This is why nobody is ever going to put me in charge of anything.

26 08 2013

Imagine two companies. The first treats and pays its employees well in the hopes of developing their full potential and making them as productive as possible. The second treats its employees badly, paying them poorly and riding them as hard as possible in the hopes of maximizing production before they quit, at which time those employees can be replaced by other more desperate people. Both these strategies are economically rational. What determines which direction a particular company will take is its culture.

Leaving aside the fact that most universities aren’t companies, which strategy does the current culture of academia suggest? I’d argue (hopefully uncontroversially) that academia has gradually gone from Strategy A to Strategy B over the last few decades. [Hello? Adjuncts?] While Walmart has time clocks and scanners that tell management every item being scanned at every moment,* universities drive their full-time, tenure-track employees with useless bureaucracies created by people with bullshit jobs primarily designed to justify their own wildly-inflated salaries.

What can you do to fight this kind of treatment? “Just say no,” argues Michael DeCesare in a must-read blog post for professors everywhere:

More and more is being demanded of professors. We are told that we must standardize our syllabi and textbook selections; that we must satisfy those aspects of teaching on which the institution was “dinged” by the accrediting body; that we must earn approval from the local institutional review board for any and all research projects, even those that do not involve human subjects; that we must assess virtually everything that we and our students do; and that we must [insert your favorite personal example here]. In short, we must do whatever administrators want us to do.

All of these administrative “musts” come on top of the traditional, truly important job requirements in the areas of instruction, scholarship, and service; namely, teach effectively, present and publish important research, and serve our institution, discipline, and profession. The list of additional “musts,” which seems to be generated annually by administrators, cuts deeply across all three of the traditional areas of faculty responsibility. What eludes most faculty members is that administrators’ requests are often only that—requests. They are rarely “musts.”

It’s not like anything he has to say in that essay is even remotely revolutionary. Indeed, this is the way that industrial relations is supposed to work. Employment, especially academic employment, doesn’t mean you have to kiss your autonomy goodbye.

I actually had the privilege of hearing Michael deliver the paper on which that blog post is based at the last AAUP convention a few months ago. Therefore, I can tell you with certainty that he’s not recommending anarchy. For example, if your administration replaces your department’s 3-page annual review form that takes an hour with a 30-page annual review form that takes a day and a half, just do the old form. The sun will not go dark. The planets will remain in their orbits. Faculty should certainly be accountable for their actions to some degree, but there are limits, and when that limit is surpassed you have to stand up for yourself or you’ll only just encourage them.

You also have to stand up for the interests of your students. “What does this have to do with students?,” you ask. It’s a resource thing, as Chris Newfield explains with respect to the Obama higher ed plan:

Autonomy is cheaper than administration, because you don’t have to pay for a compliance bureaucracy. This is a big deal at universities, whose every interaction with the federal government involves complex reporting on everything from the sports programs to research grants and financial aid. Universities have to pay for this, and they charge students to do it. The Obama plan will only increase these costs, and add to the administrative bloat that is a major source of the cost growth that everyone dislikes.

More bureaucratic costs, of course, mean less resources for actual education.

Since professors are the ones on the front lines of education, we’ll be the ones held to account for our universities’ bureaucratic failures despite our opposition to their creation in the first place. Since we’re in a lose/lose situation anyways, we might as well get used to resisting now. This way, even if we can’t get rid of the entire bureaucracy, we’ll at least have a fighting chance of driving our employers back towards Strategy A before we’re all swept away by a new hurricane of pointless busy work.

* You knew that Walmart is a Big Data pioneer, right?

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4 responses

27 08 2013
“War!…What is it good for?” | More or Less Bunk

[…] realize that my last two non-MOOC posts may seem a little extreme to some people, but really my labor politics aren’t […]

29 08 2013

“…those stats are a powerful hint that one institution takes graduating students very seriously and the other doesn’t.”

Sometimes yes, but quite often, maybe even most of the time, no.

If Harvard has a 96% graduation rate, that probably reflects the quality of the students that Harvard admits as much as, if not more than, any institutional practice of “tak[ing] graduating students very seriously.” Harvard can take the preparation and drive of its students for granted and doesn’t need to do much in the way of coaching them along.

On the flip side, Podunk Community College might work very hard at helping students succeed, but still have a very low graduation rate because of transfers (very, very hard to track) and because of the poor academic preparation, stressful life circumstances, etc. of the kind of students they admit–of the kind of students their mission *requires* them to admit.

One might be able to draw proper conclusions by comparing apples only to apples, but cheap political gimmicks like the College Scorecard don’t do that. If Harvard and Yale are admitting similar students, and Harvard’s graduation rate is 96% and Yale’s is 50%, then yeah, something’s probably screwy at Yale. But if Harvard’s is 96% and Podunk’s is 32%, and Podunk’s genuine peer institutions are 18%, then Podunk is doing great. Podunk might well be doing a much *better* job of helping students than Harvard. This seems obvious to us, but might not be obvious to the unsophisticated consumer of all these decontextualized numbers.

The plain truth is that graduation rates reflect student inputs as much as, if not more than, institutional performance. Both are factors, and figuring out which institution is most likely to graduate a given individual requires that they (and many others!) be disentangled. For the unsophisticated, I don’t thing the DOE’s technocratic neoliberal reforms are going to help; I think they’re more likely to mislead–both because they encourage inappropriate comparisons and because, as Cassandra points out, the info itself is hard to generate and often inaccurate.

27 08 2013
Contingent Cassandra

Graduation rates, at least, are very complicated. For instance, community college graduation rates may be lowered if a good proportion of their students move on to 4-year schools before finishing an associate’s degree, even though preparing transfer students is part of their mission. For 4-year schools, being supportive of highly mobile students (e.g. members of the military and/or their family members) or non-traditional students can mess up graduation rates. A nationwide system tracking students, and giving credit to all the institutions that helped them (or not) along their way to graduation, might work, but that’s probably a bit big-brotherish for some tastes. Also, some students would actually be better off going to school part-time, and having enough time to get the most out of each class, but most measures of graduation rate (and many financial-aid systems) privilege full-time students (even those who are also trying to work 40 or more hours a week).

28 08 2013

“…students deserve to know what the likelihood is that they will get a degree.”

Maybe so, but graduation rates do not tell an individual student the likelihood of his or her graduation. (I hope I don’t have to explain something so obvious.)

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