IMHO 7 Reasons Why Higher Ed Is the Toughest Gig in All the Web

I was on Twitter last week when Mark Greenfield put out the following call:

markgr IMHO 7 Reasons Why Higher Ed Is the Toughest Gig in All the Web

What? Mark Greenfield is giving us license to bitch?  Count me in.

To be honest, I really wanted to jump right in.  However, I realized I needed more space than 140 characters and more time than a few days to collect my thoughts.  So without further ado, here’s my list:

1. We are over-scheduled.

But not necessarily with actual productive work.  More time is actually spent talking about what we’re going to do than what we’re actually doing.  Time seems to be relative and limitless.  Because time seems limitless in academia, we begin to undervalue it, disrespect it, and mismanage it in our projects.

Directors spend too much time in meetings to do true management by walking around (MBWA), so directors schedule 1-on-1 meetings to try to keep up with what they would know if they were in the office talking to people.  Managers, who spent too much time in meetings with their directors and other managers, don’t have time to do their MBWA, so they schedule 1-on-1s.  Web people in the trenches have committee meetings, departmental meetings and 1-on-1 meetings that interrupt real work every hour-and-a-half to two hours.  This is clearly not enough time to accomplish much of anything except try to get to inbox 1563 (inbox 0 is a pipe dream), read from RSS, and send a few tweets with the #facepalm hashtag to all your #heweb pals.

2. We don’t get paid what the private sector does.

To me this in itself is not an issue, but it adds up to a number of issues below.

3. Our salaries are kept secret.

If you don’t know billable rates, it’s difficult to manage projects. When is it more feasible to do it in-house and when should you get a consultant?  What jobs are more effective for two part-time students to do in two weeks and what jobs are cheaper for one full timer to do in three?

4. We “grad source” worse than the public sector outsources.

We don’t think of students as partners who can share in a learning experience on a project. We think that undergrads are an endless supply of cheap labor.  We think grad students are substitute for paid professionals. The problem is that someone working for a semester or two may not be thinking in terms of how a single project could scale from one semester to the next. Or over several years. Or for reuse in other projects or other units.

5. We pad our resumes with DIY projects.

We end up building our own systems thinking we cut the consultant and implementation costs. Or we Frankenstein disparate third-party pieces together rather than doing something the way a vendor recommends.  If we don’t have concept of what staff time costs, sometimes management even forgets to calculate it altogether.  In the end we have no idea whether keeping these projects afloat have really saved us time or money, especially when we could be spending time consolidating our efforts and working on other projects.

These projects are unit specific and not designed to work with other departments so there is a good chance someone in another department is building another DIY system that does the same thing.  These are the people who are too busy with their DIY system to fulfill other request we need for our other Web projects.  Are they really worth the effort?

6. Our budgets disincentivize collaboration and efficiency.

If your budget for next year is based on what you spend for this yearwhat incentive do you have for collaborating with another unit to eliminate redundant systems (for example, a university-wide CMS)? In many units, when the fiscal year ends, people are encouraged to look around for what they need to purchase to ensure they get the same budget next year, especially as they compete for funds that are shrinking.

7. We try to serve everyone and end up pleasing none.

Who is our customer?  Businesses have an easy time defining this.  Higher ed, not so much.  Do we serve the students? The faculty?  Donors?  Are we focused on academics or research?  We change directions each time one of these stakeholders offers feedback and then wonder why the worst feedback we get is that we’re fickle.

16 Responses to “IMHO 7 Reasons Why Higher Ed Is the Toughest Gig in All the Web”

  1. Says:

    I think one other reason that higher ed is a tough gig for web folks is that so much of the work and responsibilities is undefined, and (to your final point) an institution’s website has more stakeholders than any other marketing piece a college or university produces.

    I don’t quite get reason No. 3: “Our salaries are kept secret.” Huh? If you work for a public college or university, EVERYONE knows how much EVERYONE ELSE makes. It’s no secret. ;)

  2. Says:

    Technology Training-

    Thanks for continuing this conversation on .eduGuru. As I said in my original post, my inspiration for this topic is Steve Krug whom I’ve seen talk twice on the unique challenges in higher ed. Here are his “10 Reasons Why It S*cks to be You”

    10. Corporate expectations on a not-for profit budget
    9. Stakeholders who can be petty and whiny
    8. CMS and herding kittens
    7. Subsite/Fiefdom hell
    6. Multiple audiences with different needs
    5. Many disparate databases
    4. Home page death match
    3. Tons of dynamic content
    2. Cool factor arms race to stay competitive
    1. Consensus decision making

    I’m sure your take on the use of students will generate much discussion. I used to have several students in my office, but haven’t hired any in the past couple of years for the reasons you cite.

    And I agree that the silo approach to budgeting in higher ed is a huge issue. In my 25 years in higher ed, this has been one of the biggest problems I’ve seen and it is only compounded in times of tight budgets.

  3. Says:

    You hit the nail on the head. The thing that sicks out most in my head is the lack of respect for time and the lack of concern for ROI.

    Scope creep, hurry up to wait and lack of respect of expertise are the curse of higher ed.

  4. Says:

    First, the 3 things I love most about this post:
    1) My inbox is at 1581 (tho I’ve dealt with most of those emails and am just a pack rat)
    2) You used “Frankenstein” as a verb
    3) You worked in a #facepalm reference

    That said, I think the silos constructed in higher ed could make the builders of the Great Wall of China jealous. I remember starting a previous redesign and content editors on different sections — some of the truly smartest people on campus, seriously — had different takes on what the college is and who it serves. This is why John G. Saxe’s — where they think an elephant is actually many different things — is one of my favorite higher-ed analogies.

    The use of students as mere labor and not members of a creative team building for scalability is another good issue. With our current Web work, I keep citing the term “sustainability” — what can we do today that will inform and impact the Web of many tomorrows.

    There’s also the tech factor: People love that which is new and cool, and user-friendliness makes everyone feel they can “do the Web.” As I’ve blogged before, this doesn’t mean everyone should and also detracts from our insisting that Web communication is a profession requiring skills, knowledge and judgment.

  5. Says:

    Great post, Nikki. Many of your points come back to a lack of tracking of hard dollars and calculation of return on investment. This seems to be part of the higher ed culture.

    This is also a benefit of working in higher ed. Sometimes we get to venture out into uncharted waters and undertake “cool” or “personally fulfilling” projects without the need to prove ROI in advance. Web folks in the private sector often don’t have that luxury. This can be rewarding at times, frustrating at other times. I mentioned this on Mark Greenfield’s post on this topic, as well.

    As for “2. We don’t get paid what the private sector does.”

    - Be sure to consider total compensation, including health care, retirement benefits, opportunities to take advanced coursework… I’m not so sure many higher ed folks make less than their private sector counterparts when total compensation is considered.

    - I’ve had coworkers at jobs inside and outside higher ed complain about their salaries in comparison to other employers. If they truly think the grass is greener **and** are frequently vocal about this, they should move on to those greener pastures. I don’t want them as a coworker no matter their level of talent. Negative attitudes can bring the whole team down. If they feel that way but don’t frequently complain about it to coworkers, that doesn’t bother me much.

  6. Says:

    This article hit the nail on the head. If I didn’t know better, I would think you are working in my office right now :)

    Some other challenges that I have come across is the ambition factor. Working in a State government job, I come across a LOT of people who gather moss waiting for retirement. The do just enough to get by, and don’t want to hear a thing you have to say that may cause them to actually do a little bit more work. This is so frustrating when you are trying to actually innovate and improve the University, and it kills momentum.

    Thanks for the great article!

  7. Says:

    I read this list along with all the comments on Mark’s blog and my thoughs are…


    Being in the corporate world is no walk in the park though. I think I would sum my experience in HighEdWeb this way…

    If you are passionate and really care about what you are doing then you will go crazy working in a University Web Office for all the reasons that everyone listed.

  8. Says:

    wow, loved this article. You spoke of my frustrations to a T. Don’t worry, I won’t be one of those sitting around here waiting to retire. ;)

  9. Says:

    Nice post. I think another problem is the lack of consistency in web roles. Everybody seems to have a different idea of what a web person is, what they ought to do and so forth. I mean, if you’re an SID, you’re an SID and if you’re an admissions person, things are different and yet not so different that you’d feel like you were working in a completely different field.

    With the web? You could be in IT, marketing, admissions, development/alumni or maybe a web office. There’s no telling.

  10. Says:

    Great post, and comments. I see a lot of push for being at the bleeding edge, and although I’m all for momentum, we never have a tendency to picture how a technology and the effort towards implementing that technology fits into the big picture.

    The list of projects never gets smaller, and is looked upon externally as a linear timeline, ignoring the ongoing support work necessary to keep current customers happy, and maintenance of the mounting pile of aging past projects.

    Our office may not be able to function through money exchange and budgeting (and we shouldn’t neglect lower budgeted units), but we certainly do have man hours, which is essentially the same; We don’t need to put a price tag on it. I don’t even see a need to put a premium on higher paid employees, because you could account for your staff’s free-time on an individual basis. I feel if we planned and budgeted man hours prior to tackling news projects, and accounted for man hours towards sustainability, we would clearly see why higher-ed web offices are buried with no end in site.

  11. Says:

    Wow! Where to begin?

    @andrewcareaga: We had this discussion earlier via twitter, but here it goes for those who missed it: Some institutions have fully transparent salaries (as you have:, some have a pay grade system with the grades posted (we transitioned from this), some have broad salary bands (where we are heading now:, and some have hybrids based on how their position is funded.

    Lack of transparency creates problems when you try to calculate what a project really costs in staff time. Are we afraid of what happens if when people find out that which of who is paid twice as much? (I would argue that the rampant speculation is probably much, much worse than the truth.) In keeping salaries hidden, we may be wasting the wrong person’s time on a project that could be done more cost effectively with other staff or with outsourcing.

    I know of departments where supervisors don’t even know salaries of individual staff members; only the dean’s office knows. How can supervisors decide when to add hourly staff to take tasks off our plates if they are not sure of the amount this would save?

    @ronbronson: I think ill-defined responsibilities and inconsistent Web roles is another HR/management issue: First, you have Web people scattered through so many departments, including non-technical ones, that it is highly likely that there are enclaves of Web people supervised by a unit of non-technical people. In these cases one of the following happens: They are not sure what to do with or expect from the Web person, so they leave the Web people to their own devices and trust everything they say as technical wizardry. They have a relationship of mutual disrespect with their Web people, and the Web people are not given any latitude. Or there is a combination of both, as an action-reactionary cycle forms.

    The second reason stems from the nature of our work changing as the Web itself changing. Natalie Harp, pointed out this great NMC Keynote “The Future is a Monstrous and Marvelous Mashup” from Wayne Hodgins that points out how even our jobs become mashups of the various projects we take on How can higher ed leaderhsip and human resource departments ever keep our desk job descriptions up to date when every technology we add to what we do, every committee participate in, and every project we manage become part of who we are?

    @markgr: Thank you for starting the conversation. If you are interested, @fienen has done a post on getting results with student workers:

    @nickdenardis: Absolutely. There seems to be no need to evaluate ROI because some resources are considered limitless (time, students, etc.) and some projects must go no matter what. That means if something even if we know a “pet” project is floundering we will keep throwing good money after bad rather than cutting our losses and killing it.

    @TimN: 3 things you need to know about me:

    1. 1. Inbox=1248 (I was brain dead today from a head hold and scattered meetings, so I knocked a few out of the way instead of getting into some real work.)
    2. 2. I have always used Frankenstein as a verb; it’s about as colorful as my language gets while still being appropriate in a public venue.
    3. 3. Originally #facepalm was going to be the title of this post. (Well actually, I was going to take @radiofreegeorgy’s #infacepalm hashtag, but that was a stretch and too much of an inside joke.) I went with IMHO instead.

    The poem as the higher ed analogy is perfect. We love to build things from where we sit instead of trying to reach out. For me, the first step toward breaking those departmental silos is to break down the departmental Intranets into a singular structure: Our Intranets are the key to letting people know where the potential opportunities for collaboration are.

    Perhaps the problem with Web communication can also in part be solved with the Intranets issue (or at least it can in my institution). The public Web is a place for communicating with the outside, the public. That’s the place that requires skill and some degree of training. Right now many people post material to a public Web sites that are really only of interest to internal faculty and staff or current students. If that’s the case, maybe they should be posting these to a university-wide Intranet instead.

    Thanks. I think being paid less is only an an issue in that it leads to some of the other issues I listed below it, a cascade failure of sorts:

    Take number #3. Sometimes the longer someone is in the private sector, the better leverage for starting salary when moving into a university. So even if you don’t get all of your private salary, coming from private to public may have leave some remnants that may be perceived as inequities that people in the university system for years may resent. The result, sometimes salaries are not transparent.

    Or #5. Because people feel they are underpaid in comparison with their private sector colleagues, they come to realize the one way to compensate for these differences is to move up within their current positions. They do this by getting as many bullet points for their staff evaluations and resumes as they can. They attend and or present at conferences. They form committees and task forces. They build DIY systems. And during staff evaluation time, training attendance goes up.

    @jason_austin: I absolutely agree with the ambition factor. It reminds me a lot of my first career in teaching where people ended up burning out or apathetic. Most people start out in teaching fully expecting it to be a tough job but full of those idealistic visions of all those movies of transformational teachers who single-handedly changed an entire culture (cue “Lean on Me”. It’s no wonder that half of us leave in five years: (Note: I think that number was closer to 1 in 5 when I taught: This brings me to my comment to…

    @kylejames and @emilyjbro: I enjoy higher ed, but it’s mostly because I have found a coping strategy: I know I can’t be the only change agent, I try not to get frustrated when we’re counterproductive, and I try to focus on the small gains that I am able to achieve.

    …and finally…

    @Matthew Sullivan: I wonder how many higher ed Web departments actually do real project management. Are they really assessing the cost-benefits and earned value? How many overblown projects would be killed if they were?

  12. Says:

    The toughest or the best gig in all the web?

  13. Says:

    How can we overcome these challenges?

  14. Says:

    Great article. I would add one more to the list, and that is lack of web or even basic technical expertise at the senior staff level. It is hard to make progress without a champion, and web folks rarely have someone at the top who not only understands what they are doing but also why they are doing it. I think a great deal of these problems would begin getting better if higher education realized that it needs a CIO or VP of Information at least as much as they need their other senior staff.

    We’re not there yet, however. Chief information staff usually directly report to a VP who does not have a background similar to theirs.

    We don’t have a home. Its never been built for us because the fundamental organizational structure of higher ed has yet to include it. Because of this we inevitably are wedged into places that aren’t perfect or even good fits.

    When university boards and presidents start valuing the management of information as much as they value the management of curriculum, finance, student programs, and enrollment, maybe this list will become shorter.


  1. links for 2010-01-27 « innovations in higher education --> says:

    [...] IMHO 7 Reasons Why Higher Ed Is the Toughest Gig in All the Web (tags: highered highedweb budget time managing) Twitter Updates [...]

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