Monday, October 24, 2011

The Faculty-Staff Divide

A thoughtful correspondent wrote last week to express concern about what she perceived as a growing rift between faculty and professional staff on her campus.

It’s one of those issues that waxes and wanes, but never really goes away.

Professional staff can be characterized as people with graduate degrees who do non-faculty work. They could be counselors, financial aid staff, librarians, registrars, disability-services providers, IT, instructional designers, or any number of other positions, depending on the campus. Some of them may have teaching backgrounds, and some may even teach on an adjunct basis while working as staff. Their positions are usually twelve month, five-day-a-week jobs. Some campuses have a tenure system for staff, and some have tenure for some staff (librarians) and not others.

Although friction between faculty and administration gets most of the press, friction between faculty and staff can be quite real, and sometimes toxic.

In my observation, some of it comes from what Cathy Davidson calls attention blindness. We don’t notice certain things, based on our priorities at the time. If I’m focusing on how best to teach my class in two hours, I’m not thinking much about how the financial aid department works, and vice versa. Over time, it’s easy to see folks in the other roles are basically ancillary.

Different calendars are a persistent source of friction, and not just for the obvious reasons. For example, one of the most frequent areas of calendar-driven faculty-staff conflict I’ve seen has been parking. If your workday starts at 8:30 every single day, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for the professor who complains that she can’t find a space just before her 11:00 class. Conversely, if you’re the professor trying to get to class, it’s hard not to wonder just who all these people are taking up spaces.

The yearly calendar makes the problem more complex. Parking is relatively easy in the summer, since most of the faculty aren’t there. When they come back in September, the parking follies begin. That’s nobody’s fault, obviously, but some people think in terms of people rather than systems, and train their anger accordingly.

Even such basics as “how was your summer?” can be grating if you spent most of your summer in cubicle hell. I recall a professor a few years ago complaining bitterly that the summer was a wash, because he only got to spend one month on Cape Cod. It took real restraint not to unleash a snark attack of historic proportions. Well-meaning “welcome back” messages can have the same effect on people who never left.

I’ve also seen a persistent confusion among some faculty between “shared governance” and “faculty governance.” They don’t see the distinction, though to the staff, the distinction is loud and clear. Pronouncements like “the faculty are the college” are a direct slap in the face to staff.

Then, of course, there’s status. Most staffers don’t go by titles, even if they have academic credentials at the same level as faculty. (There’s nothing weird about addressing someone as Professor Smith, but it would be weird to call her Librarian Smith.) The culture of faculty, in which they regard themselves largely as independent contractors on loan from their disciplines, implies a different locus of loyalty than the culture of staff, who regard themselves as employees of the college. When that divided loyalty comes with lifetime job security, a staffer who has neither may grumble.

None of this is to deny that resentments can run the other way, too. Many professors who are tired of the adjunct trend look at the growth in non-faculty positions and see an unchecked resource suck. Depending on turnover rates, racial and gender demographics can sometimes be markedly different among faculty as opposed to staff, leading to resentments that have little to do with the jobs themselves. And personalities are an ever-present wild card.

I don’t know if faculty-staff tensions are getting worse, the same as they ever were, or getting better. I’m not even sure how to measure that. I hope they improve, not least because those of us who care about public higher education need to put up a united front against an increasingly difficult political climate. At some point, we need to acknowledge that divisions of labor are simply necessary.

I’d guess that the faculty-staff divide varies greatly by context. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen circumstances that make it markedly better or worse? Is there another source of conflict I’ve missed? And is there a realistic way you can imagine to make it better?