• April 18, 2014

Sixth Annual Survey

Great Colleges to Work For 2013

Leadership, Work-Life Balance Help Make Great Colleges

By Carolyn Mooney

Colleges that have strong workplaces support, consult with, and appreciate their employees.

These steps sound pretty simple and don't necessarily require spending lots of money, so why don't more colleges practice them? 

The Chronicle's 2013 Great Colleges to Work For survey, which recognized 97 institutions nationwide for outstanding performance in at least one of 12 workplace categories, showcases job practices that employees appreciate most. At some colleges that might mean communicating clearly with employees, even when the news is bad (no raises, for example). At others it might mean sponsoring weight-loss programs, building walking paths, and encouraging employees to meditate regularly. Yet other recognized colleges offer family-friendly work hours, give time off for volunteer work, hold career-advancement workshops, thank people in innovative ways, sponsor workshops to improve teaching, and operate community gardens and even a chicken coop.

Chronicle Vitae

The sixth annual survey is based on responses from nearly 45,000 people at 300 institutions (227 four-year and 73 two-year colleges). Employees were asked to agree or disagree, using a five-point scale, with a series of 60 statements, such as: "Senior leadership provides a clear direction for this institution's future."

In particular, colleges that made the survey's Honor Roll—meaning they were cited for recognition most often in their size group—seem to be doing things right.

"One question I always get is, What is it that these colleges are doing differently?" says Richard K. Boyer, a principal and managing partner at ModernThink LLC, a human-resource consulting company that administers the survey in partnership with The Chronicle. Having strong senior leadership is key, along with well-articulated collaborative-governance practices and "a culture of recognition" for employees, he says.

Employees at the 42 Honor Roll colleges were more likely to respond positively to questions about leadership. (Among all colleges surveyed, faculty members tended to give their leaders lower marks than did other employees.) In response to the survey statement about senior leadership's providing clear direction, 77 percent of all employees at Honor Roll colleges strongly agreed or agreed, compared with 69 percent at recognized colleges and 51 percent at those colleges that were not recognized. Among faculty members at all colleges surveyed, that figure was 52 percent.

The category of collaborative governance showed a similar pattern. In his consulting work with colleges, Mr. Boyer says, he sees "a lot of organizations that aren't very intentional about defining and helping to manage expectations. If you don't define what shared governance is at your institution, you're leaving it up to various interpretations of faculty and staff."

There was also a large gap between Honor Roll colleges and others in the category of respect and appreciation. "This is one of those areas where higher ed as a sector is woefully lagging behind," Mr. Boyer says. In response to the statement "Our recognition and rewards programs are meaningful to me," about two-thirds of employees at the Honor Roll colleges responded positively, compared with just 43 percent at the nonrecognized colleges.

It's important to remember that these findings are from colleges aspiring to offer better workplaces, Mr. Boyer says. While some colleges take part to gather baseline employment data, "these 300 schools that participate think they're pretty good. For the most part, this is a strong candidate pool."

If higher education lags behind other sectors in some aspects of the workplace, the survey found that it has distinct advantages in others, particularly in promoting work-life balance and a culture in which employees take pride. Three-fourths of all employees responded positively to the statement: "This institution's policies and practices give me the flexibility to manage my work and personal life."

And nearly three-fourths of all employees also agreed with what is perhaps the most important survey statement of all: "All things considered, this is a great place to work."

"Higher ed has a leg up over many other sectors in work-life balance," Mr. Boyer says, "and that's often underappreciated by faculty and staff and underleveraged by administrators."

This year's survey included a new feature aimed at making it more inclusive. In response to feedback from previous participants, the survey was expanded to include a portion of non-exempt staff members—lower-paid workers with less responsibility, such as food-service, clerical, and maintenance workers—in the survey sample.

The inclusion of such workers probably helps explain this year's slight statistical dip, compared with the last three years, in the average of the numerical responses to all 60 statements, Mr. Boyer says. But among Honor Roll colleges, that average was actually higher this year. "What we see is that these Honor Roll colleges are diligent in making sure that it's a great place to work for everybody, regardless of what your job category is," he says.

Not surprisingly, the survey found attitudinal differences among different groups of employees. A key survey statement for predicting overall job satisfaction for non-exempt employees was this one: "I am paid fairly for my work." For administrators, a key survey statement had to do with autonomy: "I am given the responsibility and freedom to do my job."

As in the past, a number of religiously affiliated colleges were recognized for strong workplace practices in this year's survey. Such colleges have shared values and are often small, allowing them to make changes more easily.

But a common culture can also have a downside, discouraging difficult conversations, Mr. Boyer says.

"I think the mission does make a difference in employee satisfaction," says Kathi Light, provost of the University of the Incarnate Word, a Roman Catholic institution in San Antonio, Tex. "We make the founding values front and center. It's a big issue when we hire."

Incarnate Word was recognized in six survey categories, including respect and appreciation, and made the Great Colleges Honor Roll.

When it comes to dissent, the provost says, the university's mission statement emphasizes respectful dialogue. That's what happened when Turkish students protested over a play to be held on the campus some years ago. (Muslim students also appreciate the university's values, and currently make up just under 10 percent of the student body, Ms. Light says.)

The protesting students discussed their concerns with campus leaders, who in turn cited the broader interests of the university and the need to "honor multiple voices," Ms. Light says. The play went on.

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