16 July 2018

I Did Not Expect This in the Chronicle of Higher Education

I tend to think of the Chronicle of Higher Education as the official journal of bullsh%$ jobs in academe.

As such, I am shocked, shocked I tell you, that they published an article calling out BS jobs in the university world: (%$# mine, and the original is paywalled)
I would like to write about the bullsh%$ization of academic life: that is, the degree to which those involved in teaching and academic management spend more and more of their time involved in tasks which they secretly — or not so secretly — believe to be entirely pointless.

For a number of years now, I have been conducting research on forms of employment seen as utterly pointless by those who perform them. The proportion of these jobs is startlingly high. Surveys in Britain and Holland reveal that 37 to 40 percent of all workers there are convinced that their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world. And there seems every reason to believe that numbers in other wealthy countries are much the same. There would appear to be whole industries — telemarketing, corporate law, financial or management consulting, lobbying — in which almost everyone involved finds the enterprise a waste of time, and believes that if their jobs disappeared it would either make no difference or make the world a better place.

Generally speaking, we should trust people’s instincts in such matters. (Some of them might be wrong, but no one else is in a position to know better.) If one includes the work of those who unwittingly perform real labor in support of all this — for instance, the cleaners, guards, and mechanics who maintain the office buildings where people perform bullsh%$ jobs — it’s clear that 50 percent of all work could be eliminated with no downside. (I am assuming here that provision is made such that those whose jobs were eliminated continue to be supported.) If nothing else, this would have immediate salutary effects on carbon emissions, not to mention overall social happiness and wellbeing.


And then there’s higher education.
(emphasis mine)

In most universities nowadays — and this seems to be true almost everywhere — academic staff find themselves spending less and less time studying, teaching, and writing about things, and more and more time measuring, assessing, discussing, and quantifying the way in which they study, teach, and write about things (or the way in which they propose to do so in the future. European universities, reportedly, now spend at least 1.4 billion euros [about 1.7 billion dollars] a year on failed grant applications.). It’s gotten to the point where "admin" now takes up so much of most professors’ time that complaining about it is the default mode of socializing among academic colleagues; indeed, insisting on talking instead about one’s latest research project or course idea is considered somewhat rude. All of this will hardly be news to most Chronicle readers. What strikes me as insufficiently discussed is that this has happened at a time when the number of administrative-support staff in most universities has skyrocketed. Consider here some figures culled from Benjamin Ginsberg’s book The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford, 2011). In American universities from 1985 to 2005, the number of both students and faculty members went up by about half, the number of full-fledged administrative positions by 85 percent — and the number of administrative staff by 240 percent.

In theory, these are support-staff. They exist to make other peoples’ jobs easier. In the classic conception of the university, at least, they are there to save scholars the trouble of having to think about how to organize room assignments or authorize travel payments, allowing them to instead think great thoughts or grade papers. No doubt most supportstaff still do perform such work. But if that were their primary role, then logically, when they double or triple in number, lecturers and researchers should have to do much less admin as a result. Instead they appear to be doing far more.

This is a conundrum. Let me suggest a solution. Support staff no longer mainly exist to support the faculty. In fact, not only are many of these newly created jobs in academic administration classic bullsh%$ jobs, but it is the proliferation of these pointless jobs that is responsible for the bullsh%$ization of real work — real work, here, defined not only as teaching and scholarship but also as actually useful administrative work in support of either. What’s more, it seems to me this is a direct effect of the death of the university, at least in its original medieval conception as a guild of self-organized scholars. Gayatri Spivak, a literary critic and university professor at Columbia, has observed that, in her student days, when people spoke of "the university," it was assumed they were referring to the faculty. Nowadays it’s assumed they are referring to the administration. And this administration is increasingly modeling itself on corporate management.

To get a sense of how total the shift of power has become, consider a story I heard recently, about a prominent scholar who had just been rejected for a named chair at Cambridge. The man was acknowledged to be at the top of his field, but he didn’t even make the shortlist. The kiss of death came when a high-ranking administrator glanced over his CV and remarked, "He’s obviously a very smart guy. But I have no use for him." That judgment settled the matter. When even Cambridge dons are presumed to exist to further the purposes of managers, rather than the other way around, we know the corporate takeover of the global university system is complete. (emphasis mine)


But it’s possible to connect the dots. Let me begin by introducing a concept: managerial feudalism. Rich and powerful people have always surrounded themselves with flashy entourages; you can’t be really magnificent without one. Even at the height of industrial capitalism, CEOs and high-ranking executives would surround themselves with a certain number of secretaries (who often did most of their actual work), along with a variety of flunkies and yes men (who often did very little). In the contemporary corporation, the accumulation of the equivalent of feudal retainers often becomes the main principle of organization. The power and prestige of managers tend to be measured by the number of people they have working under them — in fact, in my research, I found that efficiency experts complained that it’s well-nigh impossible to get most executives, for all their "lean and mean" rhetoric, to trim the fat in their own corporations (apart from bluecollar workers, who are ruthlessly exploited). Office workers are typically kept on even if they are doing literally nothing, lest somebody’s prestige suffer. This is the real reason for the explosion of administrative staff in higher education. If a university hires a new dean or deanlet (to use Ginsberg’s charming formulation), then, in order to ensure that he or she feels appropriately impressive and powerful, the new hire must be provided with a tiny army of flunkies. Three or four positions are created — and only then do negotiations begin over what they are actually going to do. True, if the testimonies I’ve received are anything to go by, many of those people don’t end up doing much; some administrative-staff will inevitably end up sitting around playing fruit mahjong all day or watching cat videos. But it’s generally considered good form to give all staff members at least a few hours of actual work to do each week. Some managers, who have more thoroughly absorbed the corporate spirit, will insist that all of their minions come up with a way to at least look busy for the full eight hours of the day.
There is a lot more there, but it does describe a cancer at the core of academe, and at the core of the current MBA driven managerial culture.


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