When I was searching for PhD programs in the early 1990s, there was no Google. While my friends and classmates with whom I was soon to graduate were out living it up, I’d spend my nights in the university library’s dusty reference room scouring catalogs for that perfect graduate program – the one that would allow me to study the emerging global relations between east and west given that the Soviet Union was crumbling. I settled on four programs that appeared to have the kind of academic studies I wanted to pursue and I jotted down their telephone numbers. From my home phone (as there were no cell phones, either) I methodically called each department and asked that they send me their application materials. I also asked nerve-wracking and tedious questions like, “do you require the Graduate Record Exam for entering PhD students?” “Do you have any faculty working on the post-Soviet space that are looking for an eager and curious student to help with research or teaching?” “Do you offer graduate fellowships that cover tuition and provide a stipend?” and “Do you think I will actually find an academic job after I spend four to five years at your university?” That last question always seemed to be the hardest for them to answer.
During this process, I will never forget the woman who answered the phone when I called the University of Georgia. Clarice Pilcher had the most amazingly smooth southern drawl, probably the best I had ever heard or would ever hear: “Po-liiit-i-cuuul Sciii-enccce,” she sang, elongating each syllable, “thiiis iiis Claaa-rrr-iiice Piiil-chahhh, maaay IIII heeellp youuu?” It took her three times longer than others to say the same sentence, but she was also three times (if not more) as lovely.
There is no doubt that Clarice had me hooked on UGA’s program by the time she finished that sentence on the phone all those years ago. She patiently answered all my questions, connected me with others in the department that could provide advice, and basically helped sell that graduate program to this prospective student. Because of Clarice, in some respects, I spent six years of my life living, learning, researching, teaching, and making the most amazing memories in the humid and herbaceous environs of Athens, Georgia. While there I learned that Clarice was known by many in the department as the person that always had a smile and a sweet, sassy comment to make you laugh (and a cigarette in the ladies room to share). Sometimes I would linger in the main office where she worked the phones, just to hear her sing her southern greeting over and over, until she would chase me away with a warning about going to class. But more importantly, I came to learn after many years of working with Clarice and the other women in that particular department just how important they were when it came to running an efficient academic unit with humor and grace.
And they aren’t alone. Overwhelmingly, women have been the ones managing operations in academic and other offices in all the universities and colleges where I have worked and visited. Women who serve as higher education professionals, who make up the staff of our institutions of higher learning, are the foundation upon which academia is built. While “staff” is the catchall phrase often used when referring to those who support and manage the work of colleges and universities, that single term fails to reflect the staggering diversity of professional roles under its umbrella, from student services to campus safety to institutional research to groundskeeping. Higher education staff may not be teaching classes (although some do), but they are certainly scheduling classrooms, booking travel, paying bills, ordering supplies, organizing events, recruiting and advising students, managing enrollment, providing financial aid checks, raising private funds, mining and analyzing data for reporting and accreditation, vacuuming floors, decorating spaces, budgeting finances, creating spreadsheets, keeping inventory, and so much more.
Yet for all university staff members do, there are few associations that represent their interests – at least not collective associations, nothing similar to the American Association of University Professors, or other types of organizations that focus largely on faculty and administrators. In fact, data about female faculty and women in leadership positions in higher education are relatively easy to find, as are data about gender representations among college and university students. Yet no data exist about gender and the work of higher education professionals.
What we do know, we know anecdotally – and this isn’t sufficient. It’s tough to enhance representation if we don’t have data to make this professional category – the role of higher education staff – more visible.
Of course, certain higher ed issue areas, such as academic advising or international education, have their specific associations, but as a collective, university staff are under-represented, and quite often, under-appreciated (and under-paid). To be sure, there are perks to working at a college or university – a stimulating work environment, relative flexibility and job stability, just to name a few. But it is not well understood just how important women are to universities and colleges as the overwhelming majority of higher ed staff. Making their work and their contributions visible is important to the health and well being of institutions of higher education, as it is their work that often directly affects those we serve – our students. And as a higher ed administrator, I know they greatly affect the work that I am able to do on a daily basis. After all, if it hadn’t been for an important staff member like Clarice Pilcher, who knows what kind of higher ed path I would have chosen?
It is high time to recognize the energy and hard work that underlies all that what we do in academia, and provide higher ed staff the professional recognition and support they deserve. We will all be better off for it.