If you haven’t read David Graeber’s “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” by now, what are you waiting for? As a sometime labor historian and Harry Braverman devotee you can understand why I think it is so important, but really you should read it just as a way to get a handle on the new reality:
A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).
But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.
Oddly enough, national treasure Barbara Garson has an article and book out covering very similar ground. Do yourself a favor and make sure you read what’s at both of these links, then come back here.
Now that you’ve done that, my fellow educators, how many of you immediately thought of academia when you read the title of Graeber’s article? Universities are a mecca for bullshit jobs, and exorbitantly paying ones at that. The guy who coined the best word for these positions is Benjamin Ginsberg from Johns Hopkins. I’ve mentioned “deanlets” before in my pre-MOOC days, but here’s Ginsberg’s first use of that term in The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford 2011), p. 2:
“Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to college and university payrolls, even as schools claim to be battling budget crises that are forcing them to reduce the size of their full-time faculties. As a result, universities are filled with armies of functionaries-the vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings, each commanding staff and assistants-who, more and more, direct the operation at every school. Backed by their administrative legions, university presidents and other senior administrators have been able, at most schools, to dispense with faculty involvement in campus management and, thereby to reduce the faculty’s influence in university affairs.”
What makes matters worse is that younger faculty, most just delighted to have tenure track jobs in the first place, think this is way it has always been. It hasn’t.
However, if there’s a problem with Ginsberg’s otherwise excellent book, it’s that he’s painting with an awfully broad brush. Every campus has administrators and staffers doing bullshit jobs, but an awful lot of them are doing jobs that literally make all faculty jobs possible. Would you want to be a financial aid counselor? I wouldn’t, but I thank them silently every day during this time of year. Similarly, I’d be completely lost without our department’s administrative assistant and I’m not even department chair! I wish we could clone her.
I remember reading a figure somewhere that it took three support personnel to put every American soldier on the front during World War II. In universities, the ratio is undoubtedly lower, but professors certainly can’t run a university all by themselves. Contingent faculty (a.k.a. 75% of us), whose greatest professional solace must be that they are at the very heart of any university’s educational mission, simply don’t have the time.
The interesting question then becomes, how can you tell bullshit academic jobs from the useful non-teaching ones? I think Penn State’s Larry Catá Backer offers the beginning of an answer here:
If one takes Moody’s seriously, and one must, it becomes important to think about university cultures of function in substantially different ways, that is, that to understand the emerging premises under which public universities operate it may be necessary to abandon the premises traditionally used to “understand” the normative values and structures within which universities were thought to operate. The “new” public university that is emerging, and that the approach of Moody’s Report suggests, is substantially distinct from the mythology of public university operations that may continue to embrace. The principal change, subtle but fundamental is that there has been a shift in emphasis in the understanding of the “business” of “education,” with the emphasis on business that now drives education. (e.g.,“Pigs Get Fat; Hogs Get Slaughtered”–On Strategies for Getting Money Out of MOOCs). As a consequence, the university’s core “product” education, is increasingly treated as an instrument of revenue generation, and institutional mechanics are increasingly bent to the objective. The rest–the “how” of revenue generation becomes secondary to the primary objective.
I’d argue that the non-faculty personnel who directly aid in a university’s educational mission are doing real work. The one’s whose jobs focus exclusively on non-educational revenue generation aren’t. Yes, some of the revenue these later people generate inevitably goes to education indirectly, but you can say the same thing about bankers.
The easy to discern problem here is the skimming, which raises the obvious fairness issue. Less obviously, by turning the education part of higher education into a revenue generating machine, the people with bullshit jobs are both destroying its quality and giving cover to Republicans and neoliberals to starve the poor beast even more in the future. In the meantime, college graduates are left facing the new economy that Graeber and Garson describe so eloquently.
This model of higher education is simply not sustainable. Unfortunately, the people with bullshit jobs of all kinds are the ones least likely to get hurt when it all comes tumbling down. They’ll move on to greener pastures and the faculty will be left holding the bag.