From an organizational perspective, it seems to me our grasp of how universities work remains quite spotty. We have a variety of studies of students of different kinds: multicultural, international, by gender, fraternity and sorority members, adult students, not every kind of student and experience but a good start. We have a stack of work on professors both by professors and about professors. We have portraits of senior administrators and their self-portraits and their picture of the faculty and students and we have some work on admissions and “enrollment management” staff. But universities and colleges do not operate simply by faculty teaching, students studying, and administrators “administering”.
There are all sorts of relatively invisible roles, however, that make these organizations possible and they matter a great deal to the functions and sustainability of the institutions. Groundskeepers, maids, food service personnel, accountants and budget officers, human resource officers, buildings and properties managers, dining staff, alumni affairs staff, public relations staff, and so on are all part of the organizational structure. They are diverse, ranging educationally and economically from the bottom and operating within a narrow organizational span to relatively well paid people with a broad span of responsibilities.
My point arises from my observations on my own campus over the years. In every one of these categories, there are people who actively contribute to either the academic mission of the institution or to the quality of life makes it a better place to work than it would be otherwise. In every one of these categories, I have found people who support the learning/teaching mission of universities and people who don’t. I have seen two different people in a relatively high staff position with similar education and compensation, play their roles very differently. The actions of one undercut the organization in an authoritarian and self-interested way and the other helped make up for a variety of defective processes and structural linkages in a way that made the organization effective and more efficient.
I think positive staff contributors, often unrewarded and disregarded, should be represented in our ethnographic work. They are part of the conditions of possibility of the institution, not mere “staff” to be hired and fired at will or to be outsourced without consequence. By not making their roles visible and showing some of the ways they play their role, we allow senior administrators, faculty, and students to think that only they “are” the “university”. Let’s help broaden the view.