Each fall I get the honor of teaching an Organization and Administration in Higher Education course on the campus of the University of Central Florida. I love teaching this course because we get to learn and discuss my favorite subject of untangling the mystery of higher education. I often start the class on university hierarchy by having students bring in job descriptions for aspirational jobs they hope to be one day. Of course, they bring in job announcements for Dean of Students jobs, Vice President of Student Affairs jobs, Director jobs. If you are reading this blog, you know the jobs. The ones you find yourself dreaming of on a sleepy Friday on HigherEdJobs.com. As you look upon the job you picture yourself in a corner office in a quaint college town or sprawling mega-campus. The students love this, they mention their hopes and aspirations. Then I turn the tables and ask them to now, explain that job to their families . . . . . .
Almost immediately their faces turn from wonder to pinched as if someone just passed gas. Because this is the eternal issue, how do you explain to the people who love you what you do? And here is the short answer, you really cannot. My grandmother went to her grave certain I was a professor in the Paper Chase tradition. Tweed jacket, pipe, interrogating smug college students and destroying their will to be lawyers. And I must admit, I let her have that dream. Why confuse a 90-year-old woman who is having this conversation with me after her third glass of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay and in-between bites of Brie and crackers. But there is an issue with this approach. It really hurts our ability to express and support our value to the public and our students. The lack of clarity as to what we do and why it is important creates misunderstandings that perpetuate stereotypes about our careers.
I have a theory about the public perception of higher education. Higher education is one of the few careers where the public actually knows very little about how it works but feels they know a lot because every American either has attended some form of college or knows someone who has or at least is aware of college as a concept. This creates a, just enough to get you in trouble, dynamic. My family conceptualizes my job like I judge chefs on Food Network shows. Since I know how to cook, I must know what it is like to run a professional kitchen.
If I were to ask you how to make a tire for your car what would you say? My guess would be you would mention rubber and factories, but few would know the first thing about how to make a tire. Just for fun, here is a neat YouTube Video of the process. But if we are being honest, even after watching it none of us really have the skill to make said tires. But just about every student, parent, legislator, employer and member of our alumni association have a firm sense of how we can do our job better. I would posit that other than football coach, no other profession has more outsiders who can do our jobs from their armchairs than higher ed pro.
So how do we improve this? I have an idea. I think we need to be more willing to communicate with the public at large and be far more transparent as to the inner workings of higher ed. I also think we should listen to our friends, families, and critics and consider their complaints and critiques. Afterall, while I know I can’t really tell a chef how to do their job I can tell if the food is any good and if I had a better understanding into the process of constructing that meal, I can offer two things; understanding and respect for the craft of cooking and an opportunity to provide constructive feedback. If we bring these people into the process, then we can make them part of the solution. But let’s be honest, that takes effort and is not easy.
But here is the benefit of trying to do just that. I work for the Florida Consortium and we host a series of engagements called Future of Talent Forums. At these forums we bring in university administration and But there is a benefit in making the effort. I work for the Florida Consortium and we sponsor what we call Future of Talent Forums. At these forums, local employers and we discuss the process of skills acquisition, we look at workforce data, and we discuss what the employer and the university is responsible for in the onboarding of hired talent. While this is a slow burn, we have found that employers walk away with a better sense of what to expect when they hire a college graduate and how they can support these students. We feel over time more and more employers will better understand the nature of our work and if we understand the skills building, they need we can address that on our side.
Okay, back to that family reunion. While I let Grandma live the dream, I try hard to explain in common terms what we do and why it is important. I usually use some version of:
“I support students by helping them become successful out of the classroom. While our faculty do a great job teaching classes and introducing students to research that will benefit their skills, I am the person who helps your students put it altogether. We offer ways students can get involved and also have student work jobs so students can practice their skills and then we work with them to articulate those skills when its their turn to interview for a great job.” Its usually at that point that my cousin needs another lemonade and a chicken wing. It might be a lot but usually my folks seem to have a better sense of what we do beyond, a professor.