Professor Lowrey’s post is in part a response to the “Discussion Paper” circulated by University of Alberta President David Turpin to the university community in late October. The “Discussion Paper” may be found here.
Just as some kind of holiday is never out of season in malls, it’s always urgently time for some kind of strategic policy planning in universities. Everyone knows commercialized holiday exhortations clothe the promise of good times in a mantle of anxiety about festive inadequacy in order to sell you something. University strategic planning documents deploy the same set of tactics. They’re rather like relatives who tell you how pretty you would be if you lost of a bit of weight, or bosses who would love to promote you if they believed you were ready for the responsibility, or partners who would just like to see you manage to sustain a happy relationship with anybody less sainted and patient than themselves, they really would.
What’s going on here is what is usually going on here. When these tactics work, and they very often do, the audience for their messages is primed to supplicate. Such tactics and messaging are also addressed to a larger audience of bystanding hearers: “look at me, saying these things for the addressees’ own good; I just want to help them, benevolent soul that I am.” But shift the frame, and you see something different: something or someone that needs you — as a customer, a subordinate, a reliably flinchy source of ego-kibble — in order to realize their own ends.
Contemporary university planning documents talk a lot about declining funding and increasing costs. But their assertions about an inexorable historical trend of globally declining public funding for higher education are not true. Imagine a graph of “public money as a proportion of public expenditure spent on higher education, worldwide.” Let the x axis be time, with 1915 on the left end and 2015 on the right. Let the y axis be funding. The trajectory would be a rocket ship to the moon, still headed upwards. A ton of money is still on the world historical table, and no mistake.
How is it being spent? First, of course, lots more people are getting post secondary education than would have done so in 1915 and vastly more of them are getting public support to do it. Second, lots more colleges, community colleges, technical institutes, and new universities have been and continue to be built, heated, cooled, policed, and so on; all of this, again, is overwhelmingly underwritten by public money. Third, all of these institutions need staff of various kinds, from maintenance staff to informational technologists to librarians to…a-ha! Now we are getting somewhere.
Post secondary institutions also require teaching staff, research staff, and administrative service staff. The original model of the university, the one continually being strategically planned out of existence, had a lean and efficient vision of how get these kinds of work done. You hired threefers: faculty who were capable of and committed to doing teaching, research, and service as standard obligations of their jobs. Now, however, the most unique and precious kinds of work done by universities — teaching and research — are increasingly done by armies of precarious temporary staff earning meagre incomes. Sessional lecturers and techs and postdocs on soft money proliferate each year, but on a darkling plain, as university administrations consistently declare it impossible to track their numbers with any accuracy. Meanwhile, administrative positions also proliferate. But in this case, the compensation for such service work can be lavish indeed.
More and more administrators are hired purely outside the faculty ranks; just as we have more teaching-only and research-only staff (almost always paid peanuts) we also have more service-only staff (often paid very handsomely). Within remaining full-time faculty ranks, we now speak of “career tracks,” in which a few full-time faculty opt for the administrative ladder while most live out their professional lives in the diminishing remnant of permanent, full-time, tenured researchers and teachers. In my own experience, much of the service work available to you there — no matter how devoted your attitude to it — consists of attending meetings at which you are asked only to rubber stamp decisions taken by admin-only administrators and admin-track faculty. Protesting oils the machinery, so that administrators tell you with an indulgent twinkle in their eyes how much they appreciate your “passion” and how much they love that about the university, the truth telling of it! But unfortunately, they have to be pragmatic: which always means carrying on doing exactly what they first proposed, pocketing a nice justificatory anecdote about having earnestly considered no holds barred “stakeholder feedback” along the way. Getting mad within official channels leaves you feeling like a patsy.
Thus we are back to the condescending, masterfully misdirecting pat on the head. Is it efficient to hire three people to do what used to be the work of one, and is it cost saving to pay two of them 1/3 of what that one person used to earn while paying the third twice as much, and then hiring lots and lots of these 2.67 triumvirates but fewer and fewer of the 1.0 hat tricks, while also effectively asking these last to do only 2/3 of their jobs? I’m no math professor, but I think I can tally those beans as well as the next minimally numerate artsy type.
As to the notion that service has become its own career specialty because faculty are “too busy” to do it — it is becomingly manifestly clear that as we get shut out of real university administration many of us are finding time to organize counter-movements amongst ourselves. It begins to feel like our “real” service work, replacing the sort we are no longer called upon to do officially but which, nevertheless, we consider among the most serious duties attached to the privilege of professorship. Finally, organizing ourselves to do this work is itself tremendously energizing: evidence for the postulate that some kinds of human endeavor are not zero-sum games. This takes us somewhere very nice indeed, because it reminds us, after all, of what universities are for and how it might still be possible to run them.