We're back for another week in the endless quest to make universities a fulfilling and rewarding place to work. If I have to live until I'm 182 to pay off the mortgage on my house in Sydney, I might as well try to make my working life a bit better for all involved.
I want to change tack today, and talk about another way in which universities are incredibly wasteful (haha, got you).
I see a lot of academics on twitter, and in real life, talking about the various painful stages of becoming, and growing, and succeeding as an academic. I hear you. I see you. It's hard. And painful. And often damaging or soul destroying. Your pain is the destruction of human potential, and I feel sad that you are treated this way.
But I would like to point out that professional staff have much of the pain, without the rewards or the respect in academia. When restructures happen, the scythe swings at us first. We don't get promoted, ever. We have no incentive to do better. In fact, if you get the wrong boss, you can be very actively incentivised to do a worse job because they're threatened by excellence, and sometimes even threatened by competence.
Luckily I don't suffer from that now.
Aside from any personal annoyance I might feel at all of that, my overriding feeling about it is disgust at the waste of potential. Let's take a real life example.
I started at unis in a big school of engineering at HEW6 (Australian levels 1-10 in which 10 is the most senior). I won a Vice-Chancellor's award for the stuff I did there. Someone managed to help me get me to L7 (band reference for you 90s female rock afficionados). Tapping out (after more than 6 years) what I felt I could achieve there, and seeing a uni restructure coming over the hill, I dumped most of what I knew and could do and went to a totally different area of the uni, student conduct. Unis don't exactly manage people transition well. I left one job on friday and started another one up the hill on Monday.
In the new role I started doing good stuff there, by most accounts. With a good friend and colleague (@fourthlinemagic) we won another Vice-Chancellor's award for our work on contract cheating. Then Covid hits, and the uni decides it needs to slash staff. I kept my job, but that experience again reminded me that the uni doesn't think much of professional staff at all. And so in good time I leave the uni because there was no way forward there.
People who are literally at the absolute top of their fields in professional spaces (I'm not sure where the 3rd space begins and ends) can simply shut down their computer one day and they're gone. Am I the only one who sees how stupid this is? Unis have some absolutely incredible people working for them (not me, I'm merely excellent 😎) and it strikes me that the institution has not even the foggiest idea that most of them even work there.
I had a random discussion with one of the "talent" people from the uni one day. I asked them why they don't see the VC's awards as a talent pool to cultivate. I asked why they don't ask these people "what do you want to do here?" and help them achieve it, for the betterment of both the staff member and the uni. He looked at me dumbfounded, said "I don't know, I should look into that. I'll be in touch" and left. I heard no more of it but the question stands.
So let me end with a practical suggestion. If your uni has awards for professional staff, start considering how you can lay out a career for these people, allowing them to stretch themself, and benefit your organisation, all in one fell swoop. But don't leave them to rot on the vine, and (worst of all) don't allow them to simply shut down and sign off because you were too blind to give a damn. Otherwise they probably will. I know of two people beside myself who won VC's awards at our shared previous uni, but now work at my current uni. Seems like several balls were dropped.
Till next time,