Supporting the Professional Identities of University Staff in Turbulent Times
“There is a Chinese curse which says, ‘May [s]he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”
—Robert F. Kennedy, Day of Affirmation Address, University of Cape Town, June 6, 1966
Like many traditional universities across the United States, the University of Wyoming (UW) is swimming in a sea of change rocked by self- and external criticism. A move for massive budget cuts to cover a $40 million loss of state funding, a rapid succession of university presidents, the arrival of numerous new deans and directors, significant retirements of senior university staff and faculty, and even controversies over institutional marketing campaign slogans have been covered in venues such as Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
It is to our university’s credit, we believe, that leaders took the opportunity to solicit the opinions of university faculty and staff about the institutional climate during these “interesting times.”
Below we review the university’s survey efforts as well as its response to their results. We share our sense of that response’s impacts and then offer some practical takeaways for leaders at other institutions. One such takeaway is the development of professional identity. Research on this concept of identity suggests that a more developed sense of that identity affects how a person makes choices and conforms to a work ethic and could directly affect morale.
The survey efforts
Last year UW employees administered two surveys: the Great Colleges to Work for Survey sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education and ModernThink LLC and the UW Staff Senate’s Professional Development Survey. The results of these surveys showcased “certain common areas of concern.” Two areas stood out: alarmingly low employee morale and the perception of multiple barriers to professional development at UW. The Staff Senate strongly believed that professional development could help increase employee morale on campus if these barriers were addressed.
The university’s response
UW responded to the survey results by arranging several town hall meetings with faculty, staff, and administration. Armed with information from these town hall meetings, the leaders of the two survey groups formed the Strategic Improvement Working Group to address the morale and professional development issues the surveys had raised. This working group quickly began to take the lead on and implement ideas for staff professional development. The Human Resources Department at UW was already working on providing access to LinkedIn Learning for all full-time benefited employees to give them an opportunity for professional development, and managers there redoubled their efforts to make this access happen. The management of the department recognized well the appeal of LinkedIn Learning, as it allowed employees to tie professional development directly to their social media accounts and engage in microlearning.
Impacts of the university response
University HR managers were happy to join forces with the Strategic Improvement Working Group as this was a great way to publicize and increase university buy-in for the LinkedIn Learning product. LinkedIn Learning went live at UW in August 2019, and the HR–Strategic Working Group alliance plans to conduct a survey of the employees who are using the services six months after the program’s initial implementation. Per week, the university is currently seeing about 30 courses completed and 1,000 videos watched. HR has also found this tool to be useful in pairing training courses with corrective actions for employees. The next step HR would like to take is to open this product to non-benefitted employees, which comprise a growing proportion of staff and faculty in higher education institutions across the U.S.
Practical takeaways for leaders at other institutions
We are hopeful that the LinkedIn Learning program has helped put UW staff on a more successful path—one on which they see themselves as administrative and educational professionals whose work is essential to university operations, not as mere functionaries. With exposure to supports such as professional development opportunities, one’s professional identity forms, whether that formation occurs intentionally or unconsciously.
In a 2009 article published in Higher Education, Celia Whitchurch found that in times of austerity and rapid change, universities have called upon staff to engage in work that straddles both academic and administrative support domains. This has created a growing group of what Whitchurch calls “third space” professionals. And expert consensus on the degree to which institutional leaders can support institutional staff consistent with this new “space” is in a developmental stage. Of course, much higher salaries and employee benefits quickly come to mind, but these options are seldom available in times of fiscal turmoil.
We believe that professional development opportunities, thoughtfully developed and deployed, can help move many university staff from an identity as an employee toward seeing the value they bring to the institution as a whole. We suggest that it is this professional identity that will help members of our university staff see their work as contributions to the larger higher education community. It will help the stop focusing on the rapidly passing moment and focus beyond their department, and more consciously and purposefully embrace their likely growing role in the university’s educational mission.
Seeing the larger cause in turbulent times challenges all of us, but we know it is a particular task of academic leaders to constantly orient their people and organizations to the educational mission. We suggest to academic leaders that it is exactly times like these that present the greatest opportunities to think expansively—indeed, creatively—about the role of university staff.
Whitchurch, C. (2009). The rise of the blended professional in higher education: A comparison between the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Higher Education, 58(3), 407–418. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-009-9202-4
T. Renee Ballard is the employee relations and benefits specialist for the human resources department at the University of Wyoming. She spent several years serving on the UW Staff Senate, culminating recently in a term as its president. She is also a student in the university’s MA degree program in higher education administration.
W. Reed Scull, EdD, is an associate professor in the higher education administration program at the University of Wyoming. He has served in administrative capacities at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Wyoming.