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On Faculty/Staff Relationships

This past Friday, the College hosted a lunch for faculty and staff to sit down together to talk about issues of common interest. Thank you to Administrative Assistant Hall, Assistant Vice President Johnson, Associate Dean Erickson, and Director Lopatto for making the conversation possible. Thank you, also, to the many faculty and staff who participated and shared their perspectives. This essay is my attempt to synthesize some of what I learned or thought about during, before, and after that meeting.

Those of you who know me or who have been reading these essays know that I’m not always the most pleasant person [1]. I know that I’m not alone in sometimes being unpleasant with others. Faculty are not always nice to staff (or to each other); staff are not always nice to faculty (or to each other). It’s something that we need to work on, because, in the end, we all have the same mission (or should have the same mission), helping our students thrive [2]. That means we should collaborate.

In many ways we collaborate well, better than at many other institutions. Most of us feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling someone elsewhere on campus. I can call academic advising if I’m worried about a student, and I’m pretty sure that they feel comfortable calling me if they have a student they are worried about [3]. I’m also able to call a fellow faculty member to ask about a requirement or the best option for a student, and my fellow faculty are clearly willing to do the same with me.

But there are also many things that stand in the way of our collaboration. From my perspective, one of the most important is overall world views and the context within which we work. While faculty do collaborate regularly, we also have an incredible amount of autonomy. Staff, on the other hand, often have to pay more attention to rules and regulations. Faculty are also (relatively) protected by tenure. Staff, on the other hand, are regularly reminded that they are at will employees [4]. Together, I think that means that faculty are more inclined to want to bend rules [5] for students, while staff likely need to be more careful to enforce rules, and that can be a source of conflict. I think faculty are also more likely to ignore chain of command, and just write to whoever they think will get something done most quickly.

The structure of the College also helps ensure that we have different kinds of status. The tenure/at will divide is certainly one. Our salary structures are another. In particular, the faculty raise pool is significantly higher than the staff raise pool. (I don’t remember exactly how much, but it strikes me that the faculty raise pool was about 6% in recent years and the staff raise pool was about 3%.) That appears to provide some evidence that the College values faculty more than staff [6]. In addition, while faculty (and even students) have explicit roles in College governance, staff do not [7].

Workload and stress also indirectly contribute to our inability to collaborate well. First, the workload and stress mean that we have insufficient time to get to know each other better. In fact, many of us can’t even put a face to a name, since we’ve never met in person. That also contributes to the call who you know, not who you’re supposed to call culture, in part because we would rather deal with people we know, in part because we may not know the appropriate hierarchy. Second, stress and workload mean that we often want to do things as quickly as possible, without taking as much time as we should to listen to the other person or to consider their perspective. And, thinking about the other person’s perspective is one thing we really have to do.

Where do we stand? We have common goals. We have some things that divide us. So, what can we do?

First, we can focus on our commonalities. Our desire to help our students is one of those commonalities. Another is that we all face pressures and policies that we don’t really have a part in making. (Yes, surprising as it may be, few staff make the policies they enforce, and the faculty don’t make many of the policies that affect their work.) Shared pain can be a useful tool.

Second, we can try to find more opportunities to get to know each other. The meet the new people receptions are one way. But I think that the extended conversations that happen at lunch meetings like Friday can be even more helpful, particularly if we enter them with a spirit of openness and cooperation. Maybe the College could do something like a Fourth Friday lunch each month for faculty and staff. Randomly assigning folks to tables would also help ensure that we meet new people each time.

Third, as someone suggested at the discussion, we could advocate more strongly for Grinnell to think more carefully about social justice as it relates to staff. Instead of benchmarking salaries on what others pay in our region, we could consider what an appropriate living wage for our staff is. Too many of our staff members have to work second jobs to make ends meet. Grinnell could set itself apart from its peers by making a strong commitment to this kind of social justice.

Fourth, we could work harder to understand the other side. For example, faculty should be much more cooperative with admissions about classroom visits [8]. Faculty could try to be more supportive of SHACS, even when SHACS isn’t functioning as well as it should. And I’m sure there are many other things we could do better.

At the same time, staff need to understand that faculty workdays are different. At the lunch, I heard a comment that I wish everyone would use Outlook. I use Outlook. But I wish I didn’t have to [9]. Let me go through the reasons why Outlook may not work well for faculty (or for staff, for that matter). First, most of our days are busy, but not scheduled. That is, we’re spending a lot of time doing research, or preparing classes, or grading, or whatever. We don’t think we should have to mark all of those times on a calendar to avoid getting scheduled. Second, Outlook on the Web is much worse than, say, Google Calendar. It makes our lives less convenient, rather than more, to use it. Third, we can’t give our families write access to our Outlook calendars [10].

Finally, we could all look for ways to have more reasonable work lives. (And we can hope that the administrators above us could also look for ways to help us have more reasonable work lives.)

[1] Yes, that’s an understatement.

[2] There are also related missions, such as recruiting our students, or making sure that we have money to serve our students, or ensuring that we have excellent people to support our students.

[3] We can also send email. However, it’s probably best not to trust information about students to email.

[4] Those reminders take a variety of forms, from explicit statements to watching a colleague suddenly disappear from campus.

[5] Or outright break rules.

[6] I expect that there are many reasonable reasons for the differential. We compete for faculty nationally (or internationally). We tend to compete for staff regionally. Other than through the normal progression of assistant -> associate -> full, faculty don’t really have opportunities for promotion. Staff, on the other hand, can be promoted (and, I assume receive a fairly significant raise when they are promoted). But there aren’t always opportunities for promotion. In any case, even with these reasons, I know it hurts people to see the disparity.

[7] Or at least I don’t think staff have as explicit a role in governance.

[8] No, this did not come up at the meeting. But I regularly see limited spots during student visit days. As a parent of multiple prospective students, I know the value of classroom visits for both students and their parents.

[9] Stay tuned for a forthcoming essay on why I hate Outlook calendar.

[10] Why is that important? At least in my case, there are times each day that I need to be available for my children or that my wife needs to know what I’m doing, or whatever. We’ve used a shared Google calendar for a long time for that purpose. I don’t think I should have to spend the effort copying things between calendars.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-10-02.