The University Union of Northern Arizona serves both classified and service professionals at our institution. We urge the current and future Administrations to clearly articulate direct impacts of the Organizational Growth and Effectiveness Initiative (OGEI) for staff and the NAU community at large, and to practice true participatory decision-making with staff.
In 2018, NAU administration proposed a dramatic reimagining of the role of classified staff through OGEI. The initiative aims to “support our strategic goals around excellence, stewardship, and engagement” and to “increase customer service, effectiveness, and the efficiency of the services provided by the service delivery team.” Beginning in 2019, the initiative was implemented in three prototype colleges: College of Engineering, Informatics, and Applied Sciences, College of Health and Human Services, and the W.A. Franke College of Business. 2021 will see remaining colleges impacted.
In line with other decisions to centralize services across the university, this move destabilized staff, uprooting many from well-functioning units and positions. Instead of departmental staff working on all related departmental tasks (e.g., travel reimbursements, scheduling, front-facing interactions with students and faculty, work with graduate students, etc.), in many cases this work is now being centrally “pod-ified.” Staff remaining in departments may be rendered more like receptionists, no longer deeply active in the logistical life of their units. Staffing positions that have long been located at the department/program level, contributing to NAU’s richly deserved reputation for being THE school to attend for Arizona students seeking a more personal higher education experience, may be defined out of existence.
Another deep downside to this centralization is the likely destruction of institutional knowledge at the unit level. Shifting skilled labor to centralized pods ultimately results in increasing time investment from everyone who needs support from knowledgeable administrators, including staff themselves. Even more distressing is a change for many staff from salary to hourly pay, and unwarranted job elimination that would render NAU less hospitable to all comers and a worse community partner for Flagstaff and the region.
Possible positive features of the initiative
Many staff have raised serious concerns about impending or already-begun changes to their jobs, undertaken without a serious decision-making role for staff members. We also recognize, however, that OGEI may have benefits. These would seem to include the following, though information on the initiative is sparse.
Higher entry level pay.
Clearer path for promotion and advancement at all levels.
Clearer job descriptions: staff want to know exactly which tasks they are responsible for and which they are not.
To the extent that OGEI will produce these positive outcomes, that should be communicated with appropriate detail to all affected staff.
List of concerns
At present, few staff concerns about OGEI have been addressed in satisfying fashion. The initiative produces a great deal of documentation, but such documentation tends toward the highly abstract and offers little or no insight into what unit-level changes are and are not being sought. Staff have a right to know, with great granularity, what futures the NAU administration sees for them. Staff also have a right to substantive direct participation in decision-making associated with OGEI and their own jobs. Following are several abiding concerns with how the initiative has been pursued thus far, spanning staff experiences in multiple units and colleges-- each concern is paired with a commonsense request:
For transparent communication and corresponding worries about job retention.
Information shared with impacted staff has been fragmentary. Much of the communication is supposed to come from supervisors which, at the department level, means chairs who are also new to the initiative. Supervisors are asked to advocate for their staff, but do so with varying degrees of success. A staff member’s job may depend on this advocacy, independent of their actual contributions.
REQUEST: Staff request that administration shares clearly and regularly their expectations about which specific jobs will be retained and which will be lost. For instance, if certain tasks are to be relegated to the centralized pod, this will take that work away from the departmental administrative assistant. In some cases, this may mean that the departmental administrative assistant will lose their job and that position will be eliminated. People employed in those positions have a right to know if this possibility is on the table.
Concerns about staff pay, retention, and advancement.
One promise of OGEI has been that entry-level staff positions will be clearly defined and have higher starting pay than currently. However, that starting pay is still at close to poverty line levels for Flagstaff. While advancement will be possible, there will be a funneling effect: not everyone will have opportunities for promotion.
REQUEST: Seek wholly anonymous input from staff about how to ensure that wages, from entry level up, reflect real costs of living in Flagstaff, and articulate a clear schedule for salary or hourly wage increases that is driven by staff input on the cost of living.
The undervaluing of staff labor
Staff recognize (as many faculty and admin do not) that their work is not often quantifiable or easily written into contracts. Staff regulate the daily life of a department. They are the point of contact for students. Staff often are mediators between faculty and regulate the overall atmosphere of a program. Centralizing staff risks robbing the university of a central element of its welcomingness, with long-term consequences that are both interpersonal and fiscal.
This sort of labor, sometimes understood as “care work,” is currently undervalued by the university and the issue will potentially be exacerbated by OGEI. This initiative does not recognize the real and unavoidable responsibilities of maintaining a welcoming atmosphere for public learning as work. Moreover, with positions eliminated from departments this crucial but undervalued labor will fall to untrained student workers or to faculty themselves. It takes time and expertise for staff members to build the sort of trust needed to facilitate unwritten tasks. OGEI does not incentivize people to remain in departmental positions, to the detriment of the academic programs.
Finally, many staff are engaged with work outside of their department that is not compensated or included in annual evaluations.
REQUEST: Duly account for the monetary value, both present and anticipated, of care work performed by staff in all calculations of cost/benefit associated with potential changes in organizational or reporting structure. Articulate and respond appropriately to the pecuniary consequences of depriving the university of the care work that makes it run, and duly account for the cost in creative labor-hours entailed by not only the performance but also the processes of skilling over time that make such work possible.
Student recruitment and retention.
The previous point also shows how impacts to staff also impact the student body and faculty of the university. Because staff are often the main point of contact for both graduate and undergraduate students, staff labor is hugely important to the University’s ability to recruit and retain students, by making the university a welcoming environment for public learning and making students’ lives outside of the classroom run smoothly.
One example to highlight unintended consequences: staff often help graduate students with their fellowships and teaching assistantships. These include difficult and anxiety-inducing tasks that take expertise to be done correctly. Students trust their staff to be specialized in the ways of their individual programs. OGEI does not support this type of specialization. As a result, graduate students may become increasingly disillusioned with their position at NAU and may seek to finish their graduate work elsewhere.
REQUEST: Work with staff, both directly and through in-depth anonymous input, to ensure that staff expertise and institutional knowledge continue to be well represented within individual units, in ways that staff themselves--who in many cases know best how that should look for individual units--value and assent to.
Once again The University Union of Northern Arizona urges NAU to practice true participatory decision-making with staff.