Colleges Are Forgetting the People Who Make Them Run

Ideas As universities plan to reopen, they continue to overlook the concerns of campus staff. Caroli

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Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc / Getty

As colleges unveil their reopening plans for the fall, concerns about the safety of faculty teaching in classrooms populated with young adults have taken center stage. But largely left out of the conversation have been the people actually getting campuses up and running: the staff.

Over the past few months, the pandemic has exposed long-standing fissures in the campus workplace. Faculty and staff occupy two very different worlds—a chasm like few others in the American economy. Though they work for the same employer, faculty, by definition, enjoy more job security and power to shape how the university runs, while campus staff continue to be far more vulnerable.

Since the pandemic began, staff—who constitute about half of those employed by American colleges and universities—have been hit with the brunt of furloughs and layoffs. Some 250 schools have instituted furloughs, but two-thirds have taken that action only for staff, according to Chris Marsicano, the founding director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which is tracking how institutions are responding to the coronavirus. About half of the colleges that enacted layoffs did so only for staff. The difference in how faculty and staff have been treated during the pandemic may be most visible in the flexibility each group has in working from home: Of more than 900 colleges that have allowed employees to work remotely, 300 have extended that benefit only to faculty.

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.

A key difference in these reopening plans is that faculty at many schools can choose whether they teach in person or online, exposing tensions not only with staff but also with graduate assistants who have for years been fighting to be recognized as workers. Now that distinction—whether they are students or employees—is even more crucial. At Cornell, for example, professors can choose whether they want to teach in person or online this fall. But with undergraduates scheduled to return to campus, the university believes some faculty will teach face-to-face. Joining them in classrooms and labs will be graduate assistants who don’t have the same leeway that faculty members do. If graduate students want to work remotely, they need to ask for an accommodation through official university channels.

Even so, faculty in two dozen Cornell departments have agreed on their own to allow their graduate assistants to work remotely if they want to—creating yet another divide between workers, in this case graduate students. Becky Lu, a doctoral student in English, told me her department is among those allowing flexibility, so Lu has decided to teach online this fall. “My own department respects us as workers in this particular case, but the university doesn’t,” she said, “even though we’ll be doing a critical amount of the teaching and research this fall.”

Reopening plans now posted on college websites reflect the same divides. These plans were largely written by administrators and faculty, and they focus on students and professors. “The academy made a verb out of the word silo,” Kiernan Mathews, the executive director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard, told me.

What happens to those faculty and staff silos—and the future of many jobs on campuses—hangs in the balance this fall. If campuses reopen to students but most faculty teach remotely, students and administrators who show up might see more clearly how staff are the connective tissue holding campuses together—the cooks in dining halls, the janitors cleaning residence halls, and the technicians maintaining digital infrastructure. But if the spread of COVID-19 intensifies this fall with new outbreaks and hot spots that force schools to move fully online again, it could spell financial trouble for many campuses, and even more isolation for staff as schools trim their workforces, disproportionately affecting those who make campuses run.

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