On Friday, I had the great pleasure of having lunch with Martha Burtis. It was a rare opportunity to talk to someone doing similar things and having similar challenges and dreams. I’ve been thinking about a lot of what we talked about. Yesterday as I was walking across campus, I was thinking about my favorite topic–the faculty-staff divide. I was thinking about what I do, comparing it to my colleagues’ work and to faculty work and I had a flash of thought. Martha had said that she thinks of what she and her team does as R&D. I’ve thought that about myself and I’ve even been told that a lot of my work is considered R&D. If I were a faculty member, I’d be in pretty good shape. But I’m not. If a staff member’s work were divided in similar ways to a faculty member’s, most would list service as being nearly 100% of their job. That’s what’s valued on the staff side of things.
For most positions, teaching and scholarship don’t exist. And yet there are a few positions where they do, and I started to think about how work might be divided differently for some people. What if service were only 60% of the job and the other 40% were divided between teaching and scholarship, both defined broadly. Teaching could be sessions on best practices for using certain software or discussions about copyright and its effect on curriculum and research. In some cases, it might mean teaching a class of students (as I do). Those classes could be credit courses or non-credit ones. Scholarship could be of the more traditional variety of writing articles for peer-review or it could be researching emerging trends and presenting a report for the campus. It could be developing new software. Service, too, might be expanded. Instead of its traditional definition on the staff side of supporting faculty and students, it could entail serving on committees (departmental or college-wide) so that one gets credit for spending time in meetings and working toward larger goals as well as day-to-day support.
Though it makes sense to look at the traditional academic breakdown of work, one could also turn to corporations such as Google, where workers are encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on their own projects. What if that were encouraged of staff and what if it were rewarded? I think that would help retention a great deal. The academic market just can’t pay what someone is really worth. There are other benefits to working at an educational institution, but sometimes the work load gets to a breaking point and the benefits no longer seem worth it. If you’re a creative, smart person (which a lot of staff are; that’s why they’re there in the first place), then you’re motivated by getting to show off your creativity and smarts, which you don’t get to do if you’re only doing service–grunt work kind of service like showing people what buttons to press, making copies, answering the phone, etc. Add the opportunity to work on a pet project that might get used by the institution and you’re likely to keep people around. Some people pursue this anyway, even if it’s not written into policy, but if they’re not rewarded for that and if, in fact, they’re punished for taking away time from service, they too may leave.
It seems that such a structure would benefit the institution. Higher retention levels, some good ideas put into the institution, happy employees. IHE today has an article about shifting scholarship into new areas, many of which make sense for staff people. They say it’s about time that faculty got out of the 19th century and I think the same should be true for staff. It might go a long way to getting rid of the upstairs/downstairs culture that exists at many colleges and universities.