Monday, April 25, 2011

Different Worlds

By chance, one of my cousins and I have ended up living in the same general area, although we have no other relatives (other than our spouses and kids) within about a million miles. Her husband and I work at the same university.

He has a low-level tech job, and he and I have never intersected in our professional lives. By "low-level", I mean the kind of job that you can get without a college degree. His lack of a degree limits his career options, but he seems to be valued in his job and is increasingly being given more responsibility.

I don't see my cousin and her family very much (according to our mothers, who are sisters), but when I do see my cousin-in-law, it's always interesting talking to him. In our daily working lives, we experience very different sides of the same university.

He frequently encounters administrators who talk about how great [something] is, and then he (infrequently) talks to professors like us and hears The Other Side. For [something], you can imagine a wide range of academic topics, from Big Sports to the latest/greatest 'improvement' to the accounting system. To his credit (says me), he is skeptical when he hears administrators talking about how great [something] is. Our professorial complaints about life in the trenches dealing with the consequences of [something] seem to confirm his cynicism.

I like knowing that someone like him is in the system somewhere. When he sees something wrong or stupid or inefficient about the system, he fixes it if he can. Of course he can't fix the big things and fire the administrators who are big supporters of [something], but he can make some parts of the system work more efficiently.

My cousin-in-law and I inhabit very different parts of the university, but in some ways, the world of the administrators (whom we mock when we get together) is even more distant from our respective planets, at least in terms of views of priorities and functioning of the university. Why would that be?

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think it's possible that administrators are not seen as being useful, whereas academics and technical staff are. Academics teach, do research, etc, and technical staff support the academics with IT, mechanical engineering, etc. They have a clear purpose.

Administrators, on the other hand, are often seen as an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. They don't seem to have any specific skills, they make you fill out seemingly useless forms, make you jump through hoops to extract useful information, etc. I'm sure nearly everyone has had the experience of being shuffled to and from various administrative departments in a university when trying to accomplish what seems to be a simple task. In principle, they should also be there to support academics, research, and teaching programs, but in reality they only seem to get in the way.

Now, these are all stereotypes. I've seen some really awesome administrators who can make one phone call and solve your problem on the spot, but I've also encountered administrators who actively get in the way in a weird sort of turf war with other administrators. I've also dealt with some excellent technical staff who go above and beyond expectations to get the job done, but also ones where it would have been faster for me to do the job myself.

Anonymous said...

FSP I love your blog. But I can't help noticing that your enemies are clear cut -- men (not your husband), administrators.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget dogs and jerks. Those are definitely enemies of FSP.

Actually, 'enemies' is a bizarre conclusion to reach from reading even just a few posts, not to mention many. For example to conclude that all non-spousal men are enemies, you have to ignore all the posts with fond mentions of male colleagues, students etc. Even the Mrs. Me post does not say anything harsh about the men who used "Mrs", it's a polite request or explanation of the situation. Enemies? Maybe if you set the bar really low to include mild criticism.

Anonymous said...

I think it's very easy for administrators to lose touch with those of us "in the trenches". Even if they were faculty in a previous position, once in the administrator world they rarely spend time with students or even faculty unless there is some complaint or problem. After all, how often to I even see the dean? Once or twice a year?

Anonymous said...

One of my colleagues thinks that when perfectly sane people become administrators, they are forced to drink some kind of potion or undergo a sinister initiation rite that leaves them psychically scarred and unable to distinguish between university propaganda ("The football team is good for the university. It bring in money!") and reality ("The football team is a scandal-plagued money sink populated by 'students' who don't have the time of motivation to focus on academics.)

Alex said...

I agree with anon at 11:31. Even chairs seem prone to this. They suddenly notice that a word was changed in a report, and they predict that in response a committee will be formed to weigh the issue and make a recommendation for a task force, and they see this as great progress. They hear a higher administrator issue some platitude that they hadn't issued before, and assume that this will translate into real action. They suddenly start using the word "Assessment" (notice what the first 3 letters in that word are?) all the time as though they're doing something meaningful.

I don't ever want to drink that kool-aid.

Anonymous said...

The football team is the most important asset of a school.

Anonymous said...

OMG, the president of my university just left a comment on this blog post.

Alex said...

Sadly, Anon at 1:23, the alumni donors agree with your president.

Anonymous said...

I prefer to earmark my donations to the schools athletic fund.

Gears said...

Hopefully I'll add something useful to the comments...

My guess is that even if you're on a technical level, that still doesn't count as admins. For instance, at my PhD university, they had Staff (consisting of faculty, Postdocs, PhD students), Technical Staff (consisting of machinists, lab techs, etc), and Support Staff (admins, IT, HR, department managers).

The Support Staff (admins) wield way too much power and are way to rigid for the university. I found that Staff and Tech Staff both found this to be the case. But between Staff and Support Staff there wasn't much common ground. Likewise for the Tech Staff and Support Staff. Admins seemed an entity unto themselves. They push papers for everyone and make everyone jump through hoops. If they don't make themselves "useful", well then you wouldn't need them and they'd be out of a job.

(FYI, the three groups were labeled Staff, Tech Staff, and Support Staff to establish a clear hierarchy. That is to say Technical Support for the Staff and General Support for the Staff. Supposedly, everyone was working to make the lives of the Staff easier)

EliRabett said...

FWIW, the first thing they should teach in graduate school is don't piss the secretaries, janitors or machinists off, especially if you are at a dysfunctional place where the only way to get stuff done is through them. Faculty are optional

Alex said...

FWIW, the first thing they should teach in graduate school is don't piss the secretaries, janitors or machinists off, especially if you are at a dysfunctional place where the only way to get stuff done is through them. Faculty are optional.

I make good use of this lesson all the time. When the department secretary screws up I either apologize or I leave the room to avoid saying what I really think.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

One administrative/support staff problem that I've run into frequently is that administrators schedule meetings for faculty without paying any attention to the class schedule. They put their conference rooms on a schedule which ensures that every meeting will conflict with 2 class periods rather than 1, to maximize the inconvenience for faculty or students.

Pointing this problem out to them is taken as major insult.