Thursday, May 15, 2008

There's a rumor at UF that Bernie Mac-hen has set aside a pot of money for faculty raises. I don't think it's a rumor, I think it's true. Yes, during this budget crisis in which 118 staff members and 20 faculty at UF will be laid off, there's room for pay increases--for faculty, that is.
I understand the importance of retaining good faculty and if an institution of higher education doesn't show its appreciation for its faculty (and I refer to its best faculty), that faculty will not stick around, that is a fact of life. And if these best faculty leave UF and go elsewhere, UF no longer gets the research dollars, the grants, the prestige, the best students, and ultimately while the University will survive, some of its best and most cutting edge programs won't survive and it will be just your average university. There won't be anything extraordinary to attract the best of the best. And then so much for being in the top ten right?

It is life---that some talents are in demand more than others and those with those talents and abilities will be sought out and recruited more heavily than those who do not have them. Comparing faculty & staff is like comparing apples and oranges. I believe it is more difficult to find the kind of faculty needed for an extraordinary institution, than it is to find the staff to support them. That doesn't mean faculty are more important than staff as individuals but their jobs at the University are inherently different and if you think about the job descriptions of a faculty member and support staff in the same department, you have to ask yourself which individual is harder to find? Which is more highly educated? Which is more in demand? It's about investment in human capital. A person with a PhD in Economics is no more important and valuable as a person than the administrative assistant in his department. The PhD simply knows more about Economics and probably a few other things. But the administrative assistant will know things the Economist doesn't know. The administrative assistant will know how to solve problems, get things done where the Economist might ask "how the hell do I...?"

It's just a matter of supply and demand. Who is in more demand? Who is more in supply? I'd say at a University, the Economics professor who specializes in (insert area here) is likely in more demand and less likely in supply. Thus you pay more to get and retain this person. In a given area there is likely much more of a supply of administrative assistants (and less of a demand) than there are economists who specialize in a particular area.

Ok maybe it could have been explained better but goodness, you know what I mean!

Now finding the right staff member to work with students in a large academic program takes a combination of things--a great personality, the ability to solve problems, think rationally and analyze, ability to work well with others, ability to work independently without supervision, ability to create and maintain relationships with people. When one is working with students--especially students--one MUST like helping people and solving problems--because if one doesn't, one has NO business working with students PERIOD! (Same goes for faculty, if you hate teaching, don't teach!)

Therefore, as much as I believe that a university MUST go the extra mile to recruit, retain and reward the best faculty, that university cannot run smoothly unless it recruits, retains and rewards the best staff. In the case of UF, more often than not, when problems need solving, it is the staff who are the ones who make it happen.

There's this running joke in my office. One of my graduate students will walk in upset because they just don't know what to do about something regarding their education. It could be something trivial or it could be something really serious. The student will walk into my office worried and upset but when they leave they are calmer and feeling much better. And before they depart I say to them "ok next time can you please bring me something I can't solve?". and we both laugh. Why? Because they know I care, they know that no matter what academic problem they have, they can come to me and we will find a way to solve it. It won't always be easy and painless, but there's always a way.

That is an example of the kind of staff member you want to retain.

I'm not saying this to make myself look good, I'm saying it because there are hundreds of employees at UF just like that. There are so many people willing to go the extra mile to make things run smoothly. I can't tell you how many people I know at UF who are like that---in all kinds of places--the Registrar's office, Admissions, Payroll, Travel, Student Financial Services, Dean's offices, Departments, Physical Plant, Finance and Accounting, you name the department, there are staff in every area who go the extra mile.

Those are the people you want to retain and reward because they make the logistics of the institution flow smoothly.

However, that said...

The problem is that when the President has to weigh the future of the University and make decisions that will directly affect the quality of education which one do you think he will pick as the most important? The retention of faculty or staff?

I wouldn't want to be in the position to have to make that decision.

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