As a career, I’ve chosen to be an administrator within higher education and I absolutely love it. That doesn’t mean that I’ve chosen to work as university “staff” because I have fallen short of other academic goals – this is the path I’ve chosen, enjoyed, and will continue to work in for the foreseeable future.
I have been extremely lucky that within my career as a higher education administrator, I have been for the most part treated respectfully, and have forged partnerships with academic partners that have done amazing things, and this is due to a change in mindset among specific faculty that involves placing an incredible amount of value on the higher education administrator.
Not every higher education administrative professional has been fortunate enough to have the great experiences I have with faculty members, as not all academics embrace the value – and power – of the higher education administrator. Every higher education administrator, self-included, has a nightmare of a story of when they were dismissed, treated poorly, or simply ignored due to their status as “non-academic staff” who will mostly lack the highest academic credential. Each higher education administrator can tell a story of pulling long hours, on tight deadlines, pulling something together for an academic colleague’s work. Each higher education administrator is familiar with the phrase “your failure to plan has become my emergency”. Each administrator can tell a story of being wildly misunderstood – in terms of professional capacity, professional credentials, or place held within the university. I can remember being at a research event where the question was asked what the role of staff and administrative professionals was in research. The researcher, flustered to come up with a good answer, finally concluded that the role of support staff was to “put up with researchers”. I was a bit flummoxed by this answer, and to be honest, felt a little angry that the vital role of support staff in research (and all academic functions) was overlooked, and seemingly not valued at all. Would this researcher’s work have even happened had it not been for the support staff standing behind him?
Academics, I encourage you to think of the administrators that work with you. What is their role? How do they advance your work? What skills do they bring to the table? What would happen if your administrators just weren’t there?
My academic friends and colleagues, I urge you to keep your academic administrative professionals close, and hold onto them. Here’s why:
Higher education administrators study higher education for a living. Yes, that’s right – our area of study is the academic institution – the inner workings, working with academics, student life, organizational behavior – you name it. We have chosen a profession that has required us to get intimately acquainted with how higher education institutions work. In fact, some higher education administrators have advanced degrees in issues of higher education. Myself, for instance, studied within my Masters degree issues of pedagogy, curriculum development, knowledge translation, research methodology, leadership, and many more aspects of higher education, which has equipped me with the toolbox to take on many types of higher education administration roles. Higher education administrators eat, sleep, and breathe higher education, and they are a wealth of information for academics looking to navigate the system or explore possibilities.
Higher education administrators have skills that academics don’t necessarily have. If you poke around your talent pool in your higher education environment, you’ll likely see that your administrators not only hold high levels of education, but also a skill set that academics don’t (and vice versa). Higher education administrators quite often have backgrounds in communications, marketing, finance, human resources, and other professional areas that have allowed a high degree of transferable skills enter into the ivory tower. They’ve specialized in all the areas of expertise that help elevate the work of academics. One thing that many higher education academics won’t do is tell you how many skills they have, as we sometimes just like to see that we can just “make things happen”.
Higher education administrators will let you take the credit. That’s not meant to be as harsh as it may sound, but the statement has some truth. Higher academic administrators don’t need to have their name on things. They are happy to lend academics their time, expertise, skills, and dedication. They are happy to take on tasks and initiatives knowing that they’ll be making someone, or something, else look good. And we’re OK with that! Higher education administrators have chosen a career within the folds of the ivory tower knowing that they will be the backbone of the great things that come out of education, but will never get the glory. And again, we’re OK with that!
Higher education administrators are committed to seeing the academy innovate. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the biggest frustrations I’ve had with working in higher education is what we would refer to as the “old boys’ club” or the “canon” or the “academic tradition”. These phenomena are both what make academia unique and one-of-a-kind, but they are also what makes the academy outdated, irrelevant, and missing the boat on the potential of higher education. I won’t spend time on listing those things that make higher education stuck in the Ice Age, but I think we can all name a few. Higher education administrators are the ones that have their finger on the pulse of what’s new in higher education. Higher education administrators have spent their time with other administrators exchanging ideas and practices on how to move the needle on the effectiveness of a university education. Higher education administrators are interested in meeting the needs of the changing workforce and the global world, and they are excited and posed to help their academic colleagues do so.
Higher education administrators understand academics. Academics are a rare breed. I don’t think it’s a shock for me to make such a statement. They have chosen career paths that are unlike any you would find outside the academy. They spend their time in different ways that people do in other kinds of careers. They can sometimes have “interesting” personalities, usually as a result to their intense dedication to their discipline, field, and research process. I, for one, love academics. I love the way they think, and I love that they have chosen a life of inquiry and helping to mold young minds. Yet I also understand the challenges that can arise in working with this rare portion of people, as do my colleagues. In terms of working with brilliant minds, we’ve seen it, and felt it all. This is to say, bring it on – we can, and will, work with you, and will come equipped to face any challenge you may throw at us.
Here’s a few tips for academics on leveraging your resident higher education administrative professionals:
- Ask your administrator about his or her background and why they chose a career in academia
- Use your administrator as a sounding board – they will be able to give you an honest opinion of whether your ideas will gain ground or fall flat
- Find out what’s in your administrator’s toolbox – they may bring a skill to your work that you don’t have, yet can significantly increase the impact of your work
- Understand your administrator’s limitations and areas of expertise – just because they are an administrator, doesn’t mean they are suited for all administrative tasks, or will take on any task you’ll throw their way (for instance, I can’t organize paperwork to save my life!)
- Appreciate your administration – just because a higher education administrator may not need the glory, they do appreciate feeling valued and small gestures that make them feel so
Keep your higher education administrative professionals close – you’ll never find a greater fan or supporter for what you do.