The position of "blended professionals" in higher education

The position of

Are you a higher education professional with management and leadership responsibilities? Then you most likely are a so-called “blended professional” (Whitchurch 2009, 2010), meaning that you are technically part of the university administration (your professional life is governed by rules and regulations applicable to administrative staff) but you have credentials similar to those of the faculty and perform management and leadership roles that far exceed mere bureaucratic tasks.

Celia Whitchurch, the higher education researcher who coined the concept and the term writes that these blended professionals often create a ‘third space’ in their university, a space that is neither academic nor purely administrative, that blends the university with the outside partners and stakeholders and, in the process, reconciles the teaching and research mission of the university with the need to be entrepreneurial.

Do you fit in one of these categories: university professionals working in units such as institutional research, partnership offices, professional development and life-long learning, grants management, industrial transfer, teaching and learning support, etc? Then you have all the reasons to call yourself a blended professional as described in the research. These professionals often employ both academic and management skills, for instance when working with faculty on applied research commissioned by industry or when commissioning and/or conducting institutional research.

The rise of the “blended professional”

The good news is that this type of university manager is slowly receiving the recognition it deserves. More and more hybrid units are being created to respond to the expanding mission of the universities and more and more ‘hybrid professionals’ are being recruited specifically for their blend of skills.

Room for improvement in Europe

The bad news is that acknowledging the existence of this professional hybrid and implicitly granting it the much needed legitimacy is a process that has been shown to be slower in Europe than in the United States (Whitchurch 2009). This means that European managers are facing an uphill battle to convince their own institutions that they are needed and that they deserve respect for their work, which is way beyond administrative. My own research in Eastern European universities has shown that often such managers feel frustrated at the lack of institutional recognition for their work and at times are tempted to leave the university for the business sector where their skills could be better appreciated and rewarded. The frustration usually stems from having to explain and justify their activity in institutional settings that are resistant to change and at times hostile to new approaches and new types of professional identities.

To close on an optimist note, the change in perception and legitimacy of such blended professionals depends to a large degree on ourselves, on you and me and everybody else in this new version of non-academic staff, on how well we serve our institutions and how seamlessly we bridge the gap between the university and its stakeholders.

By Pusa Nastase, Senior Programme Manager at School of Public Policy of Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.