Work in higher education long enough and you’ll learn that faculty have a tenuous relationship with university administration. Listen in on any faculty meeting and I’d wager you will overhear someone complain about “The Administration” at least one or twelve times. This tension has the potential to hurt the ability of student affairs practitioners and faculty connect with each other.

In a piece entitled, If Student Affairs-Academic Affairs Collaboration is Such a Good Idea, Why Are There So Few Examples of These Partnerships in American Higher Education, Dr. Victor Arcelus (2011) points out that the issue goes deeper than merely preventing joint programming between faculty and staff; it is something more akin to a cultural divide and lack of understanding. While it is a recent trend for academic departments to offer interdisciplinary courses, for example, but those partnerships rarely if ever include student affairs.

Arcelus (2011) attributes this, at least partly, to a lack of clarity about the purpose of higher education, is it to educate the mind or the whole student? As faculty turn more toward their discipline and student affairs staff increasingly take on more supporting roles outside the classroom, the question I am left with is how can collaboration better connect our two worlds? Students need both.

It’s an open question whether student affairs practitioners ‘count’ as administrators. At times that term seems to mean the President/Provost/Deans, and other times it seems to indicate any non-faculty employee; so there is a risk that student affairs staff members are being lumped into a category they don’t actually belong to. In any case, we as higher education professionals may face some serious evasion, confusion, or even distrust when working with academic departments to develop programming, form committees, or get responses to queries. It can be incredibly frustrating.

Based on my observations and sixteen years of experience in higher education, working as an administrative assistant, policy analyst, faculty support coordinator and student advisor, I submit these suggestions. They are not necessarily applicable to everyone. In her book “Working Effectively with Faculty” faculty member Susan Corcoran Christy lays out a much more in-depth framework. My experiences cohere well with Christy’s research, and what follows are a few observations to help bridge the gap:

  1. For the most part, staff members’ first allegiance is to the institution. We wear our university t-shirts with pride and feel solidarity with everyone who works at our institution. But faculty often seem to have a different connection to the university community, seeing themselves as primarily committed to their departments, or their disciplines, rather than the university writ large. Understanding this distinction is crucial because it helps inform what will motivate a faculty member. They may not be moved by campus-wide needs or interests or strategic plans, whereas appealing to something that relates directly to their department or discipline will encourage deeper engagement.
  2. Many faculty members are allergic to buzzwords, so avoid “administration-speak” when emailing a faculty member. Being overly formal or using a lot of jargon can easily lead a faculty member to disengage. Also: try to keep emails SHORT and to the point. Being clear about what is needed and why can help encourage faculty involvement. In addition, some student affairs practitioners may prefer to use “feeling” language, and this may not be the communication style of many faculty members. Relatedly, most faculty members are trained to think critically and often question ideas or policy. That is essentially part of their job, so try not to take it personally (it’s not usually intended as mean-spirited) and respond honestly.  They appreciate and value direct communication and frank conversation – be open and straightforward.
  3. Many faculty members I have worked with at various institutions across the country don’t quite understand what professional staff are for or what they do. I suspect that this at least partly stems from how staff are trained up to always defer to faculty desires. Faculty rightly view their job as central to the university (universities are here to teach students, after all), but at the same time they may fail to appreciate the equally central place of, say, the Registrar’s Office. When approaching a situation with a faculty member, try to resist the urge to be overly deferential. Be courteous and professional, but that doesn’t have to mean downplaying the importance of non-teaching components of the university. By the same token, feel free to take opportunities to help faculty members better appreciate the importance of the work you do outside the classroom.
  4. Don’t forget that faculty members are regular people (who knew, right?!) and just like any other colleague, finding common hobbies or outside interests can help facilitate friendly relationships. Every summer I work orientation with the same core group of faculty and maintain good relationships with them because we have bonded over sharing stories about registration fiascos and parent questions.

Our academic colleagues face enormous pressure in their work, in a way that differs from our own. Depending on their discipline, serving on a student conduct committee or working at orientation may genuinely hinder progress for their career as they work furiously against the tenure clock or try to stay current with their research. Assuming positive intent can go a long way in encouraging positive working relationships with the faculty you encounter. Keeping the concepts above in mind has helped me to build stronger relationships with faculty, which at the end of the day benefits students and the healthy functioning of the university as a whole.

References

Arcelus, V. J. (2011). “If Student Affairs-Academic Affairs Collaboration is Such a Good Idea, Why Are There So Few Examples of These Partnerships in American Higher Education: Transforming Our Approach to Education: Cultivating Partnerships and Dialogue.” In Contested Issues in Student Affairs: Diverse Perspectives and Respectful Dialogue, edited by Peter M. Magolda and Marcia B. Baxter. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 61-74.

Christy, S. (2010). Working effectively with faculty: Guidebook for higher education staff and managers. Berkeley, CA.: University Resources Press.


Anna Tognazzini, ’14 M.Ed., is a Pre-Healthcare and Graduate School Advisor at her undergraduate alma mater, Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Faculty and staff relations are close to her heart as she is married to a tenured faculty member in Philosophy.