Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle of Higher Education
Dear Commons Community,
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently held a forum wherein four leaders expressed their opinions on how colleges are trying different strategies to adapt to a new reality. The two years of the Covid pandemic forced everybody including college administrators to move to online instruction and services. Now that the pandemic has waned, what is the new realities facing our colleges and universities.
To get a better understanding of what the campus workplace looks like now and how it might look in the future, The Chronicle held a virtual forum with several higher-education leaders. The conversation, led by Megan Zahneis, a staff reporter at The Chronicle, included Malou C. Harrison, executive vice president and provost at Miami Dade College; Cathy A. Sandeen, president of California State University at East Bay; Daniele C. Struppa, president of Chapman University; and Allison M. Vaillancourt, a vice president and senior consultant at Segal, a human-resources consulting firm. Below is an abbreviated version of the exchanges.
Lots of interesting responses here!
Megan Zahneis: How are you thinking about things right now? How are you handling flexible-work policies?
Daniele C. Struppa: Our greatest challenge has been to put in place a policy for our staff. We pride ourselves on personalized education, and we want to have our faculties in the classroom, so that’s never really been a long-term consideration. Staff, on the other hand, we’ve learned can work very well remotely in many circumstances. Before the reopening of the country, we put together a policy which allows for three types of remote working: telecommuting, flexible work time, and remote work. As of now, 40.7 percent of our staff are taking advantage of one form or another of remote working. Telecommuting allows people to work out of different locations and not necessarily be here for up to three days a week. Flexible work time requires them to work here, but with different time schedules. So there is a period, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., in which everybody has to be here, but they can come early and leave at 3 or come in at 9 and leave later than 3. Remote work is for people that can completely perform their jobs from their homes. Staff seems to be happy, and it has become important in terms of retention and hiring new staff.
Malou C. Harrison: Our faculty now are able to teach via different modalities, whereas prior to the pandemic, our faculty, if they had five courses, had the opportunity to teach one course online asynchronously and four had to be in person. Now they can teach all five courses via a live, synchronous, virtual modality. Not every single discipline is conducive to a virtual-learning environment. So we’re looking at all of our disciplines to determine what courses within each discipline we can still optimize by delivering it in any particular modality.
Zahneis: Traditionally, higher education has been insulated from the corporate sector and how it operates. How are those differences playing out now, and what cues can higher ed take from the corporate world?
Allison M. Vaillancourt: In the corporate sector, we have more of a tradition of having remote work distributed around the country, and that doesn’t work quite so well for higher education right now. Even something as simple as payroll: Every state has different employment laws and leave laws and taxation things. And when you’ve got an internal operation that does that work rather than a national organization doing that for you, it’s really hard to have expertise in order to manage that. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was this early conversation about, “We could recruit people from anywhere. We have access to all the talent.” And then people started looking at the details going, “Oh, that’s a little harder than I thought it was going to be.” And so we sort of have seen a pullback on that. Also, we’ve learned that people really value remote work, but they can be very lonely during remote work. And so I think we can learn from the corporate sector about how to build a a sense of team, a sense of community, strong levels of connection that keep people wanting to work for us.
Zahneis: Higher education is facing a really stiff job market, in many cases losing out to corporations that have even-more-flexible work policies and better salaries. How are you thinking about the job-market competition, particularly on the staff level?
Struppa: We are in Orange County, which is one of the most expensive areas in the country, and the pricing for housing is almost a scandal. It’s really hard for people with regular salaries to make it. We have been impacted. We have a significant vacancy rate, almost twice as much of what we would usually have during a normal time. We are increasing the number of houses that we have available for people that we hire. We have a long waiting list. We have some properties in Orange, but certainly not enough. The sticker shock coming from other parts of the country is horrendous, so we are also working on salaries. We just released a significant amount of money that has been allocated in the last couple of weeks to retain the staff most at risk for flight.
Cathy A. Sandeen: We are seeing a lot of churn and turnover in our employees. While that is concerning, we’re also seeing on the plus side that we are recruiting quality individuals to our university. It’s not like we have huge vacancies that we can never fill. I think people are re-examining their lives following the pandemic. We are attracting people who are very committed to our mission. We’re also able to provide some upward career progression for our employees who were kind of stuck. Many people were feeling frustrated that they couldn’t move up within their own university, but now that’s opened up in some cases. But it is a challenge when individuals leave. There’s additional work, at least temporarily, for the people who remain. So we’re able to provide stipends for that additional work. We’ve also been able to revise our position descriptions to make jobs a little more complex so that we can justifiably raise the salaries within our HR system.
Zahneis: How do you navigate questions of workplace culture and employee relations in this kind of weird, squishy, in-between space?
Vaillancourt: Let me blow that up into a bigger question: What is the culture of higher education, and how is that contributing to people wanting to stay in higher education or not? For so long, we have thought, “We have such an important mission. People will, of course, want to work for us. Maybe we don’t pay as much as the private sector, but we’re doing important work.” What’s happening now is that other sectors are also doing really meaningful work. It’s possible to have a corporate career with a strong sense of mission and purpose, and so higher education and the nonprofit sector no longer have the market on work with purpose and meaning. Also, higher education can be a very tough culture. There are caste systems. Nobody likes to talk about them, but we know that they exist. If you’re a staff person, you feel that you are not in the top echelon of people in the organization. And that is very painful. Colleges have to think about how to create a culture where people want to want to work for us as an organization but also want to be with their colleagues.
Struppa: I think that people from outside look at us sometimes with starry eyes and then, when they come here, realize that we are no better, but in some ways we are not worse, either. What is happening that is damaging to us is this kind of bipartisan agreement that higher education is not doing its job. It’s a bipartisan agreement, though from a different perspective. The right and the left think poorly of universities for different reasons. That percolates and takes the shine away a little bit from our being a purpose-driven organization. One of the things we try to tell people is that the environment tends to be less cutthroat than in corporations. But the other side of less cutthroat is the lack of, in many cases, meaningful advancement possibilities.
Harrison: We’re serving a heterogeneous group of employees at our institutions. And while there are employees that thrive well in a remote environment, there are employees that really embrace coming to work every day because they love the socialization and they want to be in the midst of the engagement and activity that a college or university brings. At Miami Dade, we’ve worked at re-energizing our campuses post-pandemic. All of our institutions have ensembles, all of our institutions have student organizations, all of our institutions have scholars who can speak to and convene groups of faculty and staff on various topics. How can we bring this life back to our campuses so our faculty, staff and students really embrace this and want to be here?
Zahneis: How are you thinking about equity, especially when it comes to decisions about who can work remotely and who can’t?
Sandeen: Early in the pandemic, essential workers were brought back to campus first: facilities, university police departments, some frontline workers, student health, and so forth. Proportionately employees in those jobs tended to be people of color. And there’s kind of a natural structural racism based on the nature of who’s working in which jobs. That’s something that’s hard to change overnight, but it’s important for us to recognize that and to provide opportunities for employees in all different categories to progress. For example, we have some of our employees who are in our facilities area who are taking advantage of our tuition-waiver program to earn degrees and then are applying for other jobs at the university. Maybe they’re working from moving from our frontline grounds position to a financial-analyst position in another department. So it is possible as long as there is awareness of those opportunities and we make it equitable in terms of who can take advantage of them.
Zahneis: What would you say to your fellow administrative colleagues who are resisting modernization and not embracing what we’re seeing as a changing campus work force?
Vaillancourt: One is that if you want to be able to attract amazing people, you’re going to have to be flexible. Two, don’t assume that face to face is always better. We’re talking to a lot of advising teams, for example, who tell us that no-shows are much lower when they’re virtual meetings and that students like it better. So there’s a lot to be said for this new approach.
Struppa: The response has to be tailored to different institutions. In some areas, remote or telecommuting may not be so necessary. We also have to remember to be indulgent with our colleagues because some of these changes are very expensive. The setup that we put in place to move to remote instruction during the pandemic has been incredibly costly and costly to maintain. We need to provide a very different kind of structure for when people who are telecommuting come to campus. They don’t have an office anymore; it’s more like a hotel system. So I don’t want the fact that we are all so positive and embracing this to be a source of anxiety for our colleagues. It is complicated, and they may have to go through different answers than we did.
Sandeen: Reflect on your own internal inherent biases about remote work. Are you the type of person that doesn’t believe employees are working unless you see them? The pandemic has showed us that that’s not the case. People worked even harder, I think, during the time when we were mostly remote. Also the bias that we can’t treat different jobs differently. I implemented a formal telecommute policy that does treat different jobs differently, and it’s been widely accepted. Some of those biases might be holding you back a bit.