My notes from the front line of art-science crossover education.
I work at a university that has ten vice presidents. Better to say that I currently work at a university with ten vice presidents. The number has grown and may continue to do so.
The number does not include deans, vice deans, deanlettes, provosts, or any other administrators without Vice President titles. It also does not include assistant vice presidents. I don’t know how many of those we have – it’s not listed on my university’s administrative leadership web page.
The increase in administrative staff, VPs being one example, is not unique to my university. Type “administrative bloat universities” into a search engine, and you will find ample articles documenting the rise of administrators at universities and within higher education.
Much has been written on how increased university administration is feeding into rising tuition and how it is connected to the corporatization of universities, with detrimental effects as public goods and public knowledge become privatized and commercialized.
How do I, writing yet more, contribute anything of value? Is anything of use? The reality is my saying more may do absolutely nothing. So why write this essay? Two things.
Firstly, there is an effect of increased administration and corporatization that has not received as much light as it may deserve. It is one that in-the-trenches workers at universities (e.g., me) know about, but it doesn’t get said a lot (for reasons that I hope with become clear).
Secondly, I was reminded of an exchange with a colleague about a similar issue.
Me: I can’t help but feel we may just be talking to each other to make ourselves feel better while the machine plows on (it may even be gaining steam).
Colleague: I agree with your feeling, but it makes any tool that keeps one sane even more valuable.
If enough of us perform useless acts of sanity to shine or re-shine a light on the downsides of university corporatization, then maybe we can hit a critical mass of useless acts that fuse into something of use.
So, what grand insights can I shine a light on that university administrators seem to be missing … despite sending survey after survey to the faculty and working staff asking for feedback on various new initiatives that lead to administrative growth, despite setting up ‘listening sessions’ with various departments? The first insight is not grand at all. It’s simple, and it’s known well by people who have worked at actual companies or corporations (not universities moving toward corporatization).
I am pretty sure it’s something administrators at successful companies also know well: A clear sign that a company is in trouble is when those who make the company go, the rank and file, start saying, “It’s just a job.”
“It’s just a job” is something that can be heard in the trenches. It’s not something any worker will likely tell an administrator or put on a survey answer, no matter how anonymous the survey is touted as being. If it becomes felt by enough of the rank-and-file workers who make a company go, then it can reverse the trajectory of a once successful company.
My second insight is equally simple: If you turn a university of higher education into a business, into a company, into a corporation, then you best be prepared for corporate problems that can take the company down. I don’t get a sense that university administrators appreciate that.
The rise in the number of VPs and administration, in general, suggests the opposite as it feeds into problems that stagnate companies, e.g., the feeling that “It’s just a job.”
“It’s just a job” is an issue of motivation and passion—specifically, a lack of motivation beyond a bare minimum. Vice Presidents like to motivate the rank-and-file workers – it helps justify the job. More VPs lead to more motivation to do more. So that should work to keep the passion in the job or bring it back if it wanes. Right? Wrong.
Again, I suspect anyone who has worked at an actual company knows that’s wrong. It’s so well known that it’s been parodied more than once. My personal favorite comes from the movie Office Space. The following is an excerpt from the movie script by Mike Judge:
Peter Gibbons: The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy; it’s that I don’t care.
Bob Porter: Don’t… don’t care?
Peter Gibbons: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation? And here’s something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.
Bob Slydell: I beg your pardon?
Peter Gibbons: Eight bosses.
Bob Slydell: Eight?
Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. My only real motivation is not to be hassled; that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”
An added thing to note, for those who have not seen the movie, is that the Peter Gibbons character would not have told the Bobs (administrators) what he told them under normal circumstances. It turns out he was hypnotized to be fully carefree at work, leading him to be totally honest. His critique of the company’s move toward more administrators is seen as a breath of fresh air and gets him promoted into the administrative ranks (oh, the irony). Eventually, he leaves and finds himself in a job he is passionate about.
Passion is something that, if you had told me ten years ago, could be taken out of university faculty members, I would have said you’re crazy.
The passion to teach and to do research if one is in the sciences, create if one is in the arts, and engage in scholarship if one is in the humanities is, in my experience, what drove my university colleagues far more than pay scales, portfolios, company cash flow, marketable ideas, branding, public relations, pats on the back from VP’s, opportunity to move up the corporate ladder or any of the other things associated with what one might call a corporate job.’ There was no way that passion could ever be dimmed. Or so I thought.
Before I continue on the main thread, a qualifier is in order.
I realize that this essay could be dismissed as anecdotal. However, things said in ‘company’ halls but never documented or passed to the higher-ups cannot be examined via academic studies, surveys that lead to graphs, and papers with literature citations. They need to be evaluated via the direct experience of individuals. As well as maintaining my sanity, maybe this essay gets readers to ask themselves if they have had similar experiences.
Back to the main.
I wondered when I sensed a corporate deja vu (I have worked at an actual corporation) at a place I never considered a corporation (i.e., my university). Wonder turned to the conversation. In conversations with colleagues, some variant of the following came up more than a few times: “I feel like it’s turned into just a job.”
Don’t get my faculty colleagues or me wrong here: We know that a job is a big deal and do not mean anything demeaning about the value of work when we say “just a job.” The meaning is that the passion has been drained out of it. It doesn’t matter what job one has (auto body, insurance company, crowd control – I have worked all three); if the passion for it is drained, good things will not follow (for the worker or the work).
What’s an effective way to drain the passion from the rank and file? Peter Gibbons can tell you (as can many of my university colleagues): Crank up the number of administrators.
–Have them send the workers more motivation to do more, from increasing angles and written in ever-increasing corporate speak, to help the company reach its full potential (whatever that may be – shroud it in more corporate or branding speak to really drain passion).
–Increase the administrative chain so it’s clear to workers that they no longer have the power to influence agendas in any real way (just too long a chain that takes too much time and effort for information to move through).
–Increase the number of forms that must be filled out (especially if you want to do anything ‘new’).
–Make workers compete against each other for company resources (with more forms to fill out or proposals to write for the competitions).
–Put in new software systems, with associated mandatory training, to ‘help’ the workers navigate the increasing administrative webs that ‘support’ the corporation.
My corporate speak is rusty, but I can end with a corporate-speak question to ponder. Corporations like to talk about return on investment (ROI). Is the rise of university administrators leading to an increased ROI? Administrators draw salaries which increases the I in the ROI. So, they must also be increasing the R in ROI, or what would be the point (what corporation would be silly enough to create more administrative positions that lead to no positive changes or, at best, to no change at all)?
What is a university’s return to students, parents, and society? Not an easy question, and it is not one I have a simple answer to. I have an opinion about a key factor (arguably the critical factor).
To me, the return universities provide is driven by the passions of the rank-and-file workers at the university. These passions at one time were, in my experience, the antithesis of “It’s just a job,” but they are being drained by rising administration.
In the corporatization of universities, which comes with increased metrics used to evaluate performance, passion is easily misvalued or misread as it does not lend itself to quantitative metrics. Its quality must be seen and felt from the trenches, where many administrators left long ago for greener pastures.
My observations from in the trenches may be outliers, but they make me think that the rise of administrative universities will progressively lower the ROI of universities. Can it be turned around? I hope so, but I also worry that it has moved well above my company level and the level of the people who actually support the university … or should I say the corporation.
The cover cartoon is courtesy of Modernanalyst.com