As a result of the current pandemic, professors and students are having to adapt to new ways of working in a world full of uncertainties. When will our children be able to go back to school? Will we be able to visit our elderly parents? What will happen with the upcoming academic year? They are experimenting and learning to use digital tools with which few were familiar until very recently, and using these to replace in-person meetings and teaching. More than ever, there is a blurring of the boundaries between the personal, the public and the professional.
This is creating challenges for professors and their students, and will necessitate us collectively developing new norms of interaction. But we should not forget that our administrative personnel – administrators, administrative assistants, coordinators and so on – are also dealing with these very same challenges, but often without the same level of attention.
At the start of the crisis, Canadian universities rightly recognized that students were facing unprecedented stress and fatigue, and were often unable to concentrate. Resources were mobilized to support students and accommodations were made in the winter term to respond to this situation. But administrative personnel are also stressed and tired, and they are at the receiving end of demands by professors who may be less than patient, or from students who are worried and anxious about the uncertainties surrounding the upcoming fall term.
Administrative personnel are the backbone of the university; without them, students cannot be enrolled in courses or programs, grades cannot be entered, classrooms cannot be reserved or prepared, grant funds cannot be administered. An astute student or professor quickly learns that having a positive and constructive relationship with the department and program secretaries can make life much easier. These are the people who know how to get things done and what shortcuts to take.
Invisible and undervalued
But, they are also often the invisible people of the university. It is the professors and senior administrators who are in the forefront, who are in the media, who bring in the money. But it’s the administrative personnel and staff who keep the university running over the summer while the professors and students are on holiday. (Granted, many professors are busy this summer transitioning their courses to online.)
University administrative personnel and support staff should be recognized as the frontline workers they are, the importance of whom we have suddenly begun to recognize during the COVID-19 crisis. They are dedicated professionals, with specialized knowledge and skills. But, like many frontline workers, administrative staff are often underpaid and undervalued.
Worse, as a result of budget cuts, there are less and less of them. While universities have struggled to keep up faculty numbers, they’ve either not replaced or even eliminated administrative personnel and support staff, all the while expanding the upper administration. Even before the current crisis, there were calls for more administrative and support staff. Now the need is urgent.
Administrative personnel are at the breaking point. Program secretaries and coordinators may be responsible for dozens of programs and hundreds of students. Senior administrative secretaries are responsible for two or three different departments. Before the COVID-19 crisis, this situation was unacceptable, but nonetheless institutionally accepted for economic reasons or simply because these professionals were not valued. They are now experiencing moral anguish and psychological distress. There is a disconnect between their sense of professional ethics – what they know should be done – and a workload that largely surpasses what can actually be done. By neglecting the extreme stress faced by administrative personnel, universities have contributed to or are complicit in professional burnout.
Yes, we have to support our students in the current crisis. Yes, we need to support professors in their move to online teaching. And yes, that means adjusting our expectations and recognizing that the new normal will be less productivity, but hopefully with the same level of quality as before. More importantly, though, we need to support our administrative personnel, both by reducing (and not augmenting) their workloads, and by hiring more personnel, even if that means that universities further extend their deficits. If we do not, the risk is that those members of the administrative personnel who are still left will leave.
As a university community, let’s recognize that our frontline workers are critical to our public mission and merit the social and financial recognition that is their due.
Bryn Williams-Jones is a professor and director of the bioethics program in the School of Public Health at Université de Montréal.