By this point, it’s no secret that most universities are experiencing some kind of budget pinch for the next year (or two, or three, or way more). It sucks, and for quite a number of reasons. Education is the cornerstone of an advanced society, and when government starts hacking away at it (I’m looking at you, Arizona), nothing good can come from it. All that said, they should pay us more. But I have good reason for believing that.
Much has been written on the efficiency of how business operates at the university level. There’s no shortage of ideas on how to improve the way higher ed functions. I think at a base level, many of us can agree that something is broken, so I’m not going to go in to what’s wrong or how to revamp the system (besides, that’s a topic far too long winded, even for me). Instead, I want to focus on one area: pay. And keep in mind, what I’m going to say isn’t a fix for the system. In reality, I am fully aware that what I will pose in this article is largely unrealistic. But, I think different places could cherry pick parts of what I’ll offer, and that can go a long way towards helping them out. Plus I want to encourage you to share your thoughts on the subject as well, whether encouraging or not.
The idea of pay as a motivating factor is a clear one. It’s one debated by faculty members often. The idea being how do you recruit the best teachers from industry, when they can make far more in their industry doing what they are so good at? There’s no easy answer. That argument can (and has) actually be extended to many functions of colleges. As a university, we provide a ton of services, many of which we must compete with the private sector in. IT, marketing, legal, and the web being major ones. At the same time, there are some that we don’t, like admissions, development, and athletics.
The problem is that if you cannot compete for and retain the best possible staff, how do you set yourself up for success? There’s two ways to approach this: planning, and compensation. For years, even though a university couldn’t pay the cash money to compete with the private sector, they had a lot of other benefits to offer. The chances for professional development, networking, conferences, the laid back atmosphere, the flexibility - these all carry a certain value with them. This made up for it. Now, many of us are watching these benefits getting chewed up to save costs as part of an all out race to the bottom. Travel budgets are emptied, professional development is postponed, and workloads increase as open positions are held. Suddenly, the reasons to come or stay at the college are few. Think about the past year and how many people you know or follow that have left higher ed to go into the private sector, or even just going to another school offering more money. Recession or not, the web is still highly competitive with regards to skilled professionals. On the planning side, for years colleges would throw out wide nets for different positions, such as programmers, on the thinking that you get someone cheap, and train them, and now you have a programmer. This might have worked in the early days, but now, that leaves schools carrying the salaries for a dozen or more programmers who can’t think outside the box or be flexible, when good planning could have said “Let’s triple the salary, and get a single, top shelf programmer that can do the work of five of the home grown programmers in part of the time.” And for god’s sake, fire the ones not pulling their weight.
Here’s why. Who’s going to fight over good admission counselors besides colleges? Very few people. Who’s going to fight over a good lawyer, web designer, or god forbid, custodian? If you’re going to take away the little perks of the job, the colleges are going to have no choice but to find some kind of better parity in how they pay individuals working in higher demand fields at the risk of only being able to hire off of the lower rungs of the ladder, which only further hurts the institution’s ability to advance. It’s a downward spiral. Naturally, this does nothing to answer the question of how do we pay or offer people more when we have less? Obviously you don’t want to pay existing good people less. I think some of the answer lies in simple efficiency, not just at the university, but in government in general. Smarter money spending means more savings to spread around. I’m just of the opinion that it has to happen to remain truly competitive.
In the web, we deal with several key stressers. Because we touch so many mediums, a large site can easily make the case to have at least one each of a dedicated writer, graphic designer, programmer, system administrator, and marketer. And that’s before you start talking about usability, accessibility, social networking, video, training, security, and on, and on. At some point, universities will need to start thinking much more strategically about these positions, start thinking like an actual business instead of a money pit. When it happens, how will your school deal with it? How can you make sure that you get the best people for the job? The coming years will be very telling. Web development isn’t going to get easier - just because things are getting easier to use doesn’t make them easier to make. Smaller regional schools could begin to find themselves at a significant disadvantage against their competition if one of them puts a good team together, but they can’t do what is realistically necessary to compete.
I pass the ball to you. Share your thoughts with us. What is your school doing to attract and retain quality web professionals, or what practices do you see taking place that are hurting their ability to plan for the future? What stops you from jumping ship? We work in higher ed, and in higher ed, success comes through education, and education starts with talking and sharing. Feel free to remain anonymous if you want to comment about something you see that is hurting your school.
photo credit: Tracy O