Mid-level administrative-professional staff in an American research university
Hazel, Stephanie Lynn
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Universities employ more than one million administrative and non-faculty professionals, constituting a large and expanding employment category with the greatest growth over the last 30 years in mid-level professional positions. Women comprise nearly 60 percent of this professional category in research universities, suggesting that this may be a professional home for women in higher education. The rapid growth of these professionals necessitates a better understanding of their place in the institution, how they are being used to meet the needs of the university, and how institutions allocate resources to these areas. This study explores the primary roles and activities of mid-level professional staff in the context of the contemporary American research university, with attention to the gendered nature of this professional category. Research was conducted using qualitative fieldwork in a public research university, focusing on three functional areas: academic, business, and external affairs. The research is driven by a conceptual framework using Acker’s gendered organizations, and Whitchurch’s conceptualization of the changing nature of university professional labor. The study found that mid-level professional staff are important mediators for institutional strategic change, their work being focused by senior administrators to help the university reposition itself to compete in various markets. Participants have experienced an intensification of work accompanied by reduced resources, in the context of few opportunities for professional advancement and a general sense of job insecurity. Professional staff are taking on roles that support the university’s strategic initiatives and are responding to the changing needs of the campus, creating new professional spaces. And while women and men occupy somewhat different spaces on campus, participants’ responses suggest that this is a group in which gender is less problematic than it is in other campus groups. However, it still does not solve systematic gender inequality across the university. Policy implications for institutional management are emphasized.