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Human Resource Management in Higher Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Missy Jenkins and Joe Jarret
December 5, 2014

Not unlike other public entities, hiring and firings occur daily in the world of public higher education. Faculty are hired to teach, research and publish. Administrators are hired to provide structure and to hold the faculty accountable for the delivery of quality education to the university community. Staff are hired to perform the day-to-day operations ranging from administration, to budgeting, to risk management, etc. Consequently, human resource management is growing increasingly complex, providing unique challenges to the higher education professional.

jarret decThere are various types of contracts to be reviewed and payments to various accounts made. There is an often large contingent of exempt and non-exempt staffers to be trained, supervised and evaluated and benefits for full-time, part-time and term employees to be managed. There are different orientations to be orchestrated according to job description, trainings to be given on everything from diversity to best teaching practices, and employment mediation sessions to address employee grievances and disputes. Added to these complexities are the challenges associated with compliance with state and federal mandates relating to human resources. The job of the university human resource (HR) manager becomes an almost impossible job to perform.

As diligently as most HR managers attempt to perform their jobs by insuring that all factions within the university are content in their various jobs and functions, there is still the occasional incident of discontent. One area that is prone to contention concerns the denial of tenure.

Tenure, at first blush, may not seem to be an HR issue, but it often has the tendency to become one. To belabor the obvious, our courts generally define tenure as “the status granted to an employee, usually after a probationary period, indicating that the position or employment has become permanent.” For faculty members striving for tenure, it is imperative that they receive high marks from students, their faculty peers and most importantly, their department head. Annual evaluations by department heads should occur annually.

Tenure issues generally become HR issues when a department head, who has routinely evaluated a tenure-track faculty member with positive marks and reviews, ultimately votes to deny tenure to that same individual. Such denials grant the affected faculty member a right to appeal the decision as well as resort to the filing of a lawsuit.

According to Robb Jones, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Claims Management and Risk Research at United Educators, “tenure denial litigation consumes precious time, diverts energy and disrupts the academic mission. It can also impose serious human costs that affect many participants and can undermine an institution’s quality of life.” Consequently, department heads need to understand the mechanics and specifics as to how to effectively evaluate both faculty and staff. Without proper training and human resource management intervention, department heads often fall short in performing this essential task.

One final point to consider about the role of HR in higher education is that today’s HR professional is increasingly becoming directly involved in the recruitment and hiring of employees – both faculty and staff. This task requires the HR team sift through mountains of applications and vitaes in search of that one employee that best fits that one position.

“Fit” has become a hot topic among HR managers. It implies that, not only is the employee competent and intelligent enough to complete assigned tasks, but they also fit into the culture of the organization. This latter aspect implies that fit equates to success both for the employee and the organization.

In conclusion, today’s  higher education HR manager faces a myriad, of emotionally charged, legally complex, politically explosive issues that often garner the attention of students, parents, the media, etc. As one sage recently quipped, “there’s never a dull moment in a campus HR office!”


Author: Missy Jenkins has served the University of Tennessee for over 12 years in a variety of positions. She holds the bachelor’s degree in Music Education from Stetson University, the master’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and is currently completing her master’s in Public Policy and Administration from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in the near future.

Author: Joseph G. Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney and mediator who lectures full-time on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is a former United States Army Combat Arms Officer with service overseas and is the 2013-14 president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA and holds the B.S., MPA and J.D. degrees and is currently pursuing the Ph.D. in educational leadership & policy studies.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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