Letter to the Editor | Some questions (provocations) for the AUA

Development Monthly | #7 March 2022 | Letter to the Editor | Some questions (provocations) for the AUA

Jonathan Dempsey

Assistant Registrar,
New College of the Humanities

To The Editor,

We seem to now be living in a time of great reflection, with the past 2 years giving us (maybe too much sometimes) to reflect on ourselves personally and professionally and with the upcoming AUA Annual conference being titled ‘What now? Shaping our future’ it may be a pertinent time to reflect on the organisation that we are all a part of the AUA.

Now this letter is not setting out to denigrate or talk down the AUA, in fact I’m involved in many ways as a mentor and on the advisory board for this very publication I’m writing to, however I want to provoke a conversation about who we are as an organisation.

So, the first topic I want to discuss is the very name of the organisation, the AUA or it’s full title the Association of University Administrators. I have highlighted the last word of the title, administrators, as personally I dislike it.

It doesn’t represent who I am as a professional. This is not to say that those with ‘administrator’ as part of their job title is not professional it is just that I don’t see how it represents all areas of higher education we work in.

We are registrars, officers, managers, developers, marketers, advisors. The list goes on and is one I’m not even sure I could capture fully. Lumping us all in as one job title feels somewhat demeaning and doesn’t set us up to gain the respect of colleagues within HE and those looking in from the outside.

In fact the term administrator (when speaking of us as a group) ranks almost as highly on my list of vitriol as the term ‘non-academic’. We as a group of professionals are a lot more than what we are not. We are the third leg of the milking stool that is higher education. Take us away, in the same way as you could take away students or academic colleagues, and things would just fall down.

So, my first topic of discussion/provocation to ask you the editor and those reading. Should we remain being named the Association of University Administrators? Or should we have a new name that reflects who we are? Maybe the Association of University Professionals? Or, somewhat facetiously, the Association of People Who Aren’t Academics but Know Their Sh*T and Get Stuff Done. Yes, the last one wouldn’t have a great acronym, but it does say, I think, who we are and what we do.

Now I don’t think the AUA will rebrand, that would no doubt cost too much, but what do others think? What moniker would appropriately let others know who we are as a professional group? Answers on a postcard please.

Now to my second topic of discussion/provocation. This again asks who we are as an organisation. However, this time I want to ask what it is we stand for. Are we just an organisation about professional development and career progression? Or do we, as a collective, stand for something more? Do we speak out enough about the world around us, at the very least in the context of HE?

I’m going to flat out say no!

Now to caveat my thoughts before I go on.

I am a white cis-gendered hetero male.

This undoubtedly tinges everything that I consider from a base perspective of privilege, and I don’t think for a second that I can give much of an opinion of the barriers faced by others.

However, that is exacerbated by the fact I have, other than through conversations with colleagues, no idea of the experiences of those “othered” by the systems within which we work, nor do I believe those groups should be the ones having to yet again “tell their story” or lead on inclusivity initiatives etc.… because they are the ones who should have been included already.

I firmly believe that the AUA needs to get up on its parapet and highlight the issues our members whether that be on race, gender, sexuality or any other number of ways we as a society like to put people into a nice, neat box that is easy for others to “understand”.

For example, we know that in academia there is a dearth of female professors. With their only being 28% of females in the professoriate and when you account for race that drops dramatically with there only being about 35 black female professors out 22000 professors in total. However, what is the story when it comes to professional members of staff? How many in senior roles are female? How many are Black or Asian?

I have no idea!

Maybe someone out there does, but shouldn’t this be something the AUA is talking about? Or asking its membership as to understand the makeup of our profession?

If we can’t quantify who we are how can we begin to have conversations about the changes that may need to take place to ensure we are an organisation who represents each individual not just on their job title alone but as a person with many facets that make up who they are?

Is the AUA, and maybe all of us a collective, just too passive? That’s at least how I experience things and maybe that says more about me and this letter is my own provocation to stand up more and shout to highlight the inequalities in the system. I know I need to do better at that.

So, I would like to ask should the AUA be taking more stands? Should they be looking at the state of our professional services nation to understand what is happening? The barriers people are facing in their career? Should they have given out a statement denouncing the invasion of Ukraine?

I know I might be getting up on my soapbox right now, but I think to answer my own questions they should all be a resounding yes!

So, editor and fellow professionals in higher education, what do you think? Am I way off the point in my provocations? Or have I not gone far enough? I would love to hear what others think either in reply to this letter or via social media (you can find me on twitter – @jd_in_he and LinkedIn – linkedin.com/in/jonathanadempsey).

Jonathan (he/him)

Join the discussion @The_AUA #Develop or scroll to the bottom for comments

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4 comments on “Letter to the Editor | Some questions (provocations) for the AUA
  1. Gillian Davis


    This is an excellent piece. I could not agree more with your commentary here. I would fully support a change a change of name to include ‘Professionals’. Such a change would also provide an opportunity to pause and think more deeply about our reason for being, perhaps reflecting on what new members might expect and need into the future.

    Gillian Davis

  2. Phil Taylor

    Hi Jonathan,

    I’ve got some sympathy with the issues you raise with the ‘administrator’ label, and I’m sure most of us identify more with working in HE professional services, regardless of our role. But I think you’re confusing job titles with the concept of administration, and I’m not convinced the AUA needs a name change.

    ‘Administrator’ has a broader definition that encompasses all aspects of the activities that make an organisation run, and maybe we can reach a point at which our professionalism goes without saying? It’s the ‘Obama administration’, not the ‘Obama professional services directorate’…

    Whether we work in recruitment, finance, planning, data management, student services, quality etc, we are all responsible for the administration, the ‘making-it-function’, of our institution. Even Vice-Chancellors are administrators, just really important ones (mostly…). Maybe we should be reclaiming the term ‘administrator’ in its authentic inclusive sense and celebrating it positively instead?

    My Dad (in his 80s) tells some cracking stories about his role as an ‘administrator’ at Manchester University in 70s and 80s, when any given day covered everything from HR to finance, health and safety to research support and lab technician, even IT when the first computers arrived in the 80s and no-one knew what to do with them. The AUA was born into that world of the university administrator who did literally everything, and although we’ve moved on and today we’re all highly skilled and specialised, there’s part of me that thinks the AUA should retain its links to the history of the profession.

    Oh and on your second, much more important point, basically yes I agree!

  3. Katherine Wass

    Administrator, rightly or wrongly, feels out of date and does not represent the range of roles we all undertake in the meaning it currently holds (I was a PA for several years and that means completely different things depending on who you speak to).

    It does of course come back to what the AUA wants to be, as long as this is clear then the name is perhaps less important.

    I do also wonder if there is more scope for the AUA to work with the other professional bodies in the sector (AHUA, CUC, spring to mind). It could help with taking a stand on key issues, as more voices have potential to have greater impact.

  4. Jonathan Dempsey

    Thanks all for your comments, glad it is striking a chord with people.

    @Phil – I like the angle of taking back the name administrator, but it’s not just hearts and minds of the AUA membership we would have get on board but the wider university and communities we are in. This, I think is the harder sell and the one that at least for me is important.
    To have the recognition for the variety of work we do and impact we have by not just those in the mix but those outside of the HE microcosm is my/the dream.