The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

The Birth of Higher Ed HR: What’s Changed in 70 Years … and What Hasn’t

According to human capital expert Dr. Peter Cappelli, the mid-1940s saw the birth of modern HR …

[A]fter World War II, U.S. industry suffered a talent shortage unlike anything since. Many of the men (it was always men) who might have gone into business had fought instead. It didn’t help matters that talent development had received little or no attention during the Depression. The postwar question “What happens if the boss gets hit by a bus?” pointed to a huge concern. About one-third of executives died in office — many of them from heart attacks — and no one was around to take their place. A lot of small companies went out of business, and many big ones had to be sold.

In that leadership void, modern HR was born, ushering in practices such as coaching, developmental assignments, job rotation, 360-degree feedback, assessment centers, high-potential tracks, and succession plans. They sound routine now, but they were revolutionary then. And they arose from an urgent need to develop and retain talent in the 1950s.

“Why We Love to Hate HR … and What HR Can Do About It,” by Peter Cappelli
Harvard Business Review, July-August 2015

The mid-1940s also saw the birth of higher ed HR …

CUPA Annual Conference 1951

1951 CUPA Annual Conference – Donald Dickason is second from the right in the front row. 

In 1945, as World War II drew to a close, 44-year-old Donald E. Dickason left his position as a director at the Atlas Powder Company, a major supplier of explosives during the war, to accept the newly created position of director of non-academic personnel at the University of Illinois. The following year, knowing that many of his colleagues at other colleges and universities were also developing new personnel departments, Dickason invited more than 50 postsecondary institutions in the Midwest to join him in a forum to “address the concerns of personnel administration in institutions of higher learning.”

Forty-four individuals from 28 institutions attended that first meeting in 1946. Among other things, they agreed that a formal association to foster their fledgling profession was in order, and the College and University Personnel Association (CUPA) was born. The following year, Dickason became its first president; and by 1949, membership had grown to more than 100 institutions nationwide.

What Were the Hot Topics of the Day?
Many of the sessions listed in the minutes of the third annual meeting in 1949 would be right at home in the program for the 2016 annual conference:

  • What Objectives Should We Set in the College and University Personnel Field?
  • Vacation and Sick Leave Practices
  • Employee Training Programs
  • Unions and Collective Bargaining on Campus
  • The Use of Visual Aids in Employee Training
  • Salary Administration
  • Improving Selection

Who Worked in Higher Ed Personnel and What Was the Pay?
Also at that 1949 meeting, the results of a Survey of Operating Policies and Practices (a predecessor to the association’s salary surveys) were shared. Among the findings:

  • Personnel office budgets ranged from about $2,400 to over $100,000 a year;
  • In most cases, the “title of the man who runs the personnel program” was personnel director or personnel officer;
  • For nearly a third of the respondents, the position was not full time; and
  • The salary for the top position ranged from $275 to $775 a month (the equivalent of about $43,000 to $120,000 a year in today’s dollars).

From Creating a Personnel Program to Anticipating Workplace Trends
The higher ed workplace evolved and so did higher ed HR. The association welcomed its first woman president, Kathryn G. Hansen of the University Civil Service System of Illinois, in 1967 and its first African-American president, Gloria W. White of Washington University, in 1986. That same year, CUPA hosted a strategic planning retreat that brought together 29 CUPA leaders to identify a list of trends in society that they anticipated would strongly affect the field. Many of the trends the group identified in 1986 still affect our campuses today:

  • A general dissolution of confidence in and mistrust of public and governmental agencies.
  • The puncturing of the American Dream.
  • Increased conflict around the role and priorities of local, state and federal governments.
  • Emphasis on the whole person, including preventive medicine, holistic views of lifestyles, fitness, etc.
  • Emphasis on life-long learning and the emerging competition by agencies offering it.
  • Growth of power and influence of international corporations.
  • Greater uncertainty about security needs and measures.
  • The worldwide race for technological superiority.
  • The growing number of older people.
  • Rapid changes of careers.
  • Women in the workforce, dual careers and shared jobs.
  • The home as workplace.
  • Job obsolescence due to technology.
  • Instantaneous worldwide communication.

Other Significant Milestones in CUPA-HR’s History
To list all of the accomplishments of the organization, its leaders and its members would require a book, but here are some of the key developments that continue to have a positive impact on who we are as an association.

In 1967, CUPA launched the Administrative Compensation Survey. In the years since, the association has expanded its surveys to include faculty, professional staff and non-exempt staff positions. The reliability of the data, the focus on higher education and the broad spectrum of positions surveyed year after year have made CUPA-HR’s salary survey data the platinum standard for higher ed institutions.

In 1970, the association established a national office with paid staff in Washington, D.C.

In 1990, CUPA hired its first director of government relations to support the association’s public policy initiatives, and its role in proactively addressing federal legislative and regulatory issues has grown exponentially. In recent years, CUPA-HR’s government relations staff and HR leaders have testified before several Congressional committees and developed position statements and letters addressing countless bills and proposed rules affecting higher ed.

In 2000, as a reflection of the evolving nature of the profession, CUPA became the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR).

In 2003, CUPA-HR moved from its long-time headquarters in Washington, D.C., to Knoxville, Tennessee. This move was key to putting the association on the solid financial footing it enjoys today.

In 2005, the Knowledge Center was launched, providing just-in-time resources for higher ed HR professionals. As one of the first associations to launch such a resource, CUPA-HR’s work has been emulated by associations across the country.

In 2008CUPA-HR built and moved into a new permanent home for the association. The mortgage was paid off in less than three years.

In 2010, CUPA-HR articulated its long-time commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in a detailed position statement and action plan. Since then, the association has developed a number of programs and learning opportunities to support human resources in its diversity and inclusion efforts on campus.

In 2011, the association created a new learning framework that now guides development of all CUPA-HR programming and resources.

In 2012, CUPA-HR developed the six strategic priorities that guide the work of the association. Annual threshold, target and exceeds-target metrics are created to ensure that the association continues to thrive and that higher ed HR professionals are positioned for current and future success.

In 2013, the first CUPA-HR e-learning course was launched.

In 2015, CUPA-HR’s voice in D.C. was stronger than ever as we met with the Secretary of Labor regarding potential changes to the FLSA and with the Treasury Department regarding ACA challenges. Many higher ed associations partnered with CUPA-HR to make our voice heard.

In 2016, CUPA-HR is an association of more than 20,000 higher ed professionals at over 1,900 member organizations.

CUPA-HR_Logo_7070 Years and Counting
The human resources profession has changed a great deal in 70 years, and so has CUPA-HR. But one thing that hasn’t changed is our desire to connect with and learn from one another as our profession evolves. CUPA-HR is an association led by higher ed HR professionals for the benefit of higher ed HR professionals – the perfect place to connect, share and learn. We hope you’ll join us in celebrating this tremendous milestone for our association.