Improving institutional effectiveness in higher education

by Saba Software | Posted | Performance Management

Improving institutional effectiveness in higher education

In today’s post, guest contributor Dr. Susan Christy — the author of Working Effectively with Faculty: Guidebook for Higher Education Staff and Managers — looks at the working relationships between staff and faculty, and shares strategies your institution can put into place to create a more collaborative workplace.

Friction often lurks in working relationships between staff and faculty. On most campuses, staff-faculty relationships are overlooked or poorly understood. Most HR professionals know too well that these relationships can become thorny — or worse become a barrier to productivity.

Staff may complain that faculty ignore policies and procedures, make vague requests, or expect them to work outside of business hours. Faculty may express frustration with “red tape” imposed by staff.

Fortunately, strategies are available to create a more collaborative academic culture and improve staff-faculty relationships in support of institutional effectiveness.

As a tenured psychology professor, I observed that faculty and staff have different mindsets, priorities and work styles. My research into the subject led to insights that I turned into a book, Working Effectively with Faculty: Guidebook for Higher Education Staff and Managers. As a consultant, speaker and trainer, I help universities and medical schools reduce and resolve staff-faculty friction.

When I work with institutions in resolving these frictions, I find it useful to begin by laying out key differences between the two groups.

Common differences between faculty and staff

Here’s a chart that outlines differences between staff and faculty when it comes to things like key traits, motivators and skills, to name a few. A note of caution: this chart contains generalizations that don’t apply to every individual.

Differences between staff and faculty are a good thing

Differences don’t have to divide, of course. They’re necessary and valuable in institutions of higher learning. Most staff members feel rewarded and inspired by opportunities to contribute to the cutting-edge work of faculty.

But the different roles and responsibilities of staff and faculty can sometimes put them at cross-purposes, and lead to negative patterns common to academia, such as:

Faculty and staff don’t understand the volume and complexity of one another’s work.

  • Staff work is often invisible to faculty, and vice versa
  • Some faculty members take staff for granted and notice only when something goes wrong
  • Staff often find faculty members unavailable, unresponsive to staff requests, lax about deadlines, and distracted

Faculty and staff have unrealistic expectations of one another.

  • Faculty often don’t anticipate the implications of their projects and decisions for staff members; many staff members say faculty expect them to ‘mind read’
  • Staff expect faculty to respond immediately to email requests that faculty view as burdensome
  • Characteristics that make faculty stars (intellectual prowess, renown) may make them less appreciative of and responsive to staff

Academic traditions and norms, which sometimes reflect outdated aspects of the broader society, can add to misunderstanding and tension.

  • Faculty sometimes come across as “entitled”
  • Staff sometimes feel treated like second-class citizens
  • Any interdependent relationship with a perceived power imbalance is a set-up for abuse of rank

Human Resources staff can lead and promote change

Culture changes over time. In academia and elsewhere we see increasing respect and equality for members of previously marginalized groups, and decreasing acceptance of bullying behavior. Human Resources professionals often lead and promote these changes in support of improving institutional effectiveness.

University HR departments are powerfully positioned to launch and support initiatives that can improve mutual understanding and cooperation among faculty and staff.

Here are some possible approaches:

  • Highlight successful staff-faculty relationships online, in publications and at campus events
  • Create or strengthen principles of community for your campus, and cite them when mediating staff-faculty conflicts
  • Expand your faculty leadership training to help faculty interact effectively with staff
  • Help academic department chairs (who may be conflict-averse) learn how to take a stand against inappropriate faculty behavior
  • Help new staff employees understand academia and how it differs from working in the private sector

HR professionals can also train staff in the following strategies:

  • Use talent management programs to build confidence and clarity about their role and the value of their contribution to the institution’s mission
  • Develop a mindset that views faculty as colleagues
  • Use demonstrations of respect and appropriate deference (not subservience) to elicit cooperation from faculty
  • Use proactive, clear and direct communication; briefly explain why the issue matters; and send reminders
  • Help staff to develop skill in setting appropriate boundaries and saying “no” when appropriate

Old, engrained patterns do not change easily, but I’ve seen them change thanks to the implementation of these strategies at large schools such as Stanford University and the University of Michigan, and small ones such as Lehigh University (read more about the results at Lehigh here).

Good luck with your efforts, and please let me know what worked!

Additional information and resources are available at, including a link to buy Working Effectively with Faculty at a discounted rate.

Discover how effective talent management is helping higher education, by reading this white paper on matching workforce talent with new institutional needs in higher education.

About Dr. Susan Christy

Susan is passionate about helping college and university administrators, staff, and faculty create the best in education, research, and organizational effectiveness.

She has created the first book and comprehensive approach for building strong staff-faculty relationships: Working Effectively with Faculty: Guidebook for Higher Education Staff and Managers.

Susan holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from The California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and was as tenured Professor of Psychology at Asnuntuck College in Connecticut before starting her own business consulting for corporations and higher education.

For more about Susan, visit

White Paper Download: Matching Workforce Talent with New Institutional Needs in Higher Education


White Paper Download: Matching Workforce Talent with New Institutional Needs in Higher Education


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