On the phenomenon of bullshit (academic) jobs.

22 08 2013

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.




11 responses

22 08 2013

When did I think “academia”? Immediately upon seeing Gerry Canavan’s post  http://gerrycanavan.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/david-graeber-on-the-phenomenon-of-bullshit-jobs/

I think a lot too about how”it hasn’t always been this way.” My own higher ed memories go back to the 50s because my mother became a very early non-traditional college student when I was ten and hauled me about with her. At that time too, faculty in college towns were more connected to the community. In and out, they skip across the 60s and early 70s, resuming in the late 80s. The contrast between periods is all the more striking for the gaps separating them and prevention toxic normalization.

I think about writing about those and later (some between bad but not always bullshit jobs) college impressions but hesitate, reluctant to sound too much like “I walked through the snow to school every morning – uphill too” (not in Louisiana…make that mud or poling a pirogue through the swamp). 


22 08 2013

I think the administrative jobs — both the useful ones and the non-useful ones — have proliferated for two very different reasons. One is that every time someone wants accountability, someone needs to be able to write the reports. We report on our enrollment 18 times a year in different ways; that provides a LOT of work for our Institutional Research folks. Somebody has to track lots of different kinds of information for all sorts of different bodies. So the culture of accountability has helped increase college costs.

The other — very different driver (and I fear, like VanessaVaile sounding like a cranky old geezer) is that as universities have demanded more research of their faculty, the faculty has rightly said “we need time for it”. But there are things faculty used to do that many don’t do any more: our advising, for instance, is the province of professional advisers. The problem is that once you have given faculty a lower teaching load, you can’t take it back; and no one seems to be scaling back expectations of research productivity — which in some cases are positively taylorite in their assumptions.

23 08 2013
Obama’s Bad Idea Soup | Gerry Canavan

[…] * And while we’re on the subject! On the phenomenon of bullshit (academic) jobs. […]

23 08 2013
Contingent Cassandra

Excellent articulation of the problem: one of the major drivers of runaway college costs is unquestionably the proliferation of new administrative jobs, but some of those jobs are, in fact, useful and necessary, for the reasons both you and Professor Susan describe.

To the list, I’d add the fact that contingent jobs (full- and part-time) often don’t involve service (the better to extract as much teaching as possible out of even the full-timers while still maintaining some sort of semi-coherent description of the components that make up a full-time faculty job, and how they can be balanced within any one person’s workload), but increase the service load of others. Somebody has to hire, in some cases train, observe, evaluate, and otherwise supervise the ever-proliferating contingent faculty. In addition, we tend to be more mobile than tenure-track faculty (because our jobs are more precarious; I’ve actually been hired to my current job, with varying numbers of hoops for me and the hirers to jump through in the process, three times), and in many cases we can’t “graduate” to the sort of reduced-review status that many tenured faculty hold (at least at my institution, tenured faculty still have to undergo annual salary reviews, but nobody has to evaluate them for contract renewal on a periodic basis, nor do they need to observe each others’ teaching and write reports thereon). And part-time teachers can be harder to schedule than full-time ones, because they have other responsibilities that their colleagues are bound, by decency if nothing else, to try to respect. In short, contingent faculty are more labor-intensive to manage than tenured faculty, but, since the burden falls on the contingent employees’ immediate colleagues, it tends to be invisible to upper administration. And there’s something of a vicious cycle in place: when tenure-track faculty members feel overburdened, they (reasonably enough) ask for course releases to offset their increased administrative commitments, and those course releases, if granted (which is admittedly rare), are made possible by hiring more adjuncts.

23 08 2013
Contingent Cassandra

I can envision two solutions to this problem. The first (and most obvious, at least from my point of view), would be to make sure that contingent jobs include service (and to package as many part-time contingent jobs into such full-time contingent jobs). This would also make sure that faculty teaching the majority of the courses/sections have a meaningful say in the shaping of the curriculum, an essential, historic component of faculty governance that has seriously eroded over the past few decades.

The sneakier way to move back in a more functional direction would be to look at the qualifications and compensation for, and duties of, administrative jobs. What, for instance, would happen if everyone in an administrative job were required to be qualified to teach at the introductory/core level in a recognized discipline, and to do so on a regular basis? So, the institutional research folks might teach intro statistics (or sociology, or whatever they had at least an M.A. in). And the folks with Ed.D.s in “higher education administration” would teach — well, that’s the rub, isn’t it? Given the evolving nature of the university, as described by Backer in the quotation above, I’d guess that they might be qualified to teach an intro course in the business school. Whether the university would still need any actual business professors once it got through placing all the administrative types in their one-course requirements is another question.

Another thing that might be worth discussing, especially at state schools where such things are subject to legislative oversight, is proportional relations among salaries for different types of positions. Even if you leave out the President, Provost, and a limited number of high-level Deans and Vice Presidents (since when, by the way, do we have both Deans and Vice Presidents? Didn’t a Dean or a Provost used to be the academic equivalent of a Vice President in business?), pegging administrative and faculty salaries at various levels to each other (while taking into account the 9- versus 12-month distinction) might have an interesting effect. At the very least, it might reverse the current incentive for professors at all levels, from adjunct to full, to move into administration because that’s where the money so clearly is (there is, of course, a parallel problem in K-12 public schools, and I don’t think it’s been solved there, either).

26 08 2013
Monday Medley | No Pun Intended

[…] good jobs into bad ones, Phil Nichols on the industrialization of education, another piece on bullshit “academic” jobs, and Bob Black calling for the abolition of all […]

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[…] drive their full-time, tenure-track employees with useless bureaucracies created by people with bullshit jobs primarily designed to justify their own wildly-inflated […]

27 08 2013
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[…] realize that my last two non-MOOC posts may seem a little extreme to some people, but really my labor politics […]

2 09 2013

“but professors certainly can’t run a university all by themselves”

They once could. What’s changed?

4 09 2013

You seem to focus on administrative jobs as per the article you cite. what about the teaching jobs that falls under bullshit category? Don’t they exist? (I don’t have the answer)

12 05 2014
“How could you have dignity in labor if you secretly believe your job shouldn’t exist?” | More or Less Bunk

[…] all-MOOCs-all-the-time format was about David Graeber’s short masterpiece on bullshit jobs. My focus then was about bullshit academic jobs. Graeber’s back talking to PBS’ NewsHour about […]

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