Celebrating 75 Years of Higher Ed HR

Fall 2021
Gayle Kiser

For 75 years, the members and leadership of CUPA-HR have worked tirelessly to make higher ed HR what it is today, tackling social, economic and legal issues, while forging and evolving not only the profession, but also the higher ed workplace itself. CUPA-HR, much like HR itself, was born out of necessity in response to outside forces, and has evolved into a driving force of workforce strategy and workplace innovation as we serve the missions of our institutions.

The Birth of Higher Ed HR

In the mid-1940s, in the wake of World War II, the U.S. faced a severe talent shortage. In addition, according to Dr. Peter Cappelli, “about one-third of executives died in office … 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.”

In 1945, 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. 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), and in 2021 had a membership of nearly 2,000 institutions and organizations with over 33,000 representatives.

What Were the Hot Topics of the Day?

CUPA-HR today is leading the conversation around the impact of a global pandemic, recruitment and retention challenges, equity and inclusion, and flexible work. Many of the sessions listed in the minutes of the third annual meeting in 1949 would be right at home in the program for our 2021 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 signature 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 $36,400 to $103,000 a year in today’s dollars).

In 2021, nearly 75 percent of chief HR officers in higher education are women with a median salary of about $128,000.

From Creating a Personnel Program to Anticipating Workplace Trends

The higher ed workplace has evolved exponentially over the past 75 years, and so has 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 more than 30 years later:

  • 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.

Our Challenges in 2021

A lot has happened since 1986, and the last 18 months have challenged our world, higher education and higher education HR leaders. The trends from 1986 are still relevant, but our list of challenges continues to grow including the 2025 enrollment cliff; diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging; employee mental health and well-being; budgets; legislative and regulatory compliance; flexible, hybrid and remote work options; COVID-19 vaccine requirements; recruitment and retention of faculty and staff; labor shortages for many positions including service and maintenance, skilled trades, and IT; and ongoing uncertainty for our world and our colleges and universities. Higher education HR leaders have proven their resilience and flexibility again and again during the last 18 months as our work shifted daily to meet the new and emerging needs of our institutions and employees. CUPA-HR staff and leaders have worked diligently to be the source of needed content and resources and the connection to higher education HR community across the country. The energy and sense of purpose and community shared by those who founded the association is very much still the essence of  who we are today.

75 Years and Counting

Higher education human resources has changed a great deal in 75 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.