Advice & News

November 16, 2021

Focusing on the Needs of Student-Centered Employees


We love college students and find it a joy to have the opportunity to serve this population as our life's work. As professionals, formally trained in the fields of higher education and student affairs, we joined this profession because we enjoyed our college experience and wanted to make sure as many students as possible had similar experiences to ours. However, the field is changing. Rather than viewing students as having a unique relationship with faculty, staff, and administrators, we often are encouraged to view relationships with students from primarily the standpoint of a customer. We believe that our relationships with students should be centered on respect and that recognizes students as individuals that join our learning environments to develop into citizens of the world. Given the increasing cost of education, most state legislators, board of trustee members, parents, and the general public also see students as customers and themselves as shareholders. Which, with all the good that may come out of that (i.e., competitive tuition, enhancement in services, etc.), it can create an academic environment that can be toxic for higher education employees. For instance, decisions can be made on the basis of what we feel students will 'like' rather than using our best judgment based on our expertise regarding what is needed for students' long-term growth and development.

We are writing this article because we both have found ourselves wondering, 'Are we really being authentically student-focused in our work or are we just saying we are in a performative way to keep our jobs or to have people not question our commitment to students?' Are we engaging in what some refer to as toxic positivity, which is characterized by inauthentic optimism and stifled emotions? This article addresses the questions we have both asked ourselves at times, 'Can you be a student-centered faculty, staff, or administrator while ensuring your own self-care and career development?'

We believe the culture of higher education has become toxic in many ways, taking on the corporate approach embraced by for-profit organizations. This is understandable as many of the individuals charged with governance of our institutions come from corporate backgrounds and often suggest that our institutions should be run like such organizations. As such, top-down organizational decision making, lack of appreciation for shared governance, a spirit of profit over people or student recruitment above all else, and top leader salaries increasing at a greater pace than salaries of faculty and staff are just a few examples of how corporate culture has influenced higher education organizations. However, from our experiences, we have learned that because our goals and missions are different from the public sector, we must engage our work differently.

Faculty and staff often work best in a supportive and stable environment that addresses their needs. We believe deeply that by centering the needs of faculty and staff, colleges and universities will experience greater student learning outcomes and co-curricular experiences. In other words, if your employees are happy, your students will be the beneficiaries.

In recent years, there has been much discussion regarding the notion of students having a sense of belonging and feeling like they matter to the institution, particularly for students who have been historically excluded from higher education. We believe this concept is also applicable and needs to be paid attention to in the context of higher education employees. It is important that they can deeply sense that they are not just disposable and that their love for students is not being exploited. Employees who feel their work is being taken advantage of, or who are interchangeable and dispensable in the massification of higher education, may just say the right thing because it is what is expected but not really embrace a student-centered approach. And they may go on to join the many higher education faculty and staff who have become a part of the Great Resignation. Administrators, in tangible ways, should acknowledge the efforts of faculty and staff, provide meaningful support, and reinforce a commitment to them as people and valuable assets to their communities. If you take care of your employees well, then that will trickle down to your students.

One of the ways we believe that faculty and staff success could increase is ensuring that faculty and staff needs are attended to. Supervisors such as directors and department chairs must focus their attention on ensuring that their units are running efficiently and effectively, managing additional meeting requirements, budgetary constraints, student concerns, fundraising pressures, and achieving desired departmental outcomes. This often leaves little time for ensuring that employees' needs are taken care of. Important first steps include adopting a supervisor-educator mindset, deeply listening to employee needs, knowing employee personal and professional goals, and then identifying or advocating for resources that will make their job experience better.

Much of the support that is often provided by institutions is developmental in nature. For instance, on the faculty side, many institutions have faculty development centers that focus on teaching. However, little attention is paid to the holistic success of the faculty member regarding areas that are non-instructional and research-related. This may include career planning and design, emotional wellbeing, and retirement planning.

In non-academic divisions and units, institutions may provide only limited professional development support that is skill-based but does not take into consideration the total needs of employees to ensure their success. Great institutions provide enhancement activities that are not only focused on development and training which can be viewed as deficit focused (i.e., areas of weakness or things a person does not know that centers on institutional needs) but takes a "success" approach which centers the desires and needs of the person. Examples of such success activities can come in the form of workshops, career coaching, and more. Success activities may include topics like mindfulness, parenting, plant-based food diets, stress management, grief support, and more. Great supervisors ensure their employees participate in a variety of success activities that support their individual personal and professional goals. But not all institutions invest in the resources to build holistic care and support for their employees.

We believe that all divisions within a college or university should have a dedicated staff member or team that is tasked with assessing employee morale or engagement and providing support that focuses on employees' holistic success. All divisions of a college and university should have a person tasked with ensuring the professional success of staff, administrators, and faculty beyond a person's immediate supervisor. This goes beyond just thinking about enhancing the technical skills of the person but ensuring that they are satisfied with their work. A person that is concerned about the overall health of employees. We believe this would help to decrease employee turnover and create a culture of employee engagement and authentic commitment to student success.

As we conclude, we would like to share a model that Wendy's institution has recently designed and implemented to ensure staff success within her division.

  • We have someone whose primary role focuses on employee learning and development. At times, they may have additional division-wide responsibilities, but when those drift too far, leadership recommits to the core responsibilities of taking care of its employees. This role is also complementary to what the Human Resources division provides via employee onboarding, training and development, and employee wellness services; it is also complementary to what department directors may provide for their employees and what supervisors provide for their staff members. This role is part of a greater ecosystem of employee support with a unique focus on the learning and support needed within the context of our student-centered work.
  • This employee works with a volunteer professional development committee to design 1) quarterly new employee orientations to help employees understand the mission, purpose, and goals of the division, 2) employee development workshops (either standalone or within a series), and 3) an annual one-day professional development conference. Multiple employees from across the division are invited to contribute to these activities by leading or facilitating workshops.
  • This year, the professional development committee identified a unique need amongst mid-level managers, often new supervisors within a department but not serving as the department director. More than 40 employees fall within this category within the division and have felt overlooked when support tends to focus on higher leadership levels. A sub-committee is planning a leadership series with learning and development workshops, as well as informal cohort support activities.
  • Based on the individual expertise of the learning and development analyst, and their background as an athletic coach followed by additional personal coaching certifications, they provide personal and career coaching for employees within the division. More than 30 employees over 2 years have utilized this service.

These diverse efforts focus on employee support, learning, and development. By investing resources in one employee who serves over 200 full-time employees, we aim to improve the culture of employee engagement and student-centered success. We advocate that such an employee success model should be replicated across the academy. Let's shift to truly student-centered practices that take into account the wellness and success of our higher education employees.

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