Bridging the communication gap between administrators and faculty

Academics who understand the needs and priorities of administrative staff will work more effectively – and vice versa. Everybody wins, writes Catherine Léglu

Catherine Léglu's avatar
5 Jul 2024
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image credit: iStock/Rudzhan Nagiev.

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University of Luxembourg

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Internal communication is a challenge in every university. Another is coordination between academic and non-academic staff. Communicating effectively between faculty and administrators saves time, prevents misunderstandings and – in some cases – defuses conflicts. 

Gaps between university staff can be wide, even in collegial institutions. Junior researchers or teaching-only adjuncts might feel distant from senior professors. There are hierarchies of all kinds, and another big gap is between the academic staff (faculty) and the staff who are employed to give administrative support and expertise in the university. Whenever the relationship between administrators and academics breaks down, fundamental conflicts can emerge over who is responsible for what, and who makes decisions. At the heart of those questions is communication.

It is common for an initiative or a decision to travel up or down a purely administrative hierarchy, while another initiative circulates in a faculty channel. People complain that they are not consulted or that information is withheld. Universities hardly ever try to keep information away from staff, so this is unlikely to be deliberate. It seems that bridging those channels between faculty and administration is not intuitive. 

So, how do we improve that situation?

Consider how universities function

The first step is to think about how universities are run. Balancing administration and academic work is a constant negotiation at every level. Many parts of a university are made up of administrative services overseen by an academic whose role is strategic, not operational. Other services may be overseen by a professional manager who also has a strategic role. At the level of the laboratory and the seminar room, vastly different skills, tasks and hardware must work together, and all require careful handling.

Add to this the fact that universities are usually collegial institutions that value shared responsibilities and distributed decision-making. This is a recipe for complexity. We are familiar with academics who fear having to take on too much administration. If the same colleagues also complain that central services employ too many administrators, are they talking about the same work? Administrators are sometimes called support staff. Is this how administrators understand their key tasks?

Ask faculty and administrators how they see their roles

The second step is to meet different groups of colleagues regularly and to listen to how they see and describe the challenges and tasks that they handle. These meetings provide important information about how different colleagues experience the university. If you are handling a budget, you will hear a different version of it from professors, technicians, accountants and (if necessary) communications. None of those opinions are more or less important than the others. Each of them contributes to how your budget will be handled, including by you. If you are the star academic in your institution, for example, you will not be able to deliver your brilliant work at all if you mishandle your budget, confuse your technicians or screw up your social media campaign. Some meetings are easier to attend or to organise than others, and in some cases, it is worth the effort to create a community of practice that meets regularly or a forum. Other options include a shared workshop or conference, bringing staff together to share and discuss a designated topic.

Don’t be afraid of over-communicating

You have now thought about how the university functions, and you have started to see it through different points of view. The third step is not to be too worried about offending anyone by over-communicating. 

Communicate often, make messages clear and keep technical detail to annexes or web pages. One method is to channel emails and directives to ensure that the head of the administrative group is included alongside the head of the corresponding faculty group. This ensures that both groups receive the same message, at the same time, via the same channel. If you do not know who oversees those groups, add the team email to the address list (or ask, during one of your information-gathering meetings). If you do not want to use email, think about putting a notice on your university intranet site. It is an excellent platform for sharing information widely without overloading inboxes and without hierarchy. Do not assume that a group online channel will resolve communication problems; many people never look at them unprompted.

Finally, insist on bringing different groups of academics and administrators into the loop, wherever you can. Generally, better communication helps everyone. Administrators who understand what the needs and priorities are of academic staff will work more effectively, and vice versa. Everybody wins. Knowledge is power and, in this context, everyone deserves to have a bit of power.

Catherine Léglu is vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of Luxembourg.

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