Monday, November 12, 2007

Rapid staff turnover and questions it raises

Last friday AU’s Housing and Dining Department devoted its bi-weekly staff meeting (it is called a ‘family meeting’) to the Faculty Residence Program. I was asked to open the discussion by sharing my more than five years of experience living in Anderson Hall. Anderson Hall’s live-in Resident Director and I met over dinner the previous week for a planning session. She sensitized me to a phenomenon of which I had not been fully conscious. Of the twenty or more people who would be in the meeting, only one had been employed by American University when I moved in. To cite one, not atypical, example, the young woman Resident Director who is my neighbor is the fifth person to hold that post during my tenure.

This pattern is atypical for many American University Departments. AU’s President matriculated as an undergraduate as did the Faculty Senate Chair. The President the Provost and I joined AU;s faculty in 1975. When I first interviewed at AU, I was greeted by the (then) young woman who now serves as Executive Assistant to the Provost. Two faculty members whom I know well have served AU for more than fifty years. Several years ago, we celebrated the Vice President for Finance’s thirtieth year of service. Two Office of Information Technology staff members were students in the applied computer science program that was part of the Center I headed when I first joined AU.

Neither longevity or rapid turnover is intrinsically virtuous. Stable staffing can sustain a culture and sense of community, but also produce stagnation and resistance to change. Turnover brings new energies and ideas into an organization, but new hires may lack the judgement and experience to function with real effectiveness in AU’s complex, high context institutional culture.

As I reflect on the Housing and Dining Department's institutional culture, I am left with more questions than answers. Why is the turnover so high? How does a manager sustain coherent management practices, an affirming culture and a sense of community in this environment? How does one capitalize on this rapid infusion of “new blood?” What are the consequences of the reality that many Housing and Dining staff members have spent less time at institution than virtually all of the Resident Assistant staff members and many of the students they supervise?

The Housing and Dining Department, it has been my experience, carries out the complex tasks that are its mission with discipline and effectiveness. In an institutional culture where ‘who you know’ is at least as important as ‘what you know’ and ‘what position you hold,’ this is remarkable. I have been told that rapid turnover is simply ‘the way things are” in the student services culture, nationally.

But questions about why turnover is so rapid, what are the consequences and the degree to which the consequences are beneficial - or not - remain.

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Anonymous Cimmerian said...

I am wondering what the names are of the simulation programs you made?


11:12 AM  

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