Advice & News

May 16, 2022

Higher Ed's Unacknowledged Crisis: Discontented Middle Managers

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In a recent study, NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education reported that 25 percent of members who responded said they weren't sure they would recommend their career path to others. About one-third said they weren't confident that they would even stay in the field.

The reasons cited were stress related to increased hours on the job, working conditions related to declining resources, student mental health issues, low salaries, online and virtual student engagement, crisis management, new duties related to justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion without additional training, and lack of opportunities for advancement.

More striking results were reported in the UK where 60 percent of higher education staff said they were likely to leave the field within five years. The figure was over 89 percent for staff who were under the age of 29. Deteriorating pay and working conditions were cited as reasons there as well.

While the turnover of campus presidents and provosts has gained attention in national press accounts, the career cycle of campus middle managers has not. This is unfortunate. These are the staff members responsible for student admissions and financial aid; counseling services; advising campus organizations such as student government, fraternities, and sororities; career services; managing residence halls and dining services, and more. Their duties include the rental of campus properties; bursar and budget functions; alumni relations and fundraising; research contract administration; and registration and record-keeping. They also manage other campus functions such as those in athletics, Title IX, state and federal compliance, legal, risk management, and the stewardship of gifts.

A campus organization has been likened to an early English system of lords, squires, and yeomen. This metaphor is intended to illuminate the hierarchical ranking of status in which there is limited mobility. Think of the full-time faculty as the lords; vice presidents and the holders of important administrative offices as the squires; and deans and directors of student support services, whether in exempt or non-exempt positions, as the yeomen. Administrative assistants and secretaries border the yeomen group.

Some may object to this class-based description of university employment, but the bias is embodied in terms such as "non-faculty," "non-academic," and "non-professional." These posts also are the subject of charges about "administrative bloat" even as they are called "anonymous leaders" and "unheralded heroes." These "non" people are relatively low paid compared to senior levels of administration, yet are essential to the quality of services critical to student bonding and success.

Most private college presidents earn between $100,000 and $500,000, but a large number earn more than this and some make several millions per year. Provosts, on average, earn from the low 100s to over $200,000. Yet the staff who really make a place run smoothly, such as those in admissions and financial aid, student affairs personnel, and fundraising, have median salaries in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.

These staff members suffer not only in terms of salaries, but also because of increased pressure to recruit and retain students, find new revenues, and decrease costs. They also suffer because of a lack of upward professional mobility. In each of these professional areas, the pyramid of opportunity is relatively small and the opportunities for advancement are rare. For most of them, upward mobility is through lateral transfer to another institution.

Unlike some enterprises in which upward advancement is valued as a sign of "growing your own," college administration is generally committed to a competing value. In this case, holding an external search, even for a position for which an internal candidate seems like a perfect fit, is seen as promoting the pursuit of diversity as a higher value. The external search also is valued because it allows campus personnel to compare the internal candidate against a broader pool of candidates.

Each policy has its costs and benefits. To always go with the internal candidate may limit the opportunity to diversify the staff. At the same time, one may ask if it is fair to external candidates to mount a search when there is a strong internal candidate. This is a good example of a conflict of priorities and values.

Would there be less turn-over, or threats of turn-over, if conditions were different? One cannot know for sure but can compare turnover trends with other areas of employment. According to Grant Thornton's "State of Work in America" survey, the results are similar to those in higher education. The 21 percent of respondents who took a new job reported the reasons as base pay, advancement opportunities, and feeling undervalued as an employee. The Grant Thornton respondents also enjoyed working remotely and want the flexibility in deciding where and when they conduct their work. These are not the characteristics of campus jobs even when the institution has a robust online presence.

So, what can be done to encourage loyalty and longevity as well as to reduce turnover?

Campuses vary in their approaches, but there are multiple ways to acknowledge the contributions of staff, invest in middle managers, provide enriched professional development opportunities, and help boost both staff self-esteem and faculty recognition of their contributions.

One way to treat these staff better is to do for them what is commonly done for senior campus leaders and faculty: engage a comparative compensation survey to ensure that salaries and benefits are comparable to, or better than, peer institutions.

Some institutions sponsor staff-degree programs that permit staff members to pursue advanced degrees, including a doctorate, for free. Others will provide a stipend toward study at another institution. Staff members with advanced degrees tend to be taken more seriously by faculty.

A more common initiative is to include middle-management administrators on strategic planning committees and special project task forces, thus honoring those chosen and benefiting from their advice.

Some presidents create a council for staff members and meet with the group periodically to present plans and seek reactions. This is another technique for showing respect and benefiting from those closest to prospective and current students as well as to alumni and employers.

Still other institutions provide budgets for staff to travel to and attend professional conferences, thus providing the opportunity to learn from regional and national experts as well as from colleagues at other campuses.

Many campuses sponsor events to celebrate excellence in service and include administrators and both technical and clerical staff as well as faculty.

Campus middle managers are essential to the achievement of college and university goals. They are the ones closest to the execution of strategies and the students and alumni who are critical to the fulfillment of the campus mission. Therefore, enhancing their effectiveness, improving their morale, and reducing their turnover should be top priorities.

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