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Untapped Potential? Appreciating the Administrative Assistant

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But one group of people uniquely need good AAs: novice professors just beginning their employment and professional careers.


The posting below looks at the crucial role of the department administrative assistant. It is by Dan Chambers* and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Summer 2017, Vol. 28, No. 1. Copyright © 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone:  (203) 643-8066}




Rick Reis

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Untapped Potential? Appreciating the Administrative Assistant


Another school year begins with tightly constrained budgets, and finding priceless untapped resources may be the key to making your academic program work well.

Consider the academic administrative assistant (AA)—who used to be called the department secretary. Always underpaid, often under-appreciated, sometimes completely unnoticed, your AA is actually a linchpin in the college’s organizational machinery. These women— nearly all of them are, in fact, women—work at the administrative center of a department, are available all day long, and are intimately familiar with allocations of time, space, money, supplies, and positions—in short, with the material realities of power, of getting things done. Therefore, good AAs are invaluable. When noticed, they may be praised in terms either economic (priceless, irreplaceable) or religious (beloved, revered, worshipped). Sloppy ones, on the other hand, can gum up the works, and those legendary petty tyrants of the profession can intimidate professors and terrorize graduate students while sowing dissension throughout the department. In any case, the job—and the person who holds it—matter a lot.

But what exactly is it that AAs do? When the fall semester begins, the music department’s AA will be busy scheduling hundreds of students into scores of practice rooms with dozens of adjunct instructors; while in the science buildings, other AAs are checking labs and storage rooms filled with supplies, ordering truckloads of new chemicals, working with an army of vendors, and handling purchase orders and billing statements. In offices across the campus, these women are updating syllabi, photocopying handouts, formatting and submitting journal manuscripts, and reallocating those newly pruned department budgets. When speakers come to visit, AAs manage the logistics and reimbursements, and when job candidates arrive for interviews in a multidepartment office, the AA may coordinate as many as four different candidates in a week, making sure that each nervous young hopeful has a ride from the airport, a decent place to stay that night, a guide to show him or her around the campus, and an appointment with the department chair that doesn’t run over into the scheduled lunch with senior majors. She shapes their image of your entire institution. Meanwhile, a theater and music AA in another building is booking a performance hall and trying to hire some reliable student ushers for the orchestra’s holiday concert. Some AAs, then, work mainly with department chairs and faculty, others with student workers, and still others with visitors, vendors, or various campus administrators. Many work with all these groups.

And that’s just their officially required work. Unofficially, the AA is really an all-purpose help desk for her building. Being on scene all day, five days a week, makes her physically available, voluntarily or not, to anyone who happens to walk by. Delivery people bringing boxes of supplies, caterers trying to find that lunchtime meeting room, custodians taking a little timeout, parents hunting up their children’s advisers, students scrambling to get to their two thirty class, and anyone needing a bathroom—they all stop by the AA’s office, especially if it’s centrally located and the door is open. Student workers in the office see the AA as their first real boss, who teaches them how to work with the public, how to be a professional, and how—for students living away from home for the first time—to handle life’s ups and downs. For many of them, the AA can be a substitute parent.

But one group of people uniquely need good AAs: novice professors just beginning their employment and professional careers. They’re nervous about doing a good job, making the right impression, and getting along in a new community. And they don’t want to bother their department chair. They need a friendly face and some good advice about getting a decent apartment, a reputable pediatrician for the toddler, and lots of help with the bureaucracy. So they hang around the office, getting coffee while nonchalantly seeking advice on pretty much everything. “They’re younger than my own children,” one AA told me. Junior professors get their orientation not from workshops with an associate dean, or even from their officially assigned “mentor,” let alone from some online handbook. They are initiated instead by these institutional veterans sitting right there in the department office, whom they run into every day, just in passing.

My point is simple: don’t ignore these people. They are crucial to your academic department’s proper functioning. When hiring, take your time to get the best possible person. When paying, get them top dollar while recognizing that good AAs are virtually always badly underpaid. Don’t dump lots of unscheduled last-minute work on them; after all, as the sign on my former AA’s desk said, “Your poor planning does not constitute my emergency.” AAs should be well trained; regularly meet with their peers to share ideas, create problem-solving networks, and reinforce their sense of professional self-esteem; and, to an appropriate extent, be included in department policy discussions. If we faculty, staff supervisors, department chairs, and deans all took AAs
a bit more seriously, then our work lives would improve—a lot. ▲

*Dan Chambliss is the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. Email: