Increasing Employee Engagement in Higher Education

Steve Tompkins
May 13, 2022

Strong employee engagement in higher education is essential for producing positive student outcomes.

The engagement rate of your higher education faculty and staff can significantly affect student outcomes. An instructor’s zest and passion for the subject often help students find their interests and path in life. When faculty don’t engage with the topic they’re teaching, students are much less likely to engage with what they’re supposed to be learning.

Administrators, advisers and office staff also contribute to the overall student experience. Ultimately, your workforce’s lack of engagement can reduce your reputation as an academic institution — and could even negatively influence student enrollment.

Here are some best practices for improving employee engagement in higher education at your institution.


Assess Workloads Regularly

Potential employees are often drawn to academia because of their passion for a specific subject and the satisfaction they get from sharing knowledge with others. In some ways, their passion makes them more vulnerable to burnout.

As an HR leader, you can reduce the likelihood of burnout and promote a sustainable level of engagement by ensuring workloads are managed appropriately across faculty, staff and administrative roles.

Don’t forget your adjuncts in this analysis. They’ve become acritical part of higher education staffing over the past few decades. Contingent faculty — including part-time adjuncts, full-time faculty not on a tenure track and student teachers — account for nearly three-quarters of instructional staff in higher education, The Washington Post reports. And part-time teachers alone represent two of every five (40%) teachers in the academic workforce, compared with only 24% in 1975.

The stress placed on your adjunct workforce from extreme workloads often takes a significant toll on employee engagement rates. That stress is exacerbated by low pay and uncertain employment.

More than half of adjuncts (52.7%) make $3,500 or less per course, according to a recent American Federation of Teachers report. And 31% of respondents make less than $25,000annually — placing them below the federal poverty line for a family of four. Nearly three-quarters (71.8%) of respondents are employed term by term, meaning they aren’t guaranteed a contract renewal in the next term.

This combination of circumstances can lead to an alarming imbalance between the hours that faculty — especially adjuncts — work and the pay they receive, which can heighten stress. And when faculty and staff experience high stress, it’s more difficult for them to focus and engage.

Assess workloads frequently to find a more equitable balance across faculty members. Consider converting adjunct faculty with high workloads to full-time employees, giving them job security and health benefits. That approach solves two challenges at once.

Converting adjunct to full-time faculty may be an easier case to make to leadership than you might think. Recent cases heard by the National Labor Review Board and the American Arbitration Association have suggested that contingent faculty may be organizing. Both organizations have upheld the rights of adjunct faculty to be fairly represented as employees. In the interests of mitigating risk, consider converting some adjunct professors to full-time faculty.

By promoting fair workloads and equitable employment, you can remove stressors and improve your workforce’s mental health — freeing them to engage with the work and the student body.


Map Out Opportunities for Career Progression

Most colleges and universities are scaling back tenure-track positions, leaving many faculty feeling untethered. Don’t leave anyone guessing at their potential or feeling dissatisfied with their work, which is a recipe for disengagement. Instead, help your workforce understand their options for progression at the organization. 

Career paths are typically more straightforward for administrative staff —who often follow a traditional career trajectory — than for faculty. Career progression can be especially challenging for adjunct faculty, who may have to divide their time between different schools or multiple types of jobs to make enough money to meet their financial needs. They’re often less visible than full-time faculty. They may be perceived as less valuable or face other stigmas associated with being an adjunct professor while doing just as much or more work than some full-time faculty.

Take diversity, equity and inclusion into account as you map out opportunities for career progression. Be mindful of systemic factors that could influence employee growth opportunities. Women typically bear the larger burden of caregiving, for instance, and may be less visible in the workplace. This lack of visibility can lead to disparities in pay for the same amount of work. In 2021, for example, adjunct faculty who are women earned only 94% of what their male counterparts earned.

Although there’s been some diversification in academia, many of the highest positions are still dominated by white men. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics[1]  found that 53% of full professorships — the highest rank in academia — are held by white men. In comparison, only 30% are held by Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaskan Native professors.

Consider assigning mentors at the highest levels to help advocate for faculty members from historically excluded groups. These mentorships raise awareness of structural barriers and help improve the upward path of diversity at the institution.

Cross-functional partnerships can help faculty and staff discover where they each feel most at home — and most engaged. For example, you might offer grant opportunities for faculty-staff research projects or have faculty and staff members serve on student engagement committees together.

As you develop and refine paths for career mobility, emphasize communication regarding advancement across the workforce. Create an organizational chart that makes all job pathways visible to your workforce. Offer suggestions for educational opportunities and other resources to help each employee carve out an ideal path.

Building opportunities for career progression into your HR processes helps members of the workforce set personal and professional goals. A simple mindset shift can produce powerful, positive outcomes for employee engagement.

Create Opportunities for Recognition

Pay scales, particularly at public institutions, are often driven by factors beyond HR’s control. Instead, look for other ways to acknowledge employee contributions.

You may host regular faculty and staff appreciation events, for example, to treat your workforce to an enjoyable, stress-free evening out. Or crowdsource nominations for employee of the month from among your work force itself. Receiving the praise and acknowledgment of peers can go a long way toward improving employee engagement — especially in a sector where different departments may compete for funding.

Encourage managers to offer regular praise and recognition to their teams. In academia, managers are often deans whose first role isn’t managing people but attending to the affairs of their department. They may require training and reminders to offer recognition to their team members. Comprehensive human capital management software can keep academic leaders on task when recognizing and engaging with colleagues.

Recognition can mean different things to different people. Ask your workforce what their recognition “language” is: Do they prefer, for example, public praise during department meetings? Personal gestures of recognition from their colleagues?

To promote optimal engagement, customize your recognition strategy to fit each individual employee.


Monitor Engagement Over Time

Employee engagement is an ongoing process. Don’t make one or two changes and expect to fix all of your employee engagement problems. Once you’ve implemented these best practices for improving engagement, put metrics in place to measure their impact.

Start with an engagement survey to set your baseline — your current levels of employee engagement. As you take steps to improve engagement, survey your workforce annually to evaluate engagement levels. Use anonymous pulse surveys throughout the year to determine which changes are having the most significant impact on engagement. By sending out surveys that can be answered anonymously, employees feel more comfortable being honest about your initiatives without fear of consequences.

As you learn what’s working and what isn’t, you can refine your engagement efforts moving forward. For example, you may find that assessing workloads has the most significant impact on your engagement levels. If that’s the case, you may want to invest more time into refining that specific solution.

Employee engagement is not a one-solution-fits-all practice. Listen to your employees about what does and does not work for them. Adjust your engagement strategies accordingly.


Reap the Benefits of Employee Engagement in Higher Education

Improving employee engagement in higher education enables you to serve your students better. When faculty, staff and administrators are engaged in their work and excited about what they do, students are more likely to pickup on that passion and apply it to their own studies. That student engagement improves learning outcomes and creates an environment where learning is paramount.

For many who work at colleges or universities, higher education is more than a job — it’s a calling. But high stress, dead-end career paths and lack of recognition slow employee momentum, leading to disengagement and resulting in some employees leaving higher education altogether. Building employee engagement in higher education empowers your workforce to find purpose and meaning in their work, pass that passion along to students and, ultimately, boost your institution’s reputation and enrollment rate.

Steve Tompkins
HCM Solutions Consultant
Steve Tompkins is an HCM Solutions Consultant at Criterion HCM and is located in San Diego, California.

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