Five Ways Administrators Can Show Faculty Support
In the summer of 2017 while I was teaching a graduate education course in China, in oppressive heat, my administrator provided cool water and fresh fruit—a small token that made a big impression on me. Having worked 42 years in educational institutions, I have witnessed what true administrative support feels like and how it can be honed to improve the work of instructors and used to retain them. Support begins with the very first encounter between the candidate and the administrator. Relationship building, communication, and guidance are integral to supporting all faculty. When administrators know their faculty members’ work and acknowledge that work, the faculty feel ongoing support.
1. Positive hiring
The hiring process sets the tone for the employee’s relationship with administration. New hires wish to be recruited and wooed. Having struggled to earn advanced degrees, they seek positions where they will be appreciated from the beginning of their careers. Positive interviews and offers made without lengthy delays aid the hiring process. Retention of strong employees begins with their hiring experience. Truthful advertisements that include specifics about the job are important to share in an interview. The first step in building a trusting relationship with the new hire is to ensure the job turns out exactly as expected, with no negative surprises for the faculty member.
2. Ongoing induction
Hiring takes time and money, so it only makes sense to invest in the induction of new hires. Mentoring of new instructors offers an excellent way to reduce the stress and challenges of the new job. Mentors should be experienced faculty who have had some training in how to mentor and who choose to mentor at a point in their careers when they have the time to do so. Administrators can develop and facilitate the mentor selection, guidelines, and program implementation. They can serve as informal mentors as needed, but a new employee may not want to share openly with their evaluator.
Having all new hires get together for lunches and discussion groups provides them with a cohort of colleagues. Again, it is the administration that establishes such groups with an identified leader—perhaps a veteran professor ready to “give back” by sharing with beginners. If the institution offers workshops for new faculty, encourage all new hires to attend.
3. Clear communication
Clear, accurate information is a key to supporting faculty members and is the cornerstone of the trusting relationship that defines support. For most in higher education, central issues of communication include how to earn promotion and tenure and how to be reemployed annually. Yes, one’s salary and benefits have to be made clear.
Faculty members feel supported when they hear consistent information, not one story from the department chair and another from the dean. It is better to say, “I don’t know, but I will find out,” than to make a quick answer that is unsubstantiated. Personally, I’m skeptical of new announcements or initiatives until they actually happen, due to being told so many false claims in the past. Faculty who feel unsupported because of weak communication may simply choose to not follow directives.
4. Knowledge and acknowledgement of the faculty members’ work
Administrators need to know what the faculty members do and the scope of their ongoing research agendas. With regard to teaching, administrators should observe classes, even if institutional guidelines don’t require them to do so. How can an administrator write a valid letter for tenure without ever seeing the faculty member teach?
Some professors are much better suited to certain committee assignments than others. Knowledge of the person’s background and experience will help the administrator make the match of professor to service and committee work.
While administrators are inundated with reading material, they need to make time to read the publications of their faculty members. They need not read books in their entirety, but they should read specific articles so that they can assist in venue recommendations for future publications. I vividly remember when the college president saw me at a social event and made a point to comment on a recent publication of mine. It was a “wow” moment for me. This president had asked faculty to send him copies of published articles when he first arrived on campus, stating, “It’s a good way for me to become acquainted with your work.” That is support!
Acknowledging faculty success is sometimes best done in private and other times well received in public. To decide which is best, get to know the faculty member and build a positive, trusting, professional relationship built. We all like some genuine praise and recognition.
5. Use of faculty members’ strengths
There is always a massive amount of work to be done in any college department. Administrators may feel that they have to go it alone and do everything by themselves. Yet faculty members want to have a voice in decisions and work. An administrator who considers shared governance and invitational leadership should find that faculty members will contribute when supported and invited to the work. It is not a surprise to know that faculty members talk in the hallways about how they could have done something better than the administrator if they had just had a chance to contribute. Finding a way to listen to faculty input and make the best use of it can be another way to help faculty feel supported.
How can administrators best use the faculty members’ experience and expertise? Listening and learning from faculty is important—yet time consuming and also very frustrating. If both administrators and faculty can strive to see the other’s point of view and to learn what the big-picture issues are for the other side, that can be helpful.
A final note on utilizing faculty strengths is to not overlook the quiet professor. Being quiet can be a strong attribute. Quiet people are often deep thinkers. Don’t expect quick answers in a meeting to necessarily be the best solutions. There is a saying that a good engineer thinks of ways to solve a problem before others even see it. That may be true of quiet people. Do not underutilize them or their ideas.
While providing coffee and bagels to faculty can look like a nice gesture, it won’t make up for a genuine lack of administrative support, and faculty can feel the difference. Is support warm and fuzzy? Maybe, but not necessarily, as a difficult heart-to-heart conversation can be a way to demonstrate support.
Faculty who feel supported may work harder and share their positive attitude with others. Just as tree climbers go out on only those branches that support their weight, so too will faculty members take leaps in their work only when they feel safe to do so. Sometimes cool water, fruit, coffee, and bagels do add to the equation.
I have written this short piece from the faculty member’s viewpoint, but I do recognize that faculty need to bridge the gap and support their administrators’ work as well. The same strategies apply to support administration—communication, knowledge and acknowledgement of work, relationship building, and trust.
Mary C. Clement, EdD, is a professor of teacher education at Berry College. Her administrative experience includes directing the college’s Center for Teaching Excellence in the past, and serving as the international president of Kappa Delta Pi. She is the author of First Time in the College Classroom and has contributed to The Teaching Professor.