Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Staff Infection

A correspondent who works in the Accounting area of a college writes:

I want to comment on your discussion of the lack of positive incentives (or
presence of perverse incentives) throughout academia and the futility of
trying to run a college like a business. It applies to staff, too.

You'd think that it would be easy to run the business office (controller,
cashier, student loans, etc.) of a college like a business, but it doesn't
seem to work in practice. The "corporate culture" of academia seems to
pervade even the business-like staff areas. In summary, good work product
is rewarded with more work assignments, while bad work product is rewarded
with fewer work assignments with no loss of pay or prestige. Tidy work
areas are stuffed with more people, files or stored items to the bursting
point while those who keep untidy work areas are rewarded with more space.
Efficient use of resources (people, equipment) causes fewer resources to be
allocated to the efficient employee, while profligately wasteful use of
resources causes more and more resources to be allocated to the wasteful
employee. All the while raises are a flat percent across the board and
there is no hope for advancement.

"Well," you think, "just get a job somewhere else. At least you have more
options than someone with a Ph.D. in history." Unfortunately, that's not
really the case. I'm an accountant and not-for-profit and governmental
accounting is a very small niche. If you work in the field long enough to
gain any expertise, you have resume stain. Skill at writing university
financial statements and completing IRS form 990 (for not-for-profit
corporations) does not translate to employment writing corporate financial
statements and completing IRS form 1120 (for for-profit corporations).

Since I come out of the academic side, I admit that I hadn’t thought of this, but it’s consistent with what I’ve seen. Generally speaking, nonprofits pay less than for-profits for comparable work. (The only exception to this that I’ve seen, annoyingly enough, is for-profit higher ed, which pays terribly. I received a substantial raise, with the same title, going from a for-profit college to a cc – possibly the only case in recorded history in which a cc was the more lucrative option!) Nonprofits attract qualified employees in other ways: agreement with the mission, certainly, but also a more relaxed and/or stable work environment. A high-stress nonprofit will have a terrible time keeping anybody who has other options, since if you’re going to be stressed out anyway, you might as well go to the corporate sector and at least be paid better.

At least in the U.S., a substantial percentage of the non-profit side of higher ed is public (either county or state – as far as I know, our only federal public colleges are the military academies). That means that employees of these colleges are, technically, government employees. Government work is famously lower-paying than private sector work, but the traditional offsetting benefits of more time off and greater job stability/security tend to keep people around despite the salaries.

The downside of enhanced job stability, of course, is decreased job mobility. Less churn means fewer openings, so folks disenchanted with East Podunk State College have a tough time finding similar openings at other colleges. (It also places an unhealthy premium on conflict aversion, since simmering resentments could simmer for an awfully long time.) What my correspondent noted, that I hadn’t fully appreciated, is that certain kinds of work are sufficiently different in the corporate world that refugees from academia aren’t taken seriously.

At my college, on the rare occasions when a staff member leaves (usually upon retiring), there’s always an exit interview. I’m told that the most frequent gripe at the exit interviews is the lack of room for advancement; since nobody ever leaves and the institution isn’t growing, most employees have no realistic prospect of moving up. Again, the contrast with the corporate world is striking. There, your job is never really secure, but advancement can happen fairly quickly in the right circumstances.

(It’s sort of like the children’s table at family Christmas dinners. Until a few years ago, the cutoff for leaving the children’s table in my family was 65. A single generation held on for a long, long time, and nobody could move up until it moved on.)

Locally, the mechanisms that have evolved for keeping staff happy in the face of relatively low salaries and very low ceilings are time off and evaluation inflation. Since we don’t have merit pay, managers routinely rate average performance as excellent in order to boost morale. Over time, ‘excellent’ becomes normal, and criticizing people becomes nearly impossible. Add a union to the mix, and meaningful supervision is pretty much only by the grace of the supervised.

Although tenure doesn’t usually exist in staff positions, I’ve seen the culture of tenure bleed over into them. I’d love to change that, but the initial investment of substantially increasing salaries is concrete, and the long-term payoff of increased efficiency is (mostly) hypothetical and hard to capture. It could be done, with extraordinary political leadership and loose purse strings, but I’m not holding my breath.