Two Ways of Working At Harvard
Overqualified In the Upper Echelons
There aren't many people whose work runs the gamut from drafting reports on race relations at Harvard to tracking down piano tuners, but after nine months on the job, no task fazes Jeanne Gibson.
Gibson is the staff assistant to Archie C. Epps III, dean of students. Tucked in an office of her own on the first floor of University Hall, Gibson serves as a buffer between Epps and the hordes of undergraduates clamoring at his door, and she solves many of their problems on her own. Her biggest difficulty, in fact, is often no in devising solutions but in convincing the students their woes are not as severe as they think.
Although Gibson likes working with students, she is the first to admit that her job is at least 75 per cent clerical. "They call us staff assistants, and we like to be referred to as staff assistants. But we're basically secretaries," she admits.
After growing up in New York State, Gibson attended Duke University. She graduated in 1974 with a degree in psychology, which she calls "good for everything and good for nothing," and decided to come to Boston. She had "no particular reason. I just thought it would be better than North Carolina."
Although jobs in academic institutions are generally less lucrative than industrial or corporate employment, Gibson decided she'd prefer to work on a campus. When she arrived in Boston, she applied for jobs at seven schools in the area, and soon found work at Widener Library. After about 18 months there, she felt she had learned all she could from that jobs and began looking around for something else, preferably a post than would give her a little more contact with College life.
"Frankly, Harvard itself wasn't the initial attraction. But I do like being here--I like the relaxed pace. There's so much going on, the intellectual energy is so apparent. And it's fun to be around kids that are going through all types of things," she says.
Gibson does not foresee keeping her present jobs for more than a few years. If she eventually decides to enter college administration, her post in Epps's office will provide her with useful background, although she realizes Harvard "isn't about to promote a staff assistant to dean, or even assistant dean for that matter." A deanship is not "an immediate concern on this employment level," she adds. A few of her counterparts in the other deans' 'offices have landed administrative posts at other schools, and most of the staff assistants, whatever their eventual goals, do view these jobs as short-term commitments.
"One woman who worked for Dean Epps's predecessor was here for about 20 years, but she was the last of the 'Old Guard.' Staff assistants now are getting younger and younger, and it doesn't really do you any good to stay here to long. To get on in administration, you really need a Ph.D. in Education or an MBA," she says.
After her work at Widener, Gibson believed she knew her way around Harvard fairly well. "I thought my Widener experience would be to my advantage here but once I got started I realized how little I knew of the University structure," she says. "now that I know the procedures, I'm more confident about saying how to change things, to suggest ways to consolidate an unnecessarily complicated procedure," she says. Nonetheless, no matter how impressed with Harvard's bureaucratic operations Gibson is at times, the same system can be very frustrating.
"There are minutes, days, weeks when I feel totally ineffectual through no fault of my own," she says. "Harvard's a huge corporation and it suffers from all the doubletalk that big corporations fall prey to. Some of it can be avoided but some things are just crazy," she adds.
When trying to explain the rationale behind the bureaucracy to a perplexed student, Gibson sometimes just gives up. "I reach the point when all I can say is, 'that's the way it is,' I can't account for it."
But despite the mounds of paperwork, Gibson finds plenty to keep her busy. She hopes to be actively involved in writing the preliminary report of Epps's Committee on Race Relations this summer, and in general she feels her job provides her with a lot of leeway. Gibson believes most deans appreciate employee initiatives. "They don't try to hold you back or pigeonhole you. It's to Dean Epps's and my mutual benefit for me to take on more responsibility, and I can make my own job more interesting that way," she explains.
Gibson terms her position as "among the upper echelons" of Harvard employees. The spacious suite in which she works houses only four deans and about a half-dozen staff assistants and receptionists, each with their own office, and just doesn't produce the type of tension that "100 yards of typewriters" creates.
No major issue has sparked sharp antagonism between the deans and the staff during Gibson's time here, although there are occasionally differences in opinion between individual administrators and their aides.
Although there are, of course, clear status distinctions between the deans and their assistants. Gibson feels employees in her office are treated with respect. Almost everyone there is on a first-name basis, and when more formal titles are used, it's usually because of personal preferences, not on the basis of rank.
Gibson and her co-workers are not unionized and considering the degree of worker satisfaction in this office, she believes there "is no need to actively seek the kind of power" unions aim to provide. She personally feels "Harvard does well in the way it treats employees. The plusses of working in a place like this far outweigh the disadvantages." Gibson admits she has a narrow base from which to compare her own work situation to that of other Harvard employees, and says she feels "really far removed" from such workers as the carpenters who went on strike this march. "Our spheres of influence are totally separate. I don't know anything about their organization or structure," she says, nothing that her own office is "simply not a pressure cooker."
Of course, every job has its surprises: Gibson was one of the employees unable to enter her office when students protesting Harvard's investment in firms operating in South Africa closed University Hall in late April. It was an "eventful" week, Gibson recollects but it didn't stir up conflicts between the administrators in the office and their staff.
"Everyone was very aware of what was going on that week, wondering what was going to come of it. People might even have gotten a little carried away with their predictions and precautions," she says. UHall employees were phoned at home early that morning, and told to report to work in other buildings, where they conducted a more or less normal day's work. But the staff did not express their personal views on Harvard's investment policies, or on the students' actions. Most people "are pretty apolitical, within their work identities at least. Sentiments aren't voiced or acted on, which I suppose is kind of surprising. In a way I'm reluctant to say that--it doesn't make us look real good," she says.
There's not a whole lot of interaction between the staff assistants even on a purely social level, Gibson says. "Sometimes it'll happen that two or three of us will end up in the same place at the same time and kibitz for a few minutes but it's rare. It's not that it's a tense or intense kind of place but it just doesn't lend itself to that," she says. "One person to one office really sets the tone," Gibson adds. In this respect, Gibson's experience at Widener, where about ten people shared one large office, was markedly different.
But Gibson's work gives her more contact with students than with her fellow workers, and she has few complaints about this facet of the job. Sometimes undergraduates ask Epps or Gibson to serve as a go-between in protesting some aspect of a House policy that the student feels he or she can't attack alone. Sometimes they need financial help, or advice on a personal matter. Occasionally, Epps has summoned the student on a disciplinary matter. Epps is frequently the liaison between Harvard and Cambridge on legal issues affecting a student, whether it be a parking ticket scofflaw or an assault victim.
Epps is also the official who "keeps a passive eye on undergraduate organizations," Gibson says. She's been very impressed with the dynamism of the students involved in extracurricular activities and likes working with these groups--partially because they become familiar with how the office operates and therefore are less likely to pose problems for Gibson.
"There are days when I really feel this office is the hub of the College. There are always 50 people rushing in and out and it's easier when people have some idea of what's going on," she says.
Gibson doesn't recollect coming to Harvard with rigid preconceptions of what students here would be like, and after meeting a great many of them she doesn't feel that there is an archetypal Harvard student.
"It's really hard to generalize. I do honestly feel at times--and I know in some ways I've contributed to this--that students come in here and regard me as only a secretary, someone who doesn't have to be taken seriously. Their attitude is hard to handle because they tend to think, 'Only Dean Epps can handle my problem, I should obviously be sent right in to see him.' They don't realize that many times I can take care of them far more quickly," she says.
Student attitudes are generally a matter of personality, not of prevalent elitism, Gibson says, adding that she can usually type a student from his or her physical manner. "Some charge in, come right behind my desk--which I hate--or stand back in and peer down at me. Others timidly lean in the doorway and if I don't happen to be looking up, they just sort of hang there until I notice them."
Gibson isn't quite sure what type of career she'll eventually select. She usually likes dealing with the 50-odd students that trundle through her office each day but every once in a while she yearns for the peace of Widener's quiet corridors.