By James Wicks
College has long been understood as the last and most auspicious stop before entering the world of work. Likewise, it has been associated with self-discovery and attributed to the shaping of individuals during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Recently, it has been attributed to guiding adult learners to the next stage of occupational and civil participation as well. For these reasons, a college education is referred to as a higher education.
The idea that college plays a significant role in guiding students toward self-understanding and reflective citizenship is traditionally associated with academics (faculty, academic departments, curriculum, etc.), and it is rare that institutions publish statements of commitment to this mission on behalf of administrative teams. (Most offices publish only descriptions of the services they provide.) However, administrators and administrative offices are essential to student growth and self-discovery, and are every bit as culpable as academic departments for student attrition. It is important that higher education administrators at every level understand their role in developing reflective members of society. A good first step is to distinguish between administrators and higher administrators, just as the distinction is made for education.
All organizational administrators work in some foundational capacity making sure that standard operations run smoothly and that the ship stays afloat, figuratively speaking. However, the mission and purpose for institutions of higher learning are unique; they are concerned with developing and transforming individuals through key life stages in ways that most other organizations are not. Higher administrators must keep the collegiate mission in mind when deciding how best to run an institution and its myriad parts. For example, while it is necessary for executive administrators to maintain day-to-day operations, that alone is not sufficient for an institution’s success or survival. Higher administrators need to also be aware of student interactions with faculty and staff and institutional systems, and how those interactions affect the college experience. When an organization’s primary function is developing and transforming individuals into who they are going to be as reflective members of society, every interaction matters.
Ideally, the decisions and actions of higher administrators should align with an institution’s mission and purpose. This is best achieved with the following core principles: service, collegiality, evidence, excellence, leadership.
While there is some disagreement in academia about whether students should be treated as customers/consumers, evidence suggests that exceptional service, regardless of how students are conceptualized, contributes to higher retention and helps to reduce student attrition. Quality service also positively contributes to students’ institutional loyalty and commitment as well as social integration—all of which benefit student academic performance. Ultimately, a student’s individual performance in the classroom decides how she will pass through to graduation, but quality service from administrators can widen and illuminate that path and eliminate unnecessary anxieties that might otherwise lead to ambivalence about college. Additionally, quality service encourages further use of student services like academic advising, tutoring and mentoring, and counseling; i.e. services that increase the odds of student success.
Academic departments over the last few years have put increased emphasis on collegiality when making personnel decisions. This has sparked some criticism that personnel decisions turn into popularity contests and become more about personality than quality of work. However, collegiality considerations can encourage more productive dissent, and subsequently more respectful and professional interactions; variables that have been shown to increase quality of work rather than compromise it. This is true for administrative teams as well. Higher administrators need to emphasize the importance of collegiality in administrative offices such that team members can critically evaluate institutional policies and practices without fear of humiliation or retaliation. Prioritizing professionalism also prevents workers from feeling personally attacked when team members critique their ideas. Furthermore, establishing respect and professionalism as the bedrock of interpersonal office relations can positively affect the standard for interacting with students as well.
In 2006, then Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings released a report in which she attributed many problems in higher education, including declining literacy and workforce preparedness, to low institutional accountability and transparency; i.e. a lack of data and information on the effects of institutional decisions. Others have echoed this sentiment by arguing that institutions should make decisions based on an understanding of what actually works and what has the greatest chance of maximizing institutional success. Higher administrators should work to foster an appreciation for evidence among administrative teams and offices such that institutional decisions are strategic and impartial. This can be an effective way to standardize best practices and eliminate barriers erected by mercurial gut decisions. Building a culture of evidence also encourages administrators to be more scholarly in the way they solve problems, meaning that administrators may be more likely to consult literature or other institutions about how best to implement certain policies and practices. They may also be more likely to explore theoretical foundations to support novel solutions that would otherwise never be tested. Lastly, an appreciation for evidence allows administrators to be more open to why certain strategies do not work. It makes administrators more objective and open to change and correction where it is necessary.
It might seem cliché to list excellence as a core principle since most occupational domains take this for granted from their employees. However, for higher administrators, excellence has very specific implications. Administrative offices deal with hundreds and even thousands of students on a steady basis with each student expecting exceptional consideration. Higher administrators need to be high-performance at all times, or they risk negatively affecting students’ commitment to an institution and potentially higher education in general. The stakes are quite high considering that a student’s decision to not attend one or another college or university (or to opt out of higher education altogether) can have life-altering consequences. On the other hand, excellence begets excellence and can empower students and staff alike to push the boundaries of what they know. By embodying excellence in job performance, higher administrators can instill the pride and desire that make students, staff and faculty sure of their college or university choice.
Finally, higher administrators at every level must understand the value of leadership, from both their superordinates and themselves. The demands on students leaving higher education and entering different social, political, and occupational arenas are constantly growing. To uphold the mission of higher education, institutions must be changing as well. Higher administrators have to understand that to serve future students successfully they not only need to adapt, but they have to become agents of change. This means innovating with policy, procedure and personnel and taking unprecedented risks. It is increasingly important to value transparency, accountability, flexibility, and above all, integrity—a genuine and sincere commitment to helping students transition to productive, responsible and reflective civil participation.
There are many other values and principles that are worthy of consideration. However, they likely fall into one or more of these five categories. For example, communication can be addressed by emphasizing the quality of overall service, and by stressing collegiality in interacting with students and colleagues. Similarly, innovation can be addressed by leadership and an appreciation for evidence insofar as administrators are willing to become agents of change and consult available data on effective plans of action.
Administrative offices do much more than provide services to students on campus, and the individuals who make up those offices do so much more than the daily tasks they are often assigned. Higher education administrators should adopt these core principles and embrace their roles in facilitating a higher education; they should embrace their roles as higher administrators.
James Wicks is the Associate Director of Recruitment & School Relations at Texas A&M International University. He is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program at Texas Tech University.