The Staff Are Not OK

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By Lee Skallerup Bessette

Look, I get it, no one is OK right now under these pandemic conditions: Everyone in academe is struggling to varying degrees with social isolation, child care, elder care, virtual learning, our own mental health, our own physical health. But while the struggles of faculty members and administrators have been well-documented, there hasn’t been much attention paid to the health and well-being of the big pool of campus employees who together make up “the staff.”

By staff — and I am in that group — I mean anyone working on campus who isn’t a faculty member or an administrator. You know, the people who were expected to carry out whatever plans were made for the fall semester. And the people who have had to deal with the aftermath when things abruptly changed.

Last May, I was the host of an Educause webinar, aimed mainly at academic-technology staff and instructional designers, on all the “affective labor” they were suddenly having to do amid Covid-19 — that is, all of the emotional support that became part of their job, in addition to helping everyone with the technology of remote teaching.

The response was overwhelming. Staff members in the webinar said they were relieved to finally have the language to describe what it was they had been experiencing — why their work was exponentially so much harder than before the pandemic. They were clamoring to share their stories and experiences of having to manage their own emotions in the face of stressed/upset/angry/frustrated/fed up professors, students, parents, and administrators.

Staff are the middle-management of higher education. Those in power make decisions, set policy, and devise plans — and we are the people tasked with implementation and execution. We are the face that faculty members see when they have questions, concerns, or struggles with the technology they have been asked to use. We are the face that students see when they have questions, concerns, or struggles related to distance learning or on-campus policies and procedures. We are the face that parents see when they reach out to us — these days often in distress.

Most people we interact with understand that we are all in a pandemic, all struggling. But staff members, nonetheless, have to maintain a facade of calm, confidence, grace, and patience. We can’t appear to be trying to keep it together; we have to look like we already do.

Picture, if you will: Most staff members work in departments that, while they serve the entire campus, are staffed with the understanding that only a small percentage of people on the campus will seek our services. Most of our service units were understaffed before Covid-19. But now, rather than serve a small percentage of the campus, we are suddenly trying to serve the entire campus with the same level of staffing. And we are swamped, as this fall tweet from a staff administrator in learning technologies illustrates:

Being “student-centered” isn’t a license to completely swamp my inbox with what should be help-desk tickets.

(Staff members do not have the protections of academic freedom, so I asked, and received, permission from the authors of tweets to use their comments in this essay.)

Over the summer, for example, the teaching center where I work saw participation in our programs increase by more than 200 percent, compared with the previous 12 months. Across higher education, staff members in teaching and technology have seen huge growth in demand for our services — alongside cuts to our budgets. As one librarian recently tweeted:

Instead of cutting, give us additional support so that we have the resources necessary to provide the services you’re asking for. Or if cuts are necessary, support us when we reduce our services.

This work is emotionally taxing under normal circumstances. But under Covid-19, it has been overwhelming. Yet some administrators and faculty members seem to think that having fewer people on the campus means we have less to do. As one staff member tweeted:

Stop assuming that we’re “not as busy” just because things have changed (fact check: FALSE).

Most of us just spent our summers working overtime to ensure that the campus was ready — in whatever format that entailed — for the fall. Many staff members were required to put their health and safety on the line to be on the campus, while others had to fight for the right to work remotely. Hiring freezes have meant more work with fewer people. Wage freezes and furloughs have stretched us to our limits.

In short: The staff are not OK.

As a result, and despite tough job markets outside academe, some staff members are leaving higher education for the private sector (especially in the field of instructional design), and taking decades of experience, networks, knowledge, and expertise with them. When a staff member leaves your institution, you’re not just losing a line in a budget, you’re losing a member of the community — someone who understands the institutional culture, who knows students by name, who holds important pieces of institutional memory.

So what can colleges and universities do on this front? Here are some short-term and long-term suggestions — aimed at campus administrators — to help institutions deal with staff burnout. First, in the short term:

Trust us to do our work. I am fortunate that I work at a university that has prioritized the health and safety of staff and empowered us to work remotely whenever possible. Many of my colleagues are not so lucky — their institutions are either forcing them back to the campus unnecessarily or subjecting them to intrusive oversight and monitoring. As one staff member put it: “I’m capable of working from home; I should be allowed to. … Trust but verify.” Other places have instituted policies that end up punishing staff members with children at home (usually women). Look, we got the work done in March, April, May, over the summer. Trust us to keep getting it done — and done well.

Publicly acknowledge our work. Typically, when colleges and universities celebrate achievements and efforts, their focus is on the faculty. While understanding the central role of professors, staff members have long felt that our work has been erased or marginalized in the service of making sure the faculty always comes first (and second and third and fourth ...). These days, when an institution touts the hard work that faculty members have put in to redesigning their courses for this unprecedented year — and then fails to mention the staff who supported the transition — we notice, and it matters. Give public credit to the staff departments and staff members in the same way that you would academic departments and professors.

Get us back to our previous staffing levels. This one is tricky, but, ultimately, the staff has borne the brunt of the budget cuts, furloughs, freezes in matching retirement contributions, and the like. I get it, budgets are tight. But at least present us with a plan for how you intend to work toward getting our staffing levels back to where we were before the pandemic struck. Show us your good intentions and a solid plan.

Provide better access and better resources. While you may acknowledge the increase in affective and emotional labor that staff members have been facing during the pandemic, what do you have in place to actually do something about it? Is your wellness program (assuming you have one) designed for faculty members, but you allow staff members to access it? Or are parts of your wellness program tailored to staff needs, too? Are there programs in place that are only accessible to faculty but not to staff members? Too often, we are excluded from programs and resources that could help support us and our work, including access to campus child-care programs.

Now for the long-term reforms that I and many other staff members, on Twitter and elsewhere, would like to see happen:

Give us a say in campus governance. I wrote more extensively about this in a previous column, but if your institution is serious about supporting staff members, then those people need structural and institutional access to have a voice in how the place is run.

Increase recognition and support for staff members. Academics are not the only people on the campus doing research, producing scholarship, engaging in knowledge sharing, and publishing books and articles. Sure, staff members work in service departments, but we also engage in academic activities around research. Many of us also teach alongside the other kinds of work we do with, and for, students. We are all in the business of knowledge creation and student success.

The staff contributions to that need to be more broadly supported and recognized. As one instructional designer recently tweeted:“I am kind of tired of TT faculty being the only ones who claim scholarly achievement (research, publishing, presenting) as part of their jobs. Non-tenure-track lecturers and professional staff do it, too.”

Set clear career paths for staff members. Academe is really good at devising career paths for the faculty. Not so much for staff. Too often, changing institutions is the only path to career advancement for staff members.

After Covid-19, highly trained and knowledgeable staff members on every campus will be looking for the next opportunity to put what we have learned from this crisis into practice, as well as to continue growing our skills. Be sure that you offer staff members a variety of opportunities to move up in their careers and that they understand the path ahead.

Compensate us fairly and equitably. Currently, there is massive salary compression in staff roles, as well as a lack of transparency on staff compensation. Pay us in accordance with our experience, education, and roles and make those decisions transparent and consistent. My next column will explore these compensation issues in more detail, but their impact is spotlighted in recent essays by Patrice Torcivia Prusko and Joshua Kim.

As one student-life staff member tweeted: “Let *us* have a say in the metrics of our ‘success,’ give us the same grant opportunities as faculty, stop making us depend on endlessly hiring underpaid student staff, and expand our actual staff. For student-life staff, pay us on par with academic staff. Pay us on par with faculty for that matter. My job is *highly* specialized, so let’s stop pretending anyone with a Ph.D. can do it.”

Any vision for the future of higher education, post Covid-19, cannot become a reality without staff there to make it happen. Start paying attention to the vital role that we play.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is a learning-design specialist at Georgetown University and an affiliated faculty member in the master’s program in learning, design, and technology.

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