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.