Doing Student Affairs Work in a Facilities Department during COVID-19 and BLM: A Noticeable Disconnect – Cyndel Brunell

Cyndel Brunell
Program Coordinator, Sustainable Campus
Florida State University

When I graduated with my M.Ed. two years ago, I landed my dream job as a Sustainability Engagement Coordinator. In my role, I supervise a team of students and together we facilitate outside of the classroom sustainability learning experiences. In addition to this, I serve on a multitude of university wide committees and work on long term projects to advance sustainability socially, economically, and environmentally. My office calls facilities home. It makes a lot of sense for sustainability offices to be located in facilities departments. It puts us close to the connections, resources, and infrastructure we need to do the more operational side of our work.

It is also worth noting facilities staff are not generally accustomed to students practicing TikTok dances like Renegade in the hallway, so sometimes it is a challenging fit. Facilities is a world of numbers and calculations and projects with deadlines – the playful nature of the students frequently catches our facilities staff off-guard. Secretly, I think they admire the students’ spunk and it keeps our department young, but we have received many stink eyes and requests to quiet down, to which we always oblige. Despite the challenges, I am glad our office calls facilities home. It has opened my eyes to a noticeable disconnect between what we say we value versus what we do on college campuses.

To help you understand some of the observations I have made, I would like to tell you first about the typical makeup of a facilities department. Facilities departments are generally the largest if not one of the largest departments on a college campus. Facilities departments vary from one campus to the next, but can include areas such as custodial staff, grounds and landscaping, planning and architecture, finances and procurement, sustainability, and so much more. Your campus facilities department is probably the most diverse department on your campus. People of all ages, races, nationalities, educational levels, and religious backgrounds make up a facilities department. Facilities will also inevitably house the people making the least amount of money on your campus, right up to people making almost the most. The disparities just within facilities are immense, comparing facilities staff from across campus exemplifies a staggering difference in compensation, power, and privilege.

Working in facilities right now is like sitting in a pressure cooker. Everyone is trying to advocate for themselves, their needs, and their safety. The ways in which each person is heard and protected exemplifies exactly how disparity occurs and perpetuates harm to our most vulnerable campus community members. The disparity in levels of protection and respect is how our actions, policies, and decisions put into practice that white lives matter more than black lives (and the lives of all people of color) and / or that having a certain level of education somehow means your needs are the most important and should be met first.

This pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities and inequities that exist on our campuses. In the past couple months, statements of solidarity and commitment to black lives were made. In this moment I cannot help but to think of these statements as the equivalent to voluntourism – helping anywhere but home. Our campuses put out statements that say the right things, but in practice do not walk the talk.

This isn’t new. Facilities departments are often left out of university wide trainings – especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Student affairs professionals often talk about “forgotten populations” like transfer students or sophomores. These forgotten populations have unique needs that are important to address for student success and retention. In many ways, facilities departments are the forgotten populations of organizational charts. Facilities departments have unique needs that are unmet considering the diversity of work and people doing the work.

What is worse however, is the feeling that facilities departments only value to a university is keeping it clean. Facilities departments are not worth getting acquainted with because assumptions have been made about the work facilities does, and that work is considered “less-than” any other work on campus. In reality, facilities departments are integral to the success of student affairs work. They literally make the university run.

Student affairs professionals know environment matters in fostering sense of belonging. Imagine football game day without facilities to reign in the literal mountains of waste produced. Imagine a classroom with a landfill bin that has not been changed in weeks. It is easy to think of facilities teams as just taking out trash or cleaning common areas and forget that this is the work of safety and community that helps students, faculty, and staff feel at home in their residence halls and work and learning spaces. Student affairs work would be impossible without frontline staff such as custodial workers and groundskeepers. So, even if a facilities department’s only value to a university was keeping it clean, (and – spoiler alert – it isn’t) that is one of the most integral services on any campus to ensure the success of all people at a university.

COVID-19 has presented challenges for every department across campus. The shift to online was a big one for all of us – but many of us were fortunate that we could make the shift to online. The nature of facilities work means that not all facilities workers had work that was doable online. In particular, members of grounds and landscaping, maintenance and shop workers, and custodial staff were hit the hardest. There was only so much work that could be done once campus was vacated. Facilities departments worked diligently to create work and retain staff, but there is a chance that on your campus many facilities workers have been without work or pay for a significant time – all while many of us have been Zooming into our meetings. And getting regular paychecks.

Fast forward a few months: Herculean efforts have been made to open universities as safely as possible. We are all exhausted. Facilities departments are exhausted. It is easy to empathize with our friends in housing and the monumental effort to open residence halls and get students safely moved in because we understand that role. Far fewer of us understand the life of our frontline custodial staff who leave their first or second job to come their shift in their facilities department.

Even fewer still understand the “you shoulds” facilities fields (from all sides): You should install Plexiglas in every office and classroom. You should install hand sanitizing stations outside of every door. You should replace all of the air filters in every building on campus weekly. The list goes on, each request less feasible than the last. All of these “you shoulds” are coming alongside an already growing list of guidelines and protocols for facilities staff to sanitize spaces, all the while getting no additional compensation for the risks they have to take as they literally handle potentially infectious waste.

Sometimes working in a facilities department feels like a dumping ground. You read between the lines of the requests that are received on any given day and see “I don’t care how much it costs (financially or in terms of personal risk to your staff), I want this unreasonable, impossible task done, and oh yeah, it needs to be done by tomorrow.” The emphasis is on the task, not the human being who is fulfilling the request. I do not think any of these requests are malicious, but they center the needs of other people and departments instead of considering the impact on those tasked with the work.

Many of us are used to filling out service requests and them being completed in a timely fashion with exceptional service. However ask yourself when was the last time you sat face-to-face with someone in facilities – especially without a request in hand – just to understand facilities, the scope of the work that is being completed at any one time, or the person who does what you need to get done? If someone constantly came to your department with nothing but requests, how would that feel? Would you feel valued? As simple as it may seem, treating facilities with the same level of respect and expectations as you have for anyone interacting with your department, would go a long way. So would a thank you. We see you. Much of facilities work is thankless, just like student affairs work. Student affairs is uniquely positioned to both understand and acknowledge the role facilities plays on campus. With that in mind, I offer the following – A Better Way to Work With Facilities Staff. Most of these approaches are simple, but also speak to importance of communication and understanding between facilities staff and the greater university – especially student affairs.

Say Hello, every chance you get. Not only is a lot of the work facilities departments do unseen, so are the people, despite the fact they regularly share space with staff from all across campus. If you see someone from facilities, say hello. Ask how they are doing. Then, next time you see them do the same and follow-up on anything they may have shared last time. Let them know you care about them as a human and appreciate the work they do.

Speak our language. Fluffy stuff about feelings and sense of belonging doesn’t translate from student affairs to facilities. We need numbers. We need percentages. What will facilities gain by allowing an ally training to be facilitated. What is the value added to the university? And what is the value to facilities? If it is that facilities will retain X% more frontline staff and therefor save $X on recruitment and training, all while meeting the university’s Diversity and Inclusion goal in the strategic plan, that will sell – but it takes someone from the outside valuing facilities to calculate those things and sit across the table to say, “Join us.”

Don’t just see us when you need us. Add someone from facilities to your campus network and meet with them as frequently as you would any other campus partner. Relationship building goes a long way in completing requests. I would argue that relationship building increases the success and satisfaction with completed requests because facilities will have a better understanding of your needs. Most of all, establishing a regular meeting will make requests feel like less of a “You should” and more like a “Let’s collaborate.”

Come to open forums. When facilities departments host forums to share updates on work, go to them. This is both a chance to build connections and to learn about everything from utilities advancements to construction projects. Nominate someone from your department to be the facilities representative responsible for attending these meetings and reporting back what they learned to your department. Over time, you’ll gain a better understanding of the scope of facilities work, and maybe even partnership opportunities.

Invite us to all the things! You don’t know what you don’t know – and I promise, we know recycling best! When facilities is called into projects post-planning, once things have gone awry, it is a logistical nightmare to make corrections. Often the things facilities think of first, are the things others think of last. These considerations have immense implications. Extend an invitation to a facilities member to attend your staff meeting if you’re talking about a big project or program, or to attend a strategic planning meeting. We will appreciate the invite and will help you be successful at you job!

Be willing to learn. These suggestions are foundational. The gap that exists between student affairs and facilities departments is one that no one really talks about, or to be honest understands. Be willing to learn about facilities. Consider reading The Life of Campus Custodians by Peter Magolda or if books aren’t your thing, watching The Philosopher Kings. Both will give you insights to the life of front line facilities staff both on and off campus, and the sense of belonging they facilitate for our students. But honestly, if nothing else, just start by saying hi.

Cultivate appreciation. Leave the occasional signed thank you card from your staff in an area you know gets serviced by facilities. Take a facilities staff member for coffee. Leave some donuts. Write thank you on the wall in blue painters tape. Just say thank you, it goes such a long way in making everyone feel valued and can create lifetime friendships.

Facilities is so much more than you could ever imagine – so much more than I imagined. I wouldn’t know any of this had I not had I not spent the past two years learning the stories of facilities staff, and how to communicate with them. I don’t know anyone who works harder than the staff I work alongside. There is a beautiful culture of care in facilities.

When your car dies in the parking lot after hours and you are a clueless 20-something year old professional that can tell anyone anything about the lizards in the organic garden, but can’t jump a car – they don’t judge you – they pull up their personal vehicles and jumper cables, and show you how to get your car going again. Then, they give you their cell phone number and tell you to let them know when you make it home safe.

Facilities is a department that cares deeply about people, not unlike student affairs departments. It is easy to think of facilities as vastly different from student affairs. It isn’t. Facilities departments deserve to be treated with the same level of dignity and respect that is offered to any other university department. Although we reside in different places, communicate in different ways, and work on different projects, at the end of the day we all want to see students not only succeed in their college experience, but to enjoy it – and that might look like going to an awesome homecoming program or relaxing between classes the shade of a perfectly manicured tree on campus. We all are needed here.