Five Things I’ve Learned About Working in Higher Ed

Its hard to believe. Both that its only been six months and that six months have actually passed…

If you dont know me, the change to Higher Ed was from my 8 year career in education based, grassroots non-profit work, both at the local and national level. I did a lot of strategic outreach through traditional PR, branding and web work, so when my current position opened, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to specialize in web comm and build on my social media integration strengths.

I thought the leap would be of similar strengths and weaknesses, but it was a much grander departure than originally envisioned. Here are my top five lessons from the first six months in office:

1. Politics, Politics, Politics: It seems like not much can get done because someone else may be upset. Funny, I thought we were all working towards the same goal. Oh, we’re not? Huh. Learning how to navigate the waters has been the largest challenge, especially when its not clear who has final say on things. If  you ask, it just might start WWIII.

2. Decentralization: Without one area for messages, branding, and strategies to filter through, how will we know we are successful? Further, how do we get a full picture of how we present ourselves to students? With no real jurisdiction over groups, no ax can be wielded when web content is stale, incorrect or just poorly written. Getting everyone on the same page proves tiresome since meetings become events with 20+ people at the table. Coming to an agreement is even harder.

3. Fiefdoms Proliferate: Not sure why someone doesnt want to let you in? Maybe its because they are master of their own kingdom, having been there for 20 years and  are afraid you’ll uncover that they do not really have any content knowledge beyond ‘the way its been done’. This is problematic for many reasons, but primarily because it kills any new employee’s idealism. Second, it allows outdated ways of doing things (interoffice mail, for example) to eat up precious staff time. A little bend here and there goes a long way to incorporating new ideas, while helping employees gain new skills, making them actually invaluable.

4. Old Way (My Way) versus New Way (Your Way): Building on #3, many employees feel threatened, not only by new technology and social media, but by your expertise in an up and coming field. This leads us to ‘this is the way its been done’ and we all know how that goes. Frustration abounds and proactive newbies end up thwarted and denied action on innovative ideas. How long will these employees last? Who will observe their tenacity and strategic thinking and snatch them up? I could give a few examples…

5. Slow Sallies: Mix 1-4 together and what do we have? A slow operation that gets even slower when educating people on new tactics and strategies becomes central to moving anything forward (which, it should). Decisions cannot be made because multiple people hold multiple keys to one lock. They must Rubik’s cube themselves together to actually work. Stars must align. In such a climate as the recent financial downturn + the proliferation of newer and newer technologies and vendors, timing is essential. Look around at all of the great ideas that you’ve seen come to fruition lately: without this, how will your school stay afloat and top of mind? How will you compete? Slowness is not an option.

With that, I remain up to the challenge. I’m optimistic that stars will in fact align. There’s a tide turning here and its exciting to help steer the boat that rides it. Even though its been tough, organizationally and personally, it leaves everything on the table.

Now, if only everyone would show up for dinner…

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10 thoughts on “Five Things I’ve Learned About Working in Higher Ed

  1. Wow. I’ve worked in higher ed for 7.5 years and could not have come up with a better synopsis of the biggest obstacles to progress. What a shame your powers of observation and communication — very much on display here — won’t be coming to a conference near me any time soon.


  2. Nicely said, Jess. It couldn’t be more true. I’m going to suggest that at times I’ve found an “old boys network” still does exist. Higher ed leadership is still sadly male dominated and those that speak out against the “old ways” of doing things”, or those that are under 40 ;) are kept out of the “club. At conferences it often seems its the same old boys club talking about the same ideas, making sure the same nothing gets done – because of many of the ideas you stated above.

  3. You are my goddess now.
    I would pass this article to all the “Top Brass” here, but I am afraid that the five points fore mentioned would exclude any kind of effect or reasonable reaction .

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