Why I Work at the University of St. Thomas

In August, Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal named the University of St. Thomas one of Minnesota’s 10 best places to work in the large employer division. Very few educational institutions ever make that kind of list.

How the heck did we get that? Well, in one sense, we got that because 565 employees (40 percent of us full-timers) answered the newspaper’s online survey and gave very positive responses.

But there is, of course, the deeper question of why our response rate was so good and even more so why the responses were so strong. When I attended the award luncheon, I heard various reasons for workplaces being “best.” A common thread for small companies was happy hour and casual Fridays.

I thought, “How can they get any work done, being so happy all the time?” Admittedly, St. Thomas does have the large organization version of happy hour, the reception, but still I don’t think that’s the reason we did so well in the survey.

Father Dease, our president, thinks the reason is commitment to our mission . . . and who could argue with that? All of us share responsibility for the effort to “educate students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good.” Well, maybe I could argue with that. Economists are contrarian by nature. So here goes.

A lot of academic organizations could lay claim to similar goals, explicitly or implicitly stated. All employees, not just faculty, are expected to contribute to carrying out their missions. So, why are we more satisfied than they are?

My answer is internal culture and generational overlap. What?!

Here’s an example of internal culture. Bob Werner’s nonagenarian mother died last summer. Like many of his colleagues (AKA friends), I sent a note of condolence. Bob hit it on the head when he wrote back: “It really means a lot to me that UST community members take time to send a note like you did. I had two jobs at big state universities before I came here and I can’t imagine this sort of response there. My life is better because UST is what it is and because there are people like you here.” Internal culture includes caring that Bob’s mother died. It also includes striving for excellence, seeing an opportunity to make an improvement and acting on it, and listening to the ideas of others.

Studies show the factor that causes the most job dissatisfaction is pay – when pay is inadequate. After that, working conditions, benefits, etcetera, become important. Once a basic level of satisfaction with compensation and conditions has been reached, however, the single most important factor for job satisfaction is the immediate work group. St. Thomas has a culture of caring among employees – for each other, for our students, for the broader community. It also has a culture of soliciting ideas, being open to change, listening to different opinions, and disagreeing with respect and civility.

There’s an old joke, “I don’t mind coming to work but that eight-hour wait to go home is a bummer.” That’s not true when your co-workers are your friends and your support – and, of course, when you feel that your work has purpose and contributes value to society.

Now for generational overlap. Turnover is smaller in universities and particularly at St. Thomas, but we still do a lot of hiring. For example, one fourth of our faculty were hired in the past five years. Hiring is perhaps the single most important job that a unit does. It determines our future, gives continuity and maintains culture. When I was hired 30 years ago, the chair of the Economics Department was Mo Selim. Mo may not have created the culture of the department, but he was certainly instrumental in preserving it. Among his criteria for hiring was how the new person would work with the group currently and for years to come. Every unit at St. Thomas works to preserve mission and culture in mentoring new employees to appreciate and to participate in our culture and in making job offers.

But why did we take the job here? And why are we happy in our jobs here? Because we love teaching, because we want to make a difference in the lives of students, because we value fairness, because we care about the future.

Well, this is beginning to sound a lot like our mission statement. Maybe Father Dease is on the right track after all, Groucho glasses or no.