Monday, March 23, 2009

Custodial Professor

A friend of mine who has been a provost and dean has entertained me for years with stories about amazing things faculty and students (at other universities) do. Stories of the you-couldn't-make-this-stuff-up (and be believed) sort. One of my favorites involved a senior professor who became completely unhinged when a new custodian moved the professor's wastebasket to a different location from the one it had been in for 36 years.

I realize that mentioning that incident is not helpful to my ongoing effort to convince people that (most) professors aren't (too) eccentric, but clearly some of us are deeply weird.

That professor's response -- i.e., writing/calling the provost repeatedly to complain, threatening to sue -- was a bit extreme, but it reminds me of how much we all depend on reliable custodial services in our academic buildings.

In the course of my academic career, I've worked in some buildings that had the same friendly and reliable custodian for many years. Because I have also experienced situations in which there was rapid overturn of the custodial staff, including a few who were a bit alarming and some whose work did not seem to include actually cleaning the building (and one who let thieves into my office to steal things), I do not take it for granted when the custodian who cleans my office is someone I like and trust.

During a recent disruption in custodial services in a building in which I spend a lot of time, the rate at which the building became filthy was remarkable: hallways, classrooms, and restrooms became noticeably grimy and littered in a week. The building also became less safe because there weren't reliable people looking after it, making sure the doors were locked in the evening, and making sure there weren't random people wandering around. After a few weeks, the university had to bring in a special cleaning team to get the building back to a decent level of cleanliness.

That can't possibly have been cost effective, but one of the ways in which some universities are economizing is to cut down on custodial services. I can deal with having my wastebasket emptied less often as long as it is put back in the right place, but I hate to think about the people who are losing their jobs as a result.

I am also dismayed that some universities are making it more difficult for staff members to take courses at reduced tuition rates. Many of the staff members I know (custodial, clerical, administrative, technical) have taken courses, either to work towards a degree and perhaps a better job and/or higher pay, or out of curiosity. For example, some staff members in my department, including some custodians, have taken our intro-level Science class because they were curious about what it is we are all doing here in our offices and labs.

I think the effect of taking away staff tuition benefits will be that staff will take many fewer classes. This will not save the university any money, and will have major negative consequences for many staff members.

I know that the budget has to be cut, it has to be cut severely, and there are only so many ways to do that. Even so, firing custodial staff, who are among the lowest paid regular employees at the university, and taking away one of the most excellent benefits of working at a university will have significant consequences for the safety, health, and intellectual environment of the campus.


Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Yes, it's really the cost/benefit analysis here that amazes me. Which will be more cost-effective--firing a few custodians who earn $25K a year, or replacing the football coach who earns $500K/year with someone less overpaid? Yet somehow that is not where I hear the cuts being made.

Anonymous said...

I am also dismayed that some universities are making it more difficult for staff members to take courses at reduced tuition rates.

I had not hear od this before. It sounds like a really shortsighted bad idea.

I think the effect of taking away staff tuition benefits will be that staff will take many fewer classes. This will not save the university any money, and will have major negative consequences for many staff members.

While I agree that it is a terrible and shortsighted idea, it will save money, albeit indirectly, by reducing the number of students in classes without reducing collected tuition. This reduces the teaching load, and allows for faculty to be fired or not hired. The magnitude of the effect is small, but it is real and has probably been quantified by some asshole in the provost's office.

Kim said...

We've had to clean our own offices (including taking out the trash) for seven or eight years - the custodial staff was cut in the last budget crisis. The trash isn't that big of a deal, but I'm not very good at dusting.

Diane said...

I heard that our university let go all of its part-time or temp custodial workers over the winter. The place it was really obvious was in snow removal - apparently "Let the students flatten it with their shoes" is the new policy. Much slipping and sliding was the rather predictable result.

Anonymous said...

In my department, a 5% budget cut means:
1. two profs have to retire
2. a couple of custodians get laid off
3. a couple of admin staff get laid off
4. grad students no longer get free dry erase markers or copies for the courses we TA

Meanwhile, a 5% reduction in the athletics budget means that they have to skimp on traveling.

Anyone else see a problem here?

JLK said...

My MRU could put some money back in the budget by selling all the plasma TVs they've placed All. Over. The. Campus. No one watches them. There is one building that literally has 7 of them in the lobby, all showing the same channel. Said lobby is about 30x20 and has no seating. Who the F would stand there and watch CNN?

They could also shut down the campus bus service once the weather warms up a little. Make the fuckers walk, it won't kill them.

Jackie M. said...

Yes. And yes.

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting post. I've worked in places where the custodians often seemed to be the ONLY ones working (besides me, of course). I've also worked in places where I wondered why we have so many custodial staff, since they clearly aren't cleaning anything (?). It certainly does make you appreciate the contrast.

Sam- one has to wonder how 5% adds up to so much, unless your budget is actually rather large? But I agree with your point about sports budgets. We're just not valued like they are.

Dr. J&H- They don't consider the coaches overpaid because they bring in so much money in game tickets, and they do so much for school morale and name recognition. Right? Maybe if science departments had Public Displays of Prowess and everyone bet on who was going to win (including the President), we'd be paid better?

Pagan Topologist said...

My impression is that it is an illusion that sports bring in money. We could eliminate them completely and save a lot of money.

Anonymous said...

I'm skeptical that eliminating free tuition for staff will actually save much money if only a handful of staff are taking classes, especially if they are spread around rather than all taking the same classes. The extra staff and equipment needed to add a single person to a lecture class is essentially zero. Lab classes with consumables are a different story, of course.

What costs money is adding more sections of a course, not adding another student to a lecture section. Adding a bunch of students to a lecture section might increase TA workload and strain various support services (e.g. IT, tutors, etc.) but unless there's a whole bunch of staff taking a particular course the reduction in workload from removing the staff benefit is unlikely to lead to fewer TAs hired, fewer part-time office assistants needed, etc.

This could all be solved by giving staff last priority on registration (so they aren't taking spots from students or creating a load that requires additional sections) and charging them lab fees for consumables.

I suspect that the bigger reason why staff are getting cut from classes is political: Everybody needs to be seen as tightening their belts in this climate, and a "freebie" for university employees would go over poorly (especially if you're at a public school). Never mind that this "freebie" adds no costs and probably makes staff more committed to their jobs.

Anonymous said...

Genius U. cut custodial staff here too. The lab ran amok with boxes and plastics in a week. Bathrooms were places to behold after 2 days of TP shrine disassemblage.

Meanwhile, in the athletics department, the coach is the 3rd highest paid bloke on campus. And the team is the suXX0rs.

University Inc. is alive and kickin.

Anonymous said...

tuition benefits are the main reason that smart people would work as staff in the u., considering how little they are paid compared to the outside world. But, if they can swing a free degree for themselves or their dependents, then the job becomes more attractive. Cut them and we'll be stuck with the morons.

Anonymous said...

"4. grad students no longer get free dry erase markers or copies for the courses we TA"

If people just used chalk boards (i.e. Eco-white boards), then this would not be such a problem, since chalk is pretty cheap.

Dry erase markers smell bad, are expensive, and create non-biodegradable waste.

John Vidale said...

I'm starting to doubt the wisdom of my university compadres, given their constant pleas to save money by cutting sports.

Our football team keeps the entire athletic program in the black, and they're horrible, didn't win a game all last year. Aside from the direct revenues, which more than pay the coaches' outrageous salaries, the donors anchor the alumni association.

I've generally been skeptical that the vast tracts of land devoted to the athletic facilities are paying a reasonable return, but the fact that even the Ivies let in academically-horrible students to man the sports teams suggests strong teams are good business.

Now, if someone were to post that athletics are inimical to an institution of higher learning, and we should cut our budgets to have the luxury of being rid of them, at least their argument would make sense.

quasarpulse said...

But athletics aren't inimical to an institution of higher learning. Athletics of the sort that actually include students (who would have been admitted regardless) and don't interfere with their coursework produce healthy students who are engaged in the campus community.

Quasi-professional athletics of the sort that encourage admitting subpar students, lowering standards for them, and elevating them to star status - those are inimical to an institution of higher learning. But even Caltech has sports teams, and Oxbridge has had rowing and suchlike since the beginning of time. They just don't give people scholarships to come to their schools as professional athletes.

John Vidale said...

I think I'd agree with quasarpulse - the athletics at issue here are those with ridiculously expensive facilities and coaches paid thrice the salary of the university president.

Unfortunately, those are exactly the money-makers that would COST the university funds to exterminate. Personally, I'd maybe teach an extra class to make up for the lost revenue, if the student body really significantly changed for the better from the absence of semi-pro-athlete students, but not all feel so strongly.

And most colleges invest in intercollege athletics for the same reason - to cultivate the alumni and raise a sense of identification with school among current students, IMO. Intramural athletics are not the issue.

Anonymous said...

Well, I AM at an Ivy and our sports teams are mostly shite. But that's not the point.

I do agree that having healthy and happy students is important. I also agree that having sporting activities available for students to participate in, or be fans of (pardon the poor grammar), helps some of them become happy, well rounded individuals. Again though, not my point.

My point was that it seems a little unbalanced that my department has to skimp on the simplest things (like white board markers) and lay off staff, while the athletics departments/units are doing just fine. Fine is, of course, a relative term; i.e. they didn't have to take pay cuts or lay anyone off, or even eschew getting new equipment next year, even after a cut of 5%, but they are cutting something (good-bye luxury travel, boo-hoo).

To Ms.PhD, my department budget isn't that large, and when the profs retire, they actually go emeritus and retain an office and workspace and still get the general use of department resources, so it doesn't cut as much as it sounds from the top.

The problem is that the admins and custodial staff make ~20K a year (or less) and they are thought of as easily expendable, so they get let go in an effort to appear to save money quickly. It's the 'easy' trim off the bottom line.

Phys Student said...


Personally, I'd maybe teach an extra class to make up for the lost revenue, if the student body really significantly changed for the better from the absence of semi-pro-athlete students

How many semi-pro-athlete students are there at your university? How many in each of the courses you teach?

I just can't imagine that cutting sports would mean that a significant number of students (supposedly bad ones) wouldn't be there any more.

Also, while I don't agree with the ridiculous salaries of football (and sometimes basketball) coaches, they really don't cost money to the university, they are actually a profit (see

I am sure if a science professor brings in 10 million dollars or more every year, they will also have a "ridiculous" salary. Too bad for us science is not as appealing to the average Joe as football is.

John Vidale said...

Actually, I think we mostly agree.

I was being sarcastic, my 30,000 student campus would not change much, and consequently I wouldn't be willing to teach an extra class. Sorry, bad habit of mine.

I would like to drop the pro sports, though, just as I'd naively like to illegalize lotteries and casinos, despite the loss in campus funding.

I tried to make the point in my first point that they don't cost universities money, and should be off the table when discussing economy measures.

But there are profs that bring in $10M a year, and no profs outside the med school are close to coach-scale salaries.

Anonymous said...

"I am sure if a science professor brings in 10 million dollars or more every year, they will also have a "ridiculous" salary."

Except that professors with many very large grants DO bring in many millions of dollars in matched funds to the university from federal agencies. And yet, their salary does not scale at the same rate as that of a top coach for the same revenue increase to the university.

The fact is that professors generally are resigned to the idea that they will not make tons of money, whereas coaches demand to make tons of money - so they do. Much like our friends on Wall Street in the past decade.

Alicia M Prater, PhD said...

When I was a grad student, I shared an office in the back of the lab with another student (it was one of 2 labs my PI ran and the two of us basically had that one all to ourselves) We worked late hours, often going to class for an hour and then back to finish something up, or had to run to the other lab down the hall to use equipment. The door wasn't always locked when the custodian came by and thought we were being negligent. The security officer on duty locked us out, and left harassing notes and moved things, even took our food (like oranges) from the office and set it on the lab bench (something against the safety rules of the school!) to hold down a note, to tell us to lock the door. We ended up having to report them several times, explaining the situation, before it stopped. We had never had a problem like that until one zealous custodian met a zealous security officer and then never had a problem after they were told we don't keep normal hours!

We also went through a period of time where the trashcans overflowed because custodial wasn't working a full week and when they were there they didn't have time to do everything. The floors were grimy, the hallways dirty, and it was just a mess. We had to negotiate schedules with other areas to get our department, and individual labs, cleaned once a week. We were even willing to do it ourselves, but they wouldn't allow us access to the cleaning supplies because we hadn't gone through the "training" lol

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if sports in general (or even that semiprofessional foosball cr*p we're all stuck with in particular) actually makes money for anybody?

On the other hand, I know that once, when a certain state U basketball team won the championship, the number and quality of graduate students applying for the physics department skyrocketed, implying a surprising correlation.

And while it is definitely true that professors bringing in big bucks don't make the same salaries as football coaches, those professors usually have tenure and a pretty decent salary. Tenure and $150k/year is probably as good or better than a win-or-get-fired job at $500k/year.

JLK said...

"Tenure and $150k/year is probably as good or better than a win-or-get-fired job at $500k/year."

There are Profs making $150k/year? WHERE? Seriously, I want to know so I can focus my job search there eventually.