The global crisis of COVID-19 has thrown higher education into an uproar. Existing financial woes now look apocalyptic. The traditional semester system is being pushed to the breaking point by the need for rapid improvisation. Faculty and staff members feel strained to the very limits of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion as they strive to care for students from inside their own personal coronavirus hurricanes.
Amid the growing anxiety and uncertainty, we hear increasingly dire predictions about inevitable radical change both to our institutions and to our core missions and values.
In order to navigate this pandemic with our educational values intact, colleges and universities must ensure that all personnel — faculty and administrators, athletics coaches and residential life coordinators, support staff and facilities managers — feel invested in this common goal. In other words, at all levels, people need to see themselves as working as part of a larger team.
But say the words “team” or “teamwork” to a room — or Zoom screen — full of faculty members, and often you will elicit eye rolls, groans and even a collective shudder. Many academics consider the idea of working as a team to be corporatespeak that does not belong in the academy, where individual autonomy should be the driving principle of our work.
Or say the words “faculty” and “team” in the same breath to a gathering of academic staff and administrators, and often you will elicit eye rolls, groans and derisive laughter. Because while administrators and staff members may understand themselves as working on teams within their particular offices or programs, they almost certainly all have stories about a faculty member who tended to play by their own rules and didn’t seem to respect the team.
In recent decades, those fundamentally different assumptions about teamwork were rarely addressed head-on, and never in a manner that connected with both groups. And so we have all continued to fumble along, administrators and staff talking to one another, faculty talking among themselves, and lasting solutions to preserve the integrity of college education falling into the chasms in between.
COVID-19 has suddenly brought this issue into sharp relief, but higher education researchers and administrators have been thinking and writing about the potential benefits of teamwork in academic settings for more than two decades now. In 1994, Paul L. Burgess, an economics professor at Arizona State University, was asking, “Why don’t we have more” teamwork in higher education? He laid out the need for teamwork that reached across university campuses, as well as the significant obstacles to implementing such systems.
In 2008, Tracy M. Lara and Aaron W. Hughey set out their blueprint for applying a teamwork model in higher education administrations, emphasizing the importance of planning, patience and flexibility. Their discussion especially emphasized the need for well-trained leadership and acknowledged that “it is challenging to move slowly, build on small-scale successes gradually and adhere patiently to an implementation plan that seems to be changing constantly.”
More recent arguments in favor of teamwork models in higher education continue to emphasize the connection between effective team structures and innovation in academe. In addition to an emphasis on innovation, there are two elements of the discussions that have persisted through the past quarter century: 1) higher education is rife with obstacles to implementing teamwork models of administration and operations and 2) the change to a teamwork model must be a top-down process, implemented by the highest level of the administration. Yet those discussions of obstacles and implementation usually haven’t directly considered the fact that in any room of faculty, administrators and staff, there are invisible histories of varied experiences and the habitual stereotyping of one another that can doom planned teamwork to failure from the outset.
As a result, while these arguments speak directly to college and university administrators at the highest levels of leadership, they rarely connect effectively with the other 90 percent of the people responsible for making colleges and universities work. Addressing this problem as a rational issue that simply requires administrators to impose the right structure on their institution disregards the deeper issues and traditional academic hierarchies that feed into the situation. And relying on a moment of pandemic crisis to magically bring everyone around to team thinking is not a reasonable plan, either.
An Effective Approach
As the director and associate director of a new major called Global Commerce, which is built around integrating our curricular and co-curricular programming, we have had the opportunity to implement an effective model of teamwork at our institution: one not imposed by higher-level administrators but developed as a result of our own collaboration, experience and realization that the innovative aspects of this program could not be achieved unless we could create collaborative, teamwork-minded professional relationships within the program and across our campus.
Making this system effective has required tackling the stereotypes and assumptions mentioned above. It has also required us to be intentional about forging paths between our program and other offices and departments across campus where no established connection has existed previously.
As the first academic program on our campus to have both a faculty director and a nonfaculty assistant director for co-curricular programming, the success of the major has depended on the two of us creating a peer-to-peer working relationship. The traditional approach of faculty existing higher in the academic hierarchy was not going to fly in a program dependent on collaboration that crosses traditional boundaries. Building this collaborative relationship has required clear and constant communication, reliability on both sides and trust.
Constructing that working relationship carefully and intentionally has allowed us to then reach across campus and build connections more broadly across faculty-administrative boundaries. In doing this work, we have identified three key [practices] that have contributed to our success.
No. 1: Respect and validation. While this may sound trite, the interpersonal issues mentioned above often come down to a lack of respect — or perceived lack of respect — between colleagues. Building a campuswide team requires communicating your respect for other people’s time, skills and role in the overall project. That has to be communicated clearly and consistently, whether in person, in emails or on social media.
No. 2: Persistence. Building such relationships across established boundaries and walls requires patience, determination and sometimes creative thinking to find the best way to connect with individuals and offices not accustomed to working with either faculty or administrators. That means thinking carefully about transparent and persuasive communication. And it means not giving up if the first attempt does not go as planned.
No. 3: Consistent focus on all the necessary elements of the big picture. As we build each new part of the program, we take the time to think through all the various tasks and offices needed to achieve our goal, as well as the potential impacts across campus. What are we offering, and what are we asking?
Given the existing, entrenched ways of doing and seeing things, and of viewing one another, changing the culture of an entire university can take a very long time, even when a crisis situation seems to call for immediate change. But transforming a particular element of that culture — for example, the working relationship between faculty and nonfaculty administrators and staff — has the potential to happen faster, if it is a top priority for leaders at the departmental/administrative programs level.
The time for teamwork is now.