Colleges Are Forgetting the People Who Make Them Run


One reason campus staff is overlooked is because the term itself is amorphous. It includes those we often think of as staff, such as maintenance and dining workers, but it also encompasses athletic trainers, computer technicians, lawyers, and academic advisers with advanced degrees. David Perry, who has experienced campus work life both as a tenured professor at Dominican University in Illinois and now as a senior academic adviser in the history department at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, told me that the pandemic has “ossified ideas about who is in charge and who matters.” From the moment campuses shifted to remote learning in March, he added, “students and faculty were immediately prioritized, and staff were an afterthought.”

Although the term faculty doesn’t describe a monolithic category—it’s used to refer to full-time professors, part-time adjuncts, and graduate assistants—full-time tenured professors benefit from certain job protections and share in the governance of the university. Staff might also participate in their own form of “shared governance,” but it’s typically seen as a second-rate version of what faculty get, and staff employment is usually more structured, managed, and at-will than that of faculty.

Mary George Opperman, the vice president and chief human resources officer at Cornell University, told me that the size and the makeup of staff have grown as higher education has become more complex, but that the faculty-student experience remains the lifeblood of the university. “If universities didn’t have faculty, they’d be something else,” Opperman said. “You hire faculty for a specific reason—for their scholarship. They have autonomy. Staff is brought in for a different reason, often in support of the faculty.”

In the past several weeks, a growing chorus of professors is questioning the wisdom of returning to in-person instruction. But while faculty members get to make those complaints from the safety of their own homes, low-paid housekeepers and maintenance employees who can’t work remotely are already on campus getting it ready for the fall amid fresh outbreaks among athletes and partying students.

“It’s just assumed that these employees will be there no matter the risk,” Todd Holden, the interim president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees at the University of Maryland, told me. The union represents 3,400 employees at the flagship College Park campus, including housekeepers, bus drivers, and administrative assistants.

Staff members may also feel left out of the flurry of communications coming from campus leaders this summer. When Florida State University suggested in a June memo that employees working from home during the pandemic would no longer be allowed to care for children at the same time, a backlash ensued. A few days later, campus officials tried to clarify the message, saying that faculty wouldn’t be impacted. That memo was later removed from the web.

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