• July 22, 2014

Great Colleges Reap the Benefits of Great Workplace Culture

Great academic workplaces are filled with people who believe that their jobs are important to the college, that the institution is important to the community, and that the college gives them the freedom to do that job well. Those are some of the findings of The Chronicle's Great Colleges to Work For survey for 2011, which identifies 111 colleges—small, medium, and large, all across the country—that are exceptional places to work.

Even as the economy remained tough and colleges coped with tight budgets, those that stood out seemed able to create a culture of success that touches faculty, professional staff, and administrators. The survey got responses from about 44,000 employees, 69 percent of whom at the 111 colleges agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "This institution's culture is special—something you don't just find anywhere." That proportion jumped to 83 percent among respondents at colleges on the survey's Honor Roll, which recognizes those that scored highest across the 12 recognition categories.

This year's survey is The Chronicle's biggest yet. The 310 colleges that participated—a mix of four-year and two-year institutions—reflects a jump from 275 last year; it is a large increase from the 89 colleges that were in our first survey, in 2008.


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For the survey, faculty, staff, and administrators were given 60 statements, like the one about institutional culture, and asked to respond using a five-point scale, ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." They were also asked to rate their satisfaction with several kinds of workplace benefits. Their answers help form the recognition categories, such as collaborative governance, and compensation and benefits. High ratings in those categories are regarded as the core attributes of a great academic workplace.

Colleges were placed in one of three size groups—small, medium, or large—based on enrollment. Recognition in each category was given to the 10 highest-scoring institutions in each group for four-year colleges, and to the four highest-scoring institutions in each group for two-year colleges. (We don't rank the institutions but list them alphabetically. Read an explanation of our methodology here.) Campuses as diverse as the University of Southern California, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and Lake Area Technical Institute were recognized in at least one category.

The 30 four-year and 12 two-year colleges on the Honor Roll were cited in the most categories in their size divisions.

About 20,000 of the people who responded to the survey are faculty members, about 15,000 are professional staff members, and about 8,000 are administrators. The survey was sent to almost 111,000 people, with an overall response rate of about 40 percent. It was administered by ModernThink LLC, a human-resources-consulting firm in Wilmington, Del. The survey instrument is based on an assessment that has been used in 55 Best Places to Work programs involving more than 4,000 organizations. A panel of higher-education experts helped customize the survey to reflect issues unique to colleges.

'A Human Institution'

The importance of the culture of success isn't lost on officials at the colleges recognized in the survey. "We have an overall workplace culture where people are valued," says Jane Fries, assistant to the president at Morgan Community College, in Colorado. "We often say it's a human institution, not an institution that employs humans."

Jud Hicks, president of Frank Phillips College, in Texas, says that while his is "a small, rural-serving, somewhat obscure college, we get the opportunity day in and day out of improving the lives of individuals that we come in contact with." At the end of the day, "does it get any better than that?"

But culture isn't created from vapor. Behind it stand concrete benefits and policies that convince employees that they are valuable and that the college is willing to put resources behind them. "We are committed to recruiting the best people and then working to ensure that our programs, compensation, benefits, and policies give them compelling reasons to stay," says Jerry M. Cutler, director of human resources at the University of Delaware.

The Chronicle survey pointed to several of those compelling reasons when it comes to benefits.

The top-rated benefits were, in order: vacation and personal time off, retirement plans like a 403(b) or 401(k), tuition reimbursement for employees, medical insurance, and tuition reimbursement for family members. Other benefits and programs, employees said, were less important: housing-assistance programs, post-retirement medical benefits, professional- and career-development programs, work/life-balance programs, and clarity in the tenure process.

The survey also highlighted a strongly felt connection between an individual's job and the institution as a whole. Among the 60 statements in the survey, one of the highest-scoring among employees at colleges recognized as great places to work was, "I understand how my job contributes to this institution's mission." About 57 percent of employees strongly agreed with that, while just over 1 percent strongly disagreed.

Another statement that won positive reaction was, "I am given the responsibility and freedom to do my job," with nearly 53 percent in strong agreement and just 2 percent in strong disagreement.

In some areas, however, higher education still has some work to do, as indicated by statements that had comparatively few positive reactions. "My department has adequate faculty/staff to achieve our goals" was one of those, with only about 13 percent of employees in strong agreement, and about 28 percent simply agreeing. "I am paid fairly for my work" gained strong concurrence from only about 16 percent of employees and agreement from about 36 percent.

The outstanding colleges—those that made the Honor Roll—show that it is possible to surmount those weaknesses in the eyes of employees. Not only did those colleges score higher in ratings of institutional culture, but they also rated higher in the general view of the college and how well it works. For instance, the statement "This institution is well run" got positive responses from 63 percent of employees over all. At Honor Roll colleges, that figure reached 80 percent.

Molly Redden, Rachel Wiseman, and Jie Jenny Zou contributed to this article.

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