“People in those staff jobs have it made,” my friend said, rolling her eyes. “They get paid really well and do nothing.”
She is tenured research faculty at a major Midwest university.
Though my guess is most staff at her school would have a very different take on their work situation, her view reflects a common perception among faculty about the role administrators play at a university. It’s believed that many staffers do little more than check Facebook and shuffle papers.The work of the university happens wherever research takes place, far from cozy administrative offices. Scholarly labor rarely conforms to a 9 to 5 model. Leaving a job at the office looks like luxury.
Their view dovetails with broader complaints about “administrative bloat.” As non-faculty jobs in academia have increased, so has concern that costly bureaucracy overwhelms universities, creating excess that dilutes educational focus. In one argument, administrative bloat, rather than cuts to state funding, has driven the exponential tuition hikes at state universities.
Some of this is prejudice. I’ve heard research faculty express myopic views about teaching. However, for those whose primary attachment to an institution is research, teaching — especially teaching undergraduates — may feel like tedious interruption. For them, the “real work” of the university has little to do with students. It’s about knowledge and discovery.
That attitude spills over into views of student services — career programs, counseling services, wellness initiatives, academic advising and the like.
Such services can seem superfluous, given the hiring trends in higher education. Many universities favor part-time adjunct faculty over full-time tenure-track scholars. It’s also true that faculty salaries have remained virtually flat since 1970 while compensation for deans, admissions officers and counselors has soared. The average academic would likely question the pop wisdom that this disparity is a simple matter of market demand.
As an adjunct, I’ve long appreciated the extra support student services offer. My schedule makes it hard to give everyone in my classes the individual attention they often need. If someone reports a serious problem, I’m glad to know there are networks of caregivers available on campus. I think student-focused professionals make a significant contribution to college life.
Student services, which boost retention, also keep schools competitive. The Chronicle of Higher Education points out three other reasons why “administrative bloat” may be justified:
- Student success — More students require remedial courses and tutoring.
- Accountability demands — Government oversight has brought added need for staff to handle paperwork. New laws like the College Transparency Act would only increase that need.
- Fundraising — Institutions need development professionals to stay afloat.
The Chronicle also points out a problem, which validates my friend’s view that administrators have it easy: bureaucracy engenders bureaucracy.
Because politics, battles and entanglements arise among departments and colleagues, people are hired to sort them out. Efforts to solve conflicts backfire and become progenitors of even more messes, more paperwork, and, yes, less contribution from employees. Workers create work; the system bloats.
The question to ask is not whether services are needed. I don’t know how a university can responsibly avoid an objective to serve students — especially given tuition costs. Schools must remain financially solvent and abide government regulations.
However, paying teachers and researchers less so bureaucracy can grow will eventually harm the institution. Is it possible that academic coaching, for instance, is more necessary now because universities are addicted to cheap adjunct labor? Adjuncts pile on classes to make ends meet. If that were less necessary, we might have more time for at-risk students.
Tuition spikes may backfire as an income-generator, too. More than ever, students factor tuition cost into their decision-making about college. Administrators have a tough question to answer: Which jobs are necessary, and which only abet the bureaucracy?