The Three As of Supporting Academic Staff
I imagine we have all experienced the following scenario: a staff member retires or leaves for another opportunity providing better pay and benefits, and the department finds itself down a valued academic support staff member. That loss, whether sudden or planned, can leave a significant hole in the unit. It also provides an opportunity for the unit to reflect on the extent of support that staff provide to the university, which may otherwise go unrecognized. From managing administrative duties to supporting faculty and students, their work is critical for ensuring the smooth operation of academic programs. While their loss may illuminate the important work they do, how often do we recognize that work and strive to support them while they are still members of the department?
If your answer is in the vicinity of “not enough,” it may be time to explore ways to support and empower academic staff, as their continued success and contributions are pivotal to the success of higher education institutions. One way to do so is what I refer to as the three As of support: assess, adjust, and advance. While simplistic on the surface, they provide a framework for introducing and maintaining a culture of support. If your department already has a culture of support, it is likely you do these three things naturally. If not, they provide a starting point for creating that culture.
Before we dive into each of the three As, it is important to note that three key concepts underlie this approach. The first is that support should be ongoing. I avoid the term “continuous” as it can elicit a fear that substantial additional work will be required of an administrator—in the case of a department, the chair. Instead, the process should be one that naturally and informally occurs during the administrator’s ongoing interactions with academic support staff.
The second concept is genuineness. As humans, we have an uncanny ability to determine when someone is not really interested or not being authentic when communicating with us. Almost nothing would sabotage the process of improving support for staff as quickly as being disingenuous while doing it. Ideally, administrators should have a genuine interest in fostering a culture of support with staff, but if not, it is imperative to at least be authentic when working through these steps.
The final underlying concept is understanding the fundamental differences between faculty and academic support staff. As Dettmar (2022) writes when describing dos and don’ts of working with staff, “Faculty members work under conditions that are unimaginable to the vast majority of the workforce” (p. 85). No matter how much an administrator strives to instill a culture of support for staff, it is highly unlikely that those workers will enjoy the same liberties as faculty. I include this here not as a reminder for staff (they are well aware) but because this reality may limit the extent to which we can engage in the three As. Additionally, the considerations and limitations for supporting academic staff will likely differ from supporting faculty.
This first step in this process is to assess. In this context, assessment does not mean the annual or semiyearly performance reviews that support staff undergo. I’m sure those opportunities are used to provide some support and affirmation to staff, but in the end, they are still performance reviews. Instead, assessment is two pronged. The first prong is understanding the current and ongoing needs of a department, which is important for both hiring and supporting staff. Recognizing these needs is squarely within the wheelhouse of the administrator and something they should already be keenly aware of. The second prong is a continuous process aiming to better understand how an individual staff member believes they best perform within their role. Assessment need not—should not—be an official or formal review. Ideally, it occurs as part of the frequent interactions that an administrator has with that individual. In those meetings, you as an administrator can ask the staff member such questions as the following:
- Are there things you would like the opportunity to do?
- Is an aspect of your work proving to be overwhelming?
- Are faculty members trying to pass off work to you?
- Is there any additional support that you need from me? The department?
- Are you running into any institutional barriers when doing your work?
This list is not intended to be exhaustive, and an affirmative to any of these questions should elicit some open-ended follow-up questions. But these questions do provide context around this type of ongoing assessment. The keys are that it is ongoing and that you are genuinely invested in the individual’s success within their role.
Assessment may uncover that some individuals prefer to do their work and go home without engaging in extraneous events or activities the department hosts. Having mandatory “team-building” activities may actually be detrimental to their happiness and effectiveness within their position. Alternatively, others may feel more connected to the work they are doing if allowed to participate in those events. Maybe they even want to take a leadership role in planning a departmental event. The keys are the ongoing communication and opportunities to understand each member of the team.
The second step is to adjust. How can you, the administrator, integrate the job requirements and the needs of the department with the way the staff member sees themselves best fitting into their role? The essence of adjustment is flexibility, including how best to course correct when needed. If the department has historically supported and affirmed academic support staff, there might be no, or only slight, adjustments needed. Alternatively, if you are introducing a culture of ongoing support into a department that has not had one, you may find that more substantive adjustments are necessary. But do not think of adjustment as an all-or-none dichotomy. Instead, keep in mind the maxim “progress, not perfection.”
As an example of the adjustment process, imagine that your assessment uncovers that one or more faculty members are inappropriately passing off work to an administrative assistant. How do you work to ensure that no longer occurs? It is possible the faculty are not aware of the boundaries around the administrative assistant’s workload. In that case, all it might take is a gentle reminder. Alternatively, as much as we hope this is not the case, maybe a faculty member is aware of those boundaries and is using the power differential to get additional work completed. Responding in this case would likely require a different approach than the former example. The key is figuring out how best to do that within your current administrative role and in a way that supports the staff who drew your attention to the issue.
The third and final step is to advance. Once you have identified an issue and found an adjustment that you can make to better support a staff member, work to implement that change. This approach tends to favor ongoing, incremental changes over a few large ones, so advancing with the adjustments should require limited additional work for administrators. While I hesitate to mention workload as a barrier to supporting academic support staff, it has the potential to be one.
Using the previous example, in which faculty gave an administrative assistant excess work because they lacked knowledge about staff duties, you would execute your plan to address this issue. This could involve informing the department of expectations during a committee meeting, having individual meetings with faculty, or empowering the staff member to reject work that is outside of their duties. But the process does not end with the intervention. Make sure that during your subsequent ongoing assessments, you follow up with the support staff to ensure that your intervention has been successful. It is possible that additional adaptations will be needed.
The three As constitute just one of the many approaches for introducing or reinforcing a culture of support for academic support staff. When you decide to go down this path of support, however, you may find that much of the time there is not much you, as the administrator, actually need to do. Sometimes affirmation and an attentive ear are all a person needs to feel supported.
 While I use “department” in the article, it is meant to be inclusive of all the various higher educational structures.
Dettmar, K. (2022). How to chair a department. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Philip Mongan, LCSW, PhD, is a faculty member and the master of social work program director at Radford University. He is the author of two books, Rampage School Shootings and Creating Change in Social Work Practice (Cognella), and is focused on elevating social work education.