Academic Workplace 2014

July 21, 2014

Seventh Annual Survey

Great Colleges to Work For 2014

Great Colleges Create a Culture of Accountability and Cooperation

By Richard K. Boyer

Issues related to workplace quality, faculty and staff engagement, and institutional culture can be found daily in the headlines, including stories of leadership transition and votes of no confidence, concerns regarding "civility" (or worse, cases of bullying and sexual harassment), and debates over the continuing challenges of diversity initiatives.

There’s no shortage of examples of how workplace quality and climate have evolved beyond simply having "happy" faculty and staff members, and there seems to be a growing awareness of the strategic importance of employee engagement and organizational culture. One measure of that awareness is the participation level in the annual Great Colleges to Work For survey, administered by ModernThink LLC for The Chronicle. (All survey-related content in this issue, including college presidents’ statements about what makes their institutions great places to work, was compiled by ModernThink.)

From its inaugural year, in 2008, when 89 institutions took part, to 2014, when 278 institutions participated, the Great Colleges to Work For program has had more than 900 unique institutions take part. This year we surveyed more than 43,500 faculty and staff members at institutions across the country. Once again, the cream rose to the top: Ninety-two colleges were highlighted in one or more of the 12 recognition categories, and 42 achieved Honor Roll status, having been recognized in multiple categories.

Today, tending to the organizational culture and daily experience of faculty and staff is no longer simply the purview of those in human resources. Indeed, as far back as 2009, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges published a report titled "The State of Enterprise Risk Management at Colleges and Universities Today," in which it identified human resources as one of 10 topical areas that presidents and boards should be monitoring on a regular basis.

However, audits of human resources and culture shouldn’t be simply a risk-management exercise, especially when there’s so much to be gained from a proactive approach.

While the 2008 recession is fading in the rearview mirror, its impact is not. But why are some colleges navigating these turbulent and transformative times so much more successfully than others?

One place to look for some of the answers is in the experience, expertise, and best practices of the colleges that excel in the Great Colleges to Work For program. Among the things that stand out is their attention to some of the fundamentals. In how they administer performance-management processes and how they manage shared-governance expectations, for example, these recognized institutions don’t appear to take anything for granted, and their success is notable in the survey results. (A random sample of faculty and staff members at each participating institution was asked to complete a 60-item engagement survey.)

Many people in higher education seem to have a love/hate relationship with the concept of accountability. It’s an easy notion to embrace when it supports our arguments and convictions, but just as easy to resist when it infringes on our independence and authority.

Perhaps there’s no better insight into an organization’s culture of accountability than the perceived effectiveness of its performance-management processes. That’s one reason the Great Colleges to Work For survey includes the statement "Our review process accurately measures my job performance." (Participants were asked to respond using a five-point agreement scale.) Colleges that were not highlighted in any of the recognition categories collectively reported a 53-percent-positive response ("strongly agree" or "agree") to that statement. Recognized colleges, however, had a much higher positive response (65 percent), and Honor Roll institutions even higher (69 percent). There’s no question that creating effective performance-review systems is difficult work. There’s also no questioning their importance. It’s difficult, nigh impossible, to have a culture of accountability if you don’t have the necessary systems and processes in place.

Senior leaders set the tone for a culture of accountability, and here also we see recognized and Honor Roll colleges excel. Nonrecognized institutions had a 63-percent-positive response to the statement "Senior leadership regularly models this institution’s values." Recognized institutions logged in at 79 percent positive, and those on the Honor Roll showed an impressive 83-percent-positive response.

That kind of consistency of behavior from senior leaders contributes not just to their own credibility but also to the effectiveness of collaboration. And in higher education, shared governance is the acid test for collaboration. Easy to talk about in theory, shared governance comes in many forms, and if the faculty and staff aren’t on the same page, inevitably concerns and conflicts will arise. Honor Roll colleges show a commitment to clarity: "The role of faculty in shared governance is clearly stated and publicized" generated a 78-percent-positive response at the Honor Roll colleges, a stark contrast with the 57-percent-positive response at nonrecognized institutions.

Getting that kind of alignment sets the table for a greater sense of camaraderie, which we can measure with the statement "There’s a sense that we’re all on the same team at this institution." (That statement also happens to be one that is highly predictive of an institution’s overall survey results.) With only a 46-percent-positive response, nonrecognized colleges seem to struggle with this dynamic, especially when compared with the 67-percent and 74-percent-positive responses of the recognized and Honor Roll institutions, respectively.

Commitments to camaraderie, civility, and community are often found among an institution’s strategic efforts, and increasingly, so are specific goals to foster cultures that support innovation. At a time when colleges are looking to (or being forced to) reimagine and reinvent how they teach, how they’re structured, and how they operate, there can be no shortage of new ideas.

Creating a culture that fosters innovation doesn’t happen overnight, but institutions can take small steps to cultivate environments that are open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. "I can speak up or challenge a traditional way of doing something without fear of harming my career" is a survey statement that provides insight into the receptivity to new ideas. Nonrecognized institutions had a 61-percent-positive response to that statement, while recognized institutions were at 71 percent. One can’t help wondering how many more great ideas were lost in that 10-point difference.

Given the commitment to academic freedom, a work environment where one can speak freely should be the proverbial no-brainer. But applying lofty concepts and goals to day-to-day experience is not always easy. Sometimes even the basics of "disagreeing without being disagreeable" can be challenging, but, again, institutions recognized in the Great Colleges program seem to be ahead of the curve in the quality of their dialogue. In response to the statement, "At this institution, we discuss and debate issues respectfully to get better results," recognized colleges had a 67-percent-positive response, 17 percentage points higher than nonrecognized institutions but not quite as strong as at the Honor Roll institutions (73 percent positive).

In the spirit of fostering better dialogue at your institution—even greater innovation, heightened collaboration, and real accountability—we present the findings from the 2014 Great Colleges to Work For program.

Richard K. Boyer is principal and managing partner at ModernThink LLC, a management-consulting company.