Faculty and Staff Often Don’t Trust One Another. How Do We Fix That?

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By Jenae Cohn

One of the few welcome outcomes of Covid-19, and higher education’s rapid move to remote instruction, is that many faculty members are more aware than ever of who the staff members are and what we do.

As Lee Skallerup Bessette wrote in October, staff members — anyone working on a college campus who is not a professor or an administrator — have been on the front lines during the pandemic: “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.”

Yet however much academics and administrators have been turning to us for help now, they still rarely involve and entrust staff members with campus decision-making around teaching, curriculum development, and research.

Even some staff members hesitate to push too hard in that direction. “That’s not what we do” is something my academic-staff peers have told me a lot over the eight years I’ve been working on curriculum design and educational technology. Our role is to
faculty members and students by getting them the tools and training they need.

As staff members, we’re not “supposed” to:

  • Teach — though many of us negotiate for teaching roles or simply pick up adjunct positions on the side at other institutions.
  • Do research — yet many of us run large, internal research projects, surveys, and other assessments.
  • Develop lesson plans and curricular ideas — although many of us do so on our own and end up putting them into practice on other campuses.
  • Give talks or presentations on our own campuses — yet we often are invited speakers elsewhere.

Distrust often prevents us from engaging in those activities on our own campus and moving beyond a support role. Many academic-staff members have specialized degrees in learning design and faculty development. Some have Ph.D.s. Even those who don’t — a doctorate isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a prerequisite for staff positions — have a deep understanding of academic culture.

So if you’re going to hire highly skilled people — who have a clear and sophisticated understanding of institutional cultures and expectations — why not take advantage of our expertise? Why not create incentives to value our skills at our home base?

Authentic collaboration between faculty and academic-staff members would benefit both groups, not to mention enhance teaching and learning. As instructional designers, faculty developers, student-affairs professionals, academic-support staff, and learning specialists, we play an increasingly large role in institutional operations, particularly in long-term decisions and investments in hybrid and online learning.

It behooves every college and university to consider what authentic collaboration between the staff and the faculty might look like. How? Here are three concrete steps in that direction.

Step 1: Offer incentives for faculty-staff partnerships. On many campuses, collaboration is actively discouraged at a structural level. On the faculty side of the equation, a joint project with a staff member would rarely, if ever, “count” toward tenure-and-promotion requirements. In any such collaboration, the faculty member would likely be the principal investigator on the project, reinforcing the hierarchy and preventing authentic and equal collaboration. On the staff side, partnership with a professor may not be in the staff member’s job description, which means that, come time for an annual performance review, the partnership wouldn’t “count” — that is, it wouldn’t lead to pay raises, bonuses, or, for some contract-based positions, work requirements to keep the job.

To counter such structural disincentives, institutions would need to offer material rewards for faculty and staff collaborations. For example:

  • Create an internal grant program to support faculty-staff research projects.
  • Establish teaching fellowships, in which a professor and a staff member could work together to design courses around shared interests and needs.
  • Develop special groups around topics that span faculty and staff involvement — such as engaging students online or sustaining anti-racism on campus. Set clear guidelines and benchmarks to shepherd the group’s projects toward completion.

Step 2: Rethink hierarchical traditions. To build trust in one another, faculty and staff members would also need to be willing to eschew the hierarchies endemic to academic culture. For example, while faculty members may treasure their system of shared governance, it rarely gives voting power to the staff. Indeed, on many campuses, staff members are perceived as “the employees” and professors as their “bosses” — another barrier to partnership. A staff member who has felt disrespected may not have an interest in close partnership with a professor.

Is there an easy answer to changing the hierarchical nature of academic culture? No. But one way forward is clear modeling from institutional leaders. That might mean creating more visible forums in which leaders from across the administration, faculty, and staff interact together. Instead of campus events and discussions that only showcase senior administrators, or only showcase professors, bring together faculty and staff members with shared expertise on a campus issue who could provide different perspectives.

Recognizing that staff expertise can be valid in dialogue with faculty expertise would go a long way toward modeling a culture of authentic collaboration.

Step 3: Create shared experiences. Faculty and staff members may feel like they’re operating in different universes because, often enough, they are. A lack of shared professional experiences and shared office spaces means that faculty and staff members alike do not have insight into one another’s work, even as their efforts may be highly complementary. For example, staff members in learning-space design may be planning infrastructure for classrooms while, in an entirely separate effort, faculty committees on teaching spaces may be strategizing on how to teach effectively in campus classrooms and labs.

One solution: Give staff members the time and professional development to teach, do research and write (on topics related to their professional work), and lead “lunch and learn” sessions with other staff or faculty audiences. That would help staff members to relate more closely to some of the unique features of faculty culture, and vice versa. Similarly, an institution could involve faculty representatives in staff meetings on learning design, student affairs, or development, rather than holding separate faculty committee meetings about overlapping topics.

Creating such shared experiences is perhaps the most pivotal step toward building trust. Faculty and staff members could then speak from a shared perspective instead of spending unnecessary energy in duplicate efforts aimed at artificially separated audiences and needs.

As we prepare for what higher education will look like beyond the pandemic, we cannot hope for a shared vision unless we connect the staff — the primary source of support for students and professors during the pandemic — with the faculty — the primary source of leadership, policy, and practice around undergraduate and graduate education.

Culture change is not easy, and it takes time, but acknowledging the need to build and develop a shared trust between academe’s siloed labor pools is an important first step.

Jenae Cohn is director of academic technology at California State University at Sacramento, and author of a forthcoming book, Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading (West Virginia University Press, June 2021). Learn more about her and her work at Jenaecohn.net, or on Twitter @jenae_cohn.

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