Like a light bulb drawn atop a cartoon character’s head, the bright light that came from the dean of students’ office radiated the brilliance of his idea. Survey data had indicated an issue with first-year students connecting with their advisors, and he firmly believed that it was contributing to the declining first-year retention rates. Once students make it to their majors, they are fine, but there are so many unknowns when they first entered the institution.

The answer was as clear as if it was powered by General Electric: students must begin advisement the moment they stepped on campus. The university would hire professional advisors to serve the students as they completed their general education requirements. When the students began the major curriculum, they would seamlessly transition to a faculty advisor in that discipline.

It seemed like the perfect solution, but the dean was concerned about resistance he may encounter. He decided that the idea really needed a catchy name and abbreviation to seal the deal…something unique…something people would remember. So, at the next divisional meeting of student affairs, he loudly and proudly announced his new initiative: Freshmen Under Beginning Advisement and Retention…FUBAR. This abbreviation has another meaning which I will leave as an exercise for the reader to translate, but it was definitely unique and so memorable that the story had more lives than Morris the Cat.

We communicate through a language that is often unique to higher education and distinctive to each institution. This terminology is second nature for those of us who have worked a lifetime on a college campus, but it may sound like a foreign language to a first-generation student. For example, we “matriculate” students, pass out something called a “syllabus,” and send them to someone called a “bursar.” But our jargon becomes even more cryptic and institution-specific when we speak and write in the abbreviated manner of acronyms. Some schools even maintain a list of commonly used abbreviations on their websites; for example, Purdue University’s list is four pages long and includes items such as PAL (the Wi-Fi network), PUSH (the Student Health center), and SLOOP (the Silver Loop bus line that runs around campus).

Students are not the only group affected by this localized language; as a new employee at Rider University, I experienced first-hand the challenges of navigating a land where the natives spoke in terms that I had not experienced. As dean of the libraries, I am the sole administrative member of the LAPC (Library Academic Policy Committee), which includes the librarians and is the group responsible for setting the curricular procedures of the libraries. At my first meeting, an issue arose, and the committee chair stated, “That’s something that the BUMs will have to decide.” I maintained an outward appearance of completely understanding the previous statement, but internally was having a conversation with myself. Who are the BUMs? Why are they called BUMs? Why would they want to be called BUMs? My brain shifted from questioning mode to processing mode, cycling through the possible definitions of “bum.” Are they collegial vagrants, like an academic without a home discipline? Are they fanatics, like a ski bum? Do they bum around campus? Are they so financially challenged that they will try to bum money off  me? Or are they simply clumsy, often falling on their…undercarriage? After the second sentence using the same acronym, I played the “new card” and asked for a clarification. I was relieved to understand that the librarians are AAUP members like all faculty at Rider, and they are called “Bargaining Unit Members” or BUMs for short. The librarian sitting next to me then quietly verbalized what I was thinking: “It’s quite unfortunate.”

It is quite unfortunate on many levels, but it is another example of why a university’s onboarding process is so important. Onboarding, also known as organizational socialization, is defined as “the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors in order to become effective organizational members and insiders.” (Bauer and Erdogan, 2011). According to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR), annual turnover for higher education positions was 13 percent, with 22 percent of turnover occurring in the first 45 days of employment. Furthermore, an employee who departs your institution in their first year will cost your institution three times their annual compensation in lost productivity and expenses related to finding, recruiting and hiring a replacement. The problem is more significant when concentrating specifically on faculty positions; a study 10 years ago at Iowa State University revealed that a conservative estimate of the cost of replacing a STEM faculty member can be as high as $383,000 (Gahn and Carlson, 2008).

Onboarding is more involved than an orientation, which tends to be a one-time, checklist activity that includes such things as the obligatory new employee paperwork, explanation of benefit packages, review of policies and procedures (safety, IT, etc.), and perhaps an introduction to the university’s mission and vision. Onboarding is a strategic initiative delivered through a framework that supports your new hires’ adjustment to the culture of the institution, creates personal and professional relationships that will enhance their productivity, stimulates commitment to the organization, and educates them to the university’s strategy and how that evolves into their direction and purpose. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, there are four distinct building blocks that define success, on order of level of engagement:

  • Compliance (teaching basic legal and policy-related rules and regulations)
  • Clarification (understanding duties and expectations)
  • Culture (providing a sense of organizational norms, both formal and informal)
  • Connection (developing interpersonal relationships and information networks)

From top to bottom, organizations can evolve their onboarding success from passive to high potential to proactive. Ultimately, onboarding is not an event; it’s a process.

We live in a world where communication is defined by the shortness of our message: texts, tweets, and acronyms. But in an era of dwindling resources, institutions need to do everything they can to ensure the success of their employees, and that begins with communicating in a language we can all understand. Conquering higher education’s version of the Tower of Babel is the first step in developing an onboarding process where employee engagement has the same buzz as the more popular buzzword: student engagement. Over the first year of an employee’s tenure in a proactive onboarding process, they will prepareorientintegrate, and excel.  And when new members of our academic communities accomplish those four things, it creates an environment where everyone can be successful: faculty, staff, and most importantly, students.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on February 15, 2019. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.


Bauer, T. N., & Erdogan, B. (2011). Organizational socialization: The effective onboarding of new employees. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, Vol 3: Maintaining, expanding, and contracting the organization, APA Handbooks in Psychology (pp. 51–64). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Gahn, S. and S. Carlson. 2008. Breaking the Norms: Measuring the Impact of New Policies. ISU ADVANCE National Conference.

Richard L. Riccardi, ScDis senior associate provost and dean of libraries at Rider University.