What do all these people do all day?

This essay by Cal Newport proposes that, since the work of a professor should be to engage in deep thinking, universities should take a stand by reversing the fairly recent (forty years?) trend to burden professors with administrative tasks, since those displace the more valuable work professors are being paid to do, and they aren’t very good at them anyway. It’s a strange piece of thinking, well executed and reasonable and, I think, delusional. Newport proposes that the administrative work should be offloaded onto people who are good at it and paid appropriately—fair enough in itself—but never asks whether the work is worth doing, or where it came from in the first place.

By ignoring the question, I assume he assumes that this is what it takes to run a university—or maybe he just chooses not to dig deeper as a way of staying focused on his particular goal, since he does say this in passing:

Another factor driving the professoriate’s drift into middle management is a significant increase in administrative demands. In part, this is due to the growth of university bureaucracy, which, once established, inevitably consumes the time and attention of its subjects to justify its existence.

I can understand that Newport would zero in on the more achievable (though still pie-in-the-sky) goal of shifting the burden to assistants rather than dismantling the machinery that creates the burden. But I can’t imagine that his proposal would work even if universities embraced it, since it isn’t clear to me that universities put much value on having their professors think deeply—and to the extent that there’s value in it, the appearance of deep thinking is probably sufficient.

Perhaps I’ve just read too much David Graeber. His book on the nature of modern work is excellent, and you can get the gist of his argument from the essay which inspired the book. It gives a good solid answer to a question that occurred to me early in my corporate days, as I was walking through a large open-plan office in the vast research building of the vast central campus of the multi-campus Texas Instruments. I knew more or less what Texas Instruments produced, and had a rough idea of how many and what sort of people it would take to make those things, and walked by row after row of people sitting at desks who were clearly not making those things, and wondered: what do these people do all day?

5 thoughts on “What do all these people do all day?

  1. It’s a huge topic. I’ve been a professor and a student service type (academic advisor, i.e., a bureaucrat with a potentially bullshit job) and my general reaction is to say that it depends on the person in the position rather than the position itself. As a faculty member, it was really frustrating to see a college or department budget grow because of adding support staff as opposed to adding faculty — right now only the people at the very top get an assistant like the Stanford professor, and most of paid a graduate student under the table to do things that could reasonably be offloaded. As a staff member, the frustrations were radically different insofar as we often had to deal with messes that were created by faculty who were not doing assigned tasks, sometimes over long periods. Yet as a staff member, I also did a lot of bullshit tasks, many of which had to do with compliance of some kind or other (with the state, with university statute, with the accreditor. I’m actually happier right now than I ever was with a fulltime job, in that I just jet in, teach my classes and try to answer as little administrative email as possible. I don’t make any decisions. But my livelihood is extremely precarious.

    I’ll cite two things I wonder about.

    1. When I was in college, 30 years ago, there were no academic advisors. I saw a prof in my major once per term, we decided which classes I should take (I think he had a printout from the registrar that measured progress toward requirements), signed a form, and I registered. Nowadays, in the public university situation, it’s almost impossible to do it that way because the requirements are so complex. Requirement layers over requirement, curriculum committees pass agendas that they have to be operationalized and they conflict with each other, etc. Students want “more choice” and that complicates things as well, too — they don’t want a degree in business, or even international business, but in international business accounting and marketing. I started working in advising out of a lack of other options once I ceased feeling called to the professoriate (people in those jobs who have lost their vocations is another aspect of this problem) and because my last department chair asked me to do the job and offered it to me. At the beginning I thought it was really superfluous, but by the end I was convinced that I was adding value, mostly because I was the only person those students had a relationship with over more than 1-2 semesters and who could observe their whole trajectory and make suggestions. That points to a much bigger problem than division of labor issues. But I had to do it for 300 students and the average advising load at that campus was 600 per advisor (NACADA


  2. Part of the problem there is that there are many students now who need much more support than previous generations would have — academic, social, etc. They are less independent than our generations were, but for the students who are first generation, they don’t have a lot of social resources / cultural capital behind them, telling them want to do. They really do need someone (a) telling them they go to class and (b) checking up on them to make sure they do. As public university funds get tied to performance (retention rates, four and six-year graduation) this is going to get worse, not better.

    2. Which points to another factor in all of this — there are many more kinds of people in universities now than even 30 years ago. To cite one thing that frequently crosses my desk — the question of support for students with disabilities. I won’t bore you with details and anecdotes, but the amount of administrative support that it requires to get these students through a four-year degree is non-trivial. I go back and forth on this because there are clearly students who can really profit from this support, and clearly others who don’t. It is a major source of bureaucratic growth (as are other sorts of student services, see above). But it’s a situation of poor resource allocation, i.e., we throw an equal amount of money / time at every instance of a difficulty rather than assessing what would be most useful. (The problem is similar in the university population at large but the question of students with disabilities makes it easier to see or seems more acute, anyway.)

  3. Servetus,

    A key word you used above is compliance. Somewhere along the way we got the idea we could achieve a better society by fiat, and so legal standards like the Americans with Disabilities Act are handed down to the folks who are then expected to comply. But the lawgivers never seem to do the math.

    Can the math even be done? I think it’s a basic principle of ecological analysis that when you introduce a new factor into an existing ecology, you don’t just get the old system plus the new thing, you get a whole new system. Who foresaw the nature of the gaming that would go on as a result of the ADA? Only reality and time can do that calculation. All we can know at the outset is that the Law of Unintended Consquences will apply. My anarchist answer to this is to not regulate in the first place—which is why I’m not in charge but just sniping from the sidelines.

    In case it isn’t clear, I have nothing against the good intentions themselves, I’m only noting that the systems we build to enforce them always go wrong, in predictable ways.

  4. I guess we’re left with the question of how things change for the disadvantaged. I watch my father watch the news, and he’s always telling me that protests should be forbidden. I’m not a protestor at heart (Generation Xer), but I’ve never seen the powerful simply give up their power. And when asked how those who are suffering should pursue change, he doesn’t really have an answer.

    So yes, the ADA led to gaming — which any rule does (the main lesson of syllabus writing is that if you make a rule, someone will try to get around it, but if you don’t make a rule, nothing will happen). At the same time it got a lot of people into places that had been formally or informally barred to them for centuries. For instance, there is absolutely no question in my mind that without ADA, a lot of public facilities would not have added disabled entries because it was simply easier not to — and not “cost effective” to do so. And the building I worked in for a decade at UT didn’t even have parity in women’s bathrooms until a pressing renovation forced the university to make it ADA compliant.

    So my issue with compliance isn’t regulation per se — some regulation is useful and necessary. It’s more that there’s a lot of frivolous regulation by people outside of a situation (the one that always stands in my mind is the FL law that professors had to submit their textbook list a month ahead of time), where people don’t ask what the cost of verifying compliance would be. In short while I think you’re correct that there are always unintended consequences, at the same time there must be a mean between useful regulation and stupid regulation.

    Also, the other issue is public money. Legislators have been convinced for most of my lifetime that all public institutions waste money. Would some money be wasted? probably, not least because of fiscal year spending rules (“use it or lose it”). Would as much be wasted as it costs to enforce compliance? Doubtful imo, because most public institutions I have worked for operate on a shoestring.

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