People who work in higher ed must set professional boundaries (opinion)

The “B” word is an important but surprisingly controversial topic in higher education. Some organizations refuse to use the word at all. Other institutions and leaders highlight its undeniable significance. And the stresses of work-life balance and the blurring of lines between being on the clock and being at home in a professional world forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic have only intensified the conversation.

What is this word that incites so much debate? Be— Warningwe’re going to say it in its full form. Boundaries.

Regardless of how you feel about boundaries, we’re almost certain that you have some thoughts and opinions. Is it so bad to be asked to consider them?

Many higher education leaders and professionals seem to think so. But why? Why is it so taboo for higher education professionals to communicate their needs? In this first of two articles about placing boundaries, we will cover what boundaries are, how they are generally approached in higher education, how we’ve gotten to this point and where we need to go.

What are boundaries, anyway? Generally speaking, they are the limits we place in social and professional interactions to ensure that other people don’t violate or jeopardize our own values. Boundaries are our way of communicating how we expect to be treated and defining what actions we will and won’t accept from others. Well-communicated boundaries serve as a sort of instruction manual for interpersonal interaction and help us form stronger, deeper connections with the many different people around us.

The trouble—or, more correctly, perceived trouble—with boundaries arise when personal boundaries clash with institutional needs. Institutional leaders may, for instance, perceive a personal boundary of not answering work emails after 5 pm on a weeknight as an unwillingness to be a team player. Similarly, they may view a personal boundary of preserving 30 minutes of break time for every three hours spent in meetings as a selfish hoarding of resources that could otherwise benefit the students we serve. As institutional needs have increased and grown in complexity, our time has become less and less our own. As we try to reclaim the personal parts of our lives, we are beginning to realize just how tipped the work-life balance scales have become in favor of work.

It’s important to recognize that no malicious plot got us all here. As with most imbalances of power, our current trouble with boundaries started small. To give a hypothetical example, it may have begun with extending office hours 30 minutes to accommodate a student with an evening class. Once that accommodation intended for one student became known, others then requested similar special allowances. As higher education professionals, we are trained and coached to serve students above all else, so we agreed. Before we knew it, our office hours were never truly over, emails that poured at at 3 am were expected to be answered before the next workday and we became trapped in a situation with no off switch.

From the institutional side, such extra work is a symbol of our dedication. We’ve answered those 3 am emails because we care—if we didn’t, we just wouldn’t, right? We must like to give that extra time, as we continue gifting it.

So how about some volunteer opportunities at night or on the weekends? We show our students how much we care by serving them midnight breakfast during finals. We reschedule our own children’s birthday parties to be able to serve popcorn at a student picnic. Again, we show we care. And that’s reinforced by staff awards, bonuses and prizes for those who go “the extra mile” on top of the five extra miles they’re all already going.

We’ve entered a cycle that, at its core, was never intended to be a negative but has nevertheless led to professionals leaving higher education in droves. Asking us to care about students is fair—it’s why we chose the careers we did. As we have continued to say yes to increasing demands, however, those increased levels of engagement have become the expectation for new professionals entering the field. To prove themselves, they now have to perform above already-inflated baselines for success. The end result over time: unrealistically high expectations for individual performance, coupled with institutional promises to maintain and expand student offerings without the human capital to do so.

Personal boundaries are such a taboo topic in higher education because they force professionals at all levels to acknowledge the aspects of the field that just aren’t sustainable. Fixing those aspects will require work—hard, uncomfortable, unsettling work—which we are often more inclined to avoid than embrace. It’s the question of the enemy we know versus the enemy we don’t. We already know we can Survive under the current conditions, and it’s more comfortable to accept that known than risk the difficulty of making a change.

But let’s think about what will happen if we don’t put in that extra hard work. Already, many professionals who entered our field excited, energetic and wanting to impact students’ lives have fled for greener pastures that allow them to use their talents without facing never-ending burnout. With a slower stream of new professionals refreshing the employee pool, the rest of us are forced to take on higher demands when our demands were already over capacity. Eventually, this kind of burnout can create disillusionment in even the most dedicated professionals. When we have no life beyond work, are we really living?

We must keep reminding ourselves in this conversation that there is no villain. This is not a discussion of professionals versus institutions or institutional leadership. We have created this system together, both by expecting too much of ourselves and expecting too much of our workers. And we will need to fix it together.

A feeling has developed that we cannot create boundaries for ourselves because they might limit our ability to serve students. In the short term, that’s true— what it means to serve students may look a bit different. But a workforce that is able to get a full night’s sleep, spend quality time with family and loved ones, and eat three square meals a day will be in a better position to give students what they need in the hours reserved for that work. Such a healthier workforce will attract new professionals who want to be part of a field that allows them to follow their passions while also enjoying life outside the walls of their institution. With more and happy people to serve them, students will be better supported and will have models for setting boundaries in their own professional lives.

This is where we are. It’s hard to talk about because it requires us to shake up the status quo. Especially during the last few years of the pandemic, both faculty members and administrators have been realizing how much life they’re missing because of the extra demands of their work, and they’re choosing to leave rather than continue to miss that living. No matter our connection to the field of higher education—longtime supervisor, new professional or family member or friend to a higher education professional—we all can all take steps to start the process of changing the unrealistic expectations that have come to define the field.

After all, we owe it to the people in our fields and institutions to create environments that foster, rather than stifle, their passion. In an upcoming piece, we will discuss the ways that higher education professionals in all stages of their careers and at all levels of seniority can help mold and maintain those kinds of environments.

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