As part of the visioning process of the future(s) for Georgetown, President DeGioia described three different roles of the modern university — a) the formation of its students to discover and effect their authentic selves, b) the original scholarship and knowledge generation by the faculty, and c) the university’s public role that advances the common good. These are central core missions of a university and describe its key raison d’être. The best universities in the world do all three of these things excellently.
It’s important to note that those key functions of Georgetown rely on a large community. Some are highlighted routinely and visible to anyone who follows activities of the university. For example, the Georgetown home webpage almost always reports an accomplishment of a student or student organization; it routinely describes new research accomplishments of our faculty.
Like many aspects of life and of human organizations, however, for every visible accomplishment, there are many non-visible contributors. While faculty and students get the glory at many times, there are colleagues who support them in these accomplishments whose work was necessary to the glory.
All universities are small cities. Inside them are buildings that must be built and maintained. There are roads and cars and vans that are owned and maintained. There are financial transactions, travel costs, computer purchases which must be documented. There are applications from prospective students that must be processed and evaluated. Students need to eat. Employees need access to their health benefits and retirement planning services. Actions of the university must be reviewed for their compliance with government regulations. The grass has to be cut; flowers have to be planted; windows washed; trash picked up. Carpets need to be cleaned; classrooms tidied each day. Students have health needs and counseling needs. Faculty and students need course registration, teaching support, and computer support. Research projects of faculty need supplies. The computer network must be maintained and improved (downtime brings the “campus city” down). Research grant proposals must be reviewed and sent within firm deadlines to the funding agencies. Students need help choosing their career paths and linking with employers. New job openings need to be advertised and candidates for them evaluated. New hires need onboarding services.
None of the achievements of universities — in student formation, faculty scholarship, or the public role for the common good — can take place without efficient and effective services like those above.
University staff who offer these services to faculty and students are most often “behind the scenes.” They are rarely mentioned in the large national discussions of the future of higher education. They are largely absent in the press releases on the latest university achievement. It is true that the services they offer (not unlike the services offered by a provost) are auxiliary to the core functions of the university — the production of well-educated graduates, the discoveries and scholarship of faculty, and the direct contributions to the common good. But those core functions cannot achieve success without the best work of a strong university staff.
When these staff members do their jobs well, the educational and research functions of the university can proceed seamlessly. When they fail, the university can be crippled. We too often assume that timely payroll processing, efficient computer networks, course registration, clean classrooms, etc., are magically guaranteed. When they break down, we realize how important they are to our work. (In this sense, they are like the bridge we travel over each day thoughtlessly, not appreciating it until it collapses.)
So it’s useful and appropriate to take a moment to appreciate the efficiency of the university staff who perform these services. It is literally true that the “glitzy” stuff of universities cannot happen without them. To those staff, and on behalf of faculty and students, I say “thank you.”