Loving Your Field Enough to Set Limits

As institutional needs have increased and grown in complexity, our time as higher ed professionals has become less and less our own, write Wily Carpenter.

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 warned-we’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?

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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 arises when personal boundaries clash with institutional needs. Institutional leaders may, for instance, perceive a personal boundary of not answering work emails after 5 p.m. 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 in at 3 a.m. 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 a.m. 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.

Loving Your Field Enough to Set Limits

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.