Thursday, August 20, 2009

 

Staff

With record enrollments this Fall, we've added unprecedented numbers of new sections. That means we've hired dozens of new adjuncts, and given returning adjuncts as many courses as our policy allows.

But we haven't added any new staff. And they're gonna feel it.

Double-digit enrollment increases bring with them double-digit increases in the numbers of applications processed, placement tests administered, financial aid packages requested, immunization records checked and kept, and tutoring and counseling appointments made. The folks who work in those offices aren't getting any more hands on deck. In fact, with the level of budget cuts we've sustained thus far, the fact that we've avoided layoffs is remarkable. (Some of our neighboring cc's haven't been so lucky.) We've done some cuts by attrition, not replacing people who've left, but we haven't kicked anybody out. In some areas, 20% less staff are being asked to handle 20% more students than two years ago, and to do it with thinner operating budgets (which is to say, less money for overtime).

Naturally, some folks are starting to grumble. I don't blame them, even as I don't really have an answer for them.

Politically, hiring office staff is a harder sell than hiring faculty. Faculty are conspicuous, and the tie to the classroom is obvious. Back-office support staff are inconspicuous, and show up in public discussion as 'overhead' or 'administrative bloat.' But their work is necessary, as anyone whose financial aid package got lost in the shuffle can attest. And the relative lack of romance in back-office work means that good people aren't willing to accept adjunct-level wages to do it; adding staff means full-time salaries with benefits. (There's some limited ability to use work-study students in a few roles, and funding for that has actually increased. It helps on the margins, but anything sensitive is out of the question.) We can't expand capacity on the cheap with staff, the way that we usually can with faculty.

Worse, much of the back-office staff work only becomes visible when it fails. Inspired teaching is visible; effective paper-processing isn't. Perversely, success becomes an argument against additional investment: why do you need more staff when the current staff is getting the job done? Failure, too, is an argument against additional investment: why pour good money after bad, or why reward failure?

In some areas, the nature of the work is specialized enough that you can't just swing in some temps at crunch times and expect them to produce. That strategy works reasonably well with unskilled positions, but you don't want untrained people processing financial aid applications. No good can come of that.

It's bizarre, but true, that it's easier to add capacity on the teaching side than on the staff side. Given how subject-specific teaching is, I wouldn't guess that, but it's true. The classes will get taught. The rest, we'll hope for the best.

Comments:
Beginning in 2003, with the first economic downturn, most staff areas in my former institution lost staff due to layoffs. Those positions were never replaced. In the more recent downturn, as people have left, those positions have not been filled. My position, which I left in October, stands open, as doing about 8 to 10 others in my department. And I hear other departments have similar losses.

The thing that I never understood among staff was the general lack of complaining. 20% more work? Fine, we'll show them we can do it. Admirable at times, but overall creates a system where people are easily exploited. Many of them, of course, are simply glad to have a job and are afraid to rock the boat for fear of losing that job. When you have no union, that's what tends to happen. It's a shame really.

And it's also a shame that many universities rely on the exploited labor of staff willing to do more for less and on the labor of adjuncts working without decent pay or benefits. All while touting a mission built on leveling the playing field.

I understand the economic realities of doing so, but most corporations don't have the kind of humanitarian mission that colleges claim to. They're out to make a buck. And while the reality of most colleges is that they're also out to make a buck (or at least not lose money), they claim they're not a business, and that's frustrating.

DD, I know you personally don't like those economic realities, but I do wish colleges would figure out a way to have more equitable employment practices, on the staff and faculty side.
 
From rateyourstudents.com:


Then there’s the guy who couldn’t believe how little the adjuncts got paid? Again, where have you been all these years, shit-for-brains? And as for the wise old tenured mentor who tells them to “just refuse the number” I’d like to ask that jackass what good that would do when there are fifty other unemployed Ph.D.s waiting in line to take that number? So, sure, they can refuse the fucking number, and watch while someone else takes the classes. At least they’ll have their pride right? What a fucking tool!

People ask me, “Archie, why are you so angry? You have a great job at a great school in a great place. Where’s the problem?” Well, the little salary discussion really wrapped the problem up in a pretty little package. This profession is full of fucking shit, and the salary dump brought it all out. Let me go out on a limb here and guess that the majority of the respondents were good-hearted people with the proper kind of left-leaning politics that most hyper-educated bozos share. You probably don’t like to shop at Walmart because of its union-busting practices, and you wouldn’t be caught dead drinking a non-fair-trade latte, right? But you are shocked to find out that there is exploitation going on here! Here’s a hint for you about what’s going on in our little corner of the world: Walmart could learn a thing or two from you, Mr. “just refuse the number.”

Let’s review for a second. How do you think you got your 2/2 load? It wasn’t because of your supreme meritoriousness. And it isn’t a birthright that those of us like you and me who have the good fortune to teach at good schools enjoy because we are oh-so-fucking-special. It is actually a fairly new development in American higher ed. The administrations went to the faculty and said “you are such wonderful shiny research machines, and we’d like to reward you for being so utterly super. So here’s a 2/2 load, and we’ll just go get some desperate unemployed person to pick up the classroom slack for you.” I mean, what could be better right? Except that then the administrations said to the departments, “oh, that tenure track line, you don’t need that anymore right? I mean we have all those happy adjuncts to teach those classes now.” And the departments said nothing, because they were happy with their 2/2 loads and their research budgets. It was a Hobbesian social contract. Once the departments subscribed to it and accepted the new order, everyone who came after was bound by the new order forever more.

So this is the ugly fucking truth. You, me, all of us, we get to live the vida-fucking-loca on the backs of all those desperate suckers who just want to get their foot in the door and will accept wages a supermarket cashier would spit at because they believe that somehow if they just suck it up and eat shit for long enough, they too will get to ride the tt train. But we don’t acknowledge this, because it would break our little leftist hearts to do so. And what’s more, our refusal to acknowledge what is happening is going to result in our own extinction. If you don’t think that this is all leading to the elimination of tenure and full-time positions at all but the most elite schools, then you are in for a serious surprise. Keep fiddling, motherfuckers, because Rome is already half-burned.

So blame the president, the legislature, the football coach, and whoever else you want. Just don’t blame yourself, because that would be too much like fucking honesty. Why is Archie angry? Because this profession is full of self-deluding assholes who are enjoying the view because they are standing on the stacked cadavers of a bunch of failed gradflakes and freeway adjuncts. The breeze smells fresh up here fellas, just don’t look down.
 
Thanks for this post, DD. As a staff member, it's nice to hear that our work is valued and appreciated. Most of the college and university staff I know truly enjoy working with students and we do our best for them and our faculty. We don't get a lot of kudos from professors, so it means something to hear it from you.
 
The staff won't be hoping for the best, they'll be working their tails off! I have great respect for most staff, the staff I've worked with really know their stuff and do a great job against great odds and if they are going to have to work even harder...yikes. I'll echo what Laura says, there must be more humane and equitable ways to do this, even in tough time!
 
"The classes will get taught. The rest, we'll hope for the best."

That doesn't work for me. Just as the adjuncts enable the schools to fly cheap, so too do the schools (as exemplified by dd's comment) enable the legislatures to not know what schools cost.

WayUpNorth loses money on every student and gets less money from the legislature every year to make up the difference and boasts about increasing enrollments! How do we do it? Read dd's post.

The schools need to tell the legislatures that they cannot expand, cannot even maintain current enrollments, and if the politicians squeal as well they may, that's a good, first sign that we are finally giving realistic feedback.

Statements like dd's only feed apathy, stupidity, and complacency in high places.
 
I'd like to see an example from WayUpNorth CC on how you lose money adding students. Feel free to re-scale both tuition and adjunct salary by the same factor. At our CC, we don't get any money for extra students this year (our appropriation is tied to past enrollments, even when it gets cut) but we profit from them unless a class is seriously underenrolled.

Thanks, It'sKatie. I've seen an example recently where a university is using adjuncts when there are faculty hardly teaching at all. I was amazed.

DD writes, regarding back-office staff:
Perversely, success becomes an argument against additional investment: why do you need more staff when the current staff is getting the job done? Failure, too, is an argument against additional investment: why pour good money after bad, or why reward failure?

My view of that part of the institution is that every failure in the back office rests on the doorstep of the relevant Dean or VP, who should be able to document whether the failure was due to a predictable staffing shortage (hence the VP's fault) or poor work performance or procedures (hence the VP's fault). Or it might rest at another level, because a temporary work crush ought to be expected and planned for with cross-training, even if the President has to help process transcripts.
 
ccphys--I was as surprised as you seem to be when wayupnorthccs PR several years ago announced that we lose on each student. We lose money in the sense that a student's tuition does not cover our costs for that student--and the state's percentage of our budget has declined over the years.

Obviously, the more students we add, up to a point, the more we more money we have since some of the costs are fixed. A full class is worth more to us than a half-full one, even though none of the students pay their full way, because the cost is the same to us, full or half-full.

But long-term (and consider that our contract was frozen by political fiat so we all make a nontrivial amount less than we did last year or than we bargained for), it's not sustainable. If the state wants a big cc system, it needs to know the real costs, and a lot of people are working to hide those from legislators and citizens, which was my take on dd's post and my beef with it.
 
"In a year when we have reduced our budget by a significant amount, we are preparing to serve what will likely be the largest entering class ever. It is a tribute to the willingness of the faculty and the staff to step up to this challenge that has allowed us to provide the education people are looking for."

Here's a variation of dd's statement, this yesterday from a president at a wayupnorthcc.

To those of us in the know, these two sentences mean: everyone is earning less and working harder.

Why administrators choose to speak in language that is opaque and meaningless to the average newspaper reader is a mystery to me.

The president had a chance to educate the public, to inform, to treat a serious issue in a serious way--but instead, he fell back on reflexive and mindless cheerleading and stakhanovism. I'm tired of being a Hero of Labor. I want to do my job and do a good job, but I hate being told that I have to be a can-do guy and do more with less. I don't want to be used as some example of merit for some president or--no offense, dd--some dean when there are other, different, more serious messages that could be derived from the situation.
 
DD writes: "Back-office support staff are inconspicuous, and show up in public discussion as 'overhead' or 'administrative bloat.'"

This statement was a little bit weird for me, as a faculty member, and as somebody who has regular contact with students. I don't think that either faculty or students see support staff in this way, so I wonder who does?

The fact of the matter is, all of the faculty I know vehemently resist reductions in support staff (at some institutions by volunteering for pay cuts) because _support staff are essential to our jobs_. I would never diminish the work that support staff (from office support staff to those who work in the bursar's office, in parking services, in the offices that deal with transfer credit and transcripts, and those in human resources who deal with payroll and benefits, just as some examples) do. I don't think that most faculty would, or that most students would, either.

In my experience, the term "administrative bloat" is reserved for Associate Deans of Whatever, positions created that don't seem to have a direct impact on the operation of the university or on student learning. "Overhead" is a term that I've only used heard for things like the costs of keeping buildings open (for things like electricity, maintenance cost, and water and such).

So who exactly characterizes staff as "administrative bloat" or "overhead," if it's not students or faculty? I'm seriously asking, because I found this assertion odd.
 
Dr. Crazy--my experience is that the administration--provosts, deans, etc.--often see staff as overhead, similar to heat and electricity. Also, the board sees them that way.
 
"I don't think that either faculty or students see support staff in this way [bloat], so I wonder who does?"

John Q. Voter, I'm guessing, or his representative in the state legislature. It's the same weird effect as being able to get money to build a building, but not to keep the lights on inside after it's built.
 
I don't think it should be overlooked that grad students are as equally, if not more, exploited as adjuncts---often w/o health insurance, w/o tuition remission, and with stipends often paltrier than the typical adjunct wage. Moreover, teaching is often required as part of the "graduate education." at my Big 10 alma mater, grad students taught 70% of introductory courses!
 
wayupnorth -- Do you seriously believe that we haven't been making the case, repeatedly and vigorously, for more money? Do you honestly believe that?

As Barney Frank put it, on which planet do you spend your time?

There's a flippin' RECESSION going on, people. That means state tax revenues down, and countercyclical stabilizers (unemployment checks) up. It means that states can't even fulfill the budgets they made, let alone the budgets we wish they'd make.

Jesus Fucking Christ, I've HAD IT with the "everything would be fine if you administrators would just do a better job." There are CONSTRAINTS, people. Get over your fucking narcissism for two minutes and acknowledge the outside world.

In the outside world, regular people -- by which I mean, voters -- judge the success of an institution largely by its enrollment. Enrollment growth puts us in a better position to claim revenues when they return; enrollment decline would be an almost bulletproof argument for further cuts. We're positioning the college to do better once the statewide bleeding stops.

Connect the dots, people. In putting these posts out there day after day after goddamn day, I'm trying to insert some truth into the debate. If you want "other, different, more serious messages," write them.
 
Hey deandad--I didn't even know you administrators knew those words! Thanks for talking in a way we can all understand.

Most of the 23 years I've been at wayupnorth, we've faced regular budget crises. Why do we even call them crises when they have been such a regular and expected part of our lives? I can't believe the arguments placed before our legislature have much force since the results are so poor.

Of course, we all listen to our system president repeat his talking points in his yearly speech to the legislature, his graduation addresses, his op-eds--and one of his points is the heaping of praise on his staff and faculty for working so hard to keep education affordable for the hard-working people of the state and so on and on.

Basically, what your 'Staff' post was all about.

But all that talk seems to accomplish is to add new students we all admit we can't serve quite as we would like. And we all know we work harder for less pay to provide even that level of service.

My injection of truth is this: if voters think enrollment size is a measure of success, fine--but they don't know what it costs, and your point seems to be that it would break their hearts to tell them.

If the voters want bigger a bigger system and more students in it, it will cost money! If they don't want to pay, we shouldn't be making it seem as if somehow paying is not necessary. If it's a recession, then we have to pull back. If our services are more needed during a recession so we should not pull back, something has to give--but why should it be the staff, as the original post seems to argue?
 
DD, wayupnorth really is right about one thing -- there was a generational bargain where the faculty your age decided to end academia as we all know it for the faculty my age and younger. The economic rationales behind that bargain were inexorable, but the system is built on lying to grad students and adjuncts that things will possibly get better. That's the 23-year emergency.

The problem is that the solution was implemented a long time ago, and you know as well as I do that there's nothing to be done about it. You're still going to hire "beige" instead of increase adjunct wages. There's just way too much money in it.

Oh, and I agree that staff is overhead, like heat and electricity. And let's see the college get by with an insufficient quantity or quality of any of the three. Sigh.
 
@PunditusMaximus: You have DD's age wrong. (Hint: At the start of the "23-year emergency", he was in high school.) He is of the generation that was looking for faculty jobs when the whole thing went over the cliff, although of course it has continued to get worse.

This mess is not his fault. I'm not sure it is any particular group's fault, to be honest...it's more like the tragic but inevitable result of several interest groups making projections using incomplete (and not completely overlapping) data sets. I maintain that events in academia are trailing those in the newspaper industry by 5-10 years, but we are headed down the same road.
 
Pundit, I don't think DD is as old as you think he is. And I definitely don't think there was some kind of mass conspiracy among faculty of any age to end academia as we know it.

Staff reductions are actually fewer and less problematic than the increased reliance on adjunct faculty, something DD has acknowledged is a problem, but which, given the fact that there are plenty of people willing to work as adjuncts and the demand for their work, is just the way things are.

If elite institutions would stop pumping out Ph.D.'s like candy, the supply might go down and institutions would have to come up with a different solution for staffing, probably hiring full time faculty. It's Econ 101.

And let me say, for the record, I understand cutting and/or not hiring during a recession. What I find happens sometimes--and this is often not the fault of administration, but of individual staff department heads--is that they decide to maintain the same low levels of staff to save money, even during flush times.
 
WayUpNorth, why did you believe the college PR person about costs? Do the calculation I suggested to determine it for yourself. Yes, there is college overhead, but much of that does not change if you add one section to the schedule (lights are on for another hour) or one more student to a classroom. You need to know if you are being lied to.

DD, I suspect the situation WayUpNorth is a question of EFFECTIVE representation of the needs of the college during the GOOD years. [That said, WayUpNorth might be in a state like Michigan that has not seen a "good year" for quite some time. One has to be attuned to the legislative process to know what challenges are being faced.] It could also be that they have poor financial leadership.

In my case, I've told our CC pres (who is a great financial manager but poor lobbyist) to his face that I think he needs to use his contacts to do a more effective job of selling our college and the rest of the system to the legislature, even if it means insulting nearby universities (perhaps in private lobbying) for their widespread use of bad part-time teachers in undergrad classes to subsidize research of questionable value to the state and its students.
 
"Enrollment growth puts us in a better position to claim revenues when they return; enrollment decline would be an almost bulletproof argument for further cuts. We're positioning the college to do better once the statewide bleeding stops."

This is a formula for the CC That Takes Over The Universe. In hard times, it grows to serve hurting people. In good times it grows because it's proved in hard times that it's needed and why shoot down a good thing?

So, when does growth reach its limit? From the quotation above: never; there are always new fields to conquer.

For my money, it reaches its limit when there are the same number of classrooms, the same number of fulltime faculty, no new staff, 45 % more students than we had a few years ago, no tuition increases and less support from the state.
 
"Enrollment growth puts us in a better position to claim revenues when they return; enrollment decline would be an almost bulletproof argument for further cuts. We're positioning the college to do better once the statewide bleeding stops."

Those assertions can be turned on their heads. Enrollment growth without added revenue can be said to prove that you were overfunded to start with, that you actually can do more with less, and that you were crying poor in the first place.

Enrollment declines (my solution) can be presented as an inevitable consequence of reduced income.

Ordinarily I'm in awe of deandad's ability to present logical, reasonable, humane, unanswerable arguments. I often, very often, wish he were my dean (though perhaps he's just as glad he isn't!)

In this case, though, I have to think he's got hold of an argument he's having a hard time seriously defending.
 
I wish the people putatively disagreeing with me would read what I wrote.

I didn't say there was a conspiracy, I said there was an agreement. It was right there in the labor contracts, out in the open. The decision to move to a parking-lot-construction-worker model for adjuncting was almost certainly inevitable, but it didn't have to be this bad, and it didn't have to be based on lying to grad students about there being jobs out there.

Again, this was going to happen. There is just way, way too much money in it, and once a college education became a talisman rather than an actual valuable thing, then quality of education became much less relevant. And once we realized that the vast majority of research done by academics isn't actually valuable, then moving to a teaching-only model makes a lot of sense.

But it really, honestly didn't have to be this bad, and we need to stop pissing on adjuncts' heads and telling them it's raining.
 
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