Bleatings, swervice, and badmins

Howdy, fellow academics!

The new school year is in full swing, and, oh boy, is it swinging! Straight for the fences! Only the bat is aimed at a faculty member’s head instead of a baseball! Sure, I’m yelling and mixing metaphors, but what do you expect from a headless academic blogger?

I’ve realized that, when the semester starts, my stress doesn’t come from my graduate research students or the undergrads/grad students in my classes. Yes, teaching and research are tiring and may sometimes be frustrating, but I often find them invigorating and, when I step back and reflect on my job, I always appreciate how important and meaningful these endeavors are.

Most of the stress comes from i) unnecessary in-person meetings, ii) institutional service in general, and iii) dealing with hostile administrative staff.

I have always hated in-person meetings. With increasing age, my tolerance of in-person meetings has been steadily declining, as my natural introverted tendencies have overtaken the sociability I’d taught myself to emulate. All facetime drains me, even with my loved ones, but I understand I need to appear in the flesh in front my family, the students in my classes, and my own research students.

I do not, however, understand why we have to meet in person for pretty much any service task or committee. Or for faculty meetings. I am much (much!) more comfortable meeting over Zoom now that the technology is available, as there are fewer issues I have to wrangle. I am less likely to run my mouth in Zoom meetings (I feel that’s always welcome by everyone, including me), more comfortable not having my whole body on display (because my body language reveals exactly how uncomfortable, bored, and/or annoyed I am), and let’s not forget how much easier it is for various people to jump in and share various materials (slides, links).

Despite me and others  mentioning a number of times our preference for online meetings, powers that be insist on in-person meetings for some inexplicable reason.  Only it’s not inexplicable; they feel in-person meetings play to their extrovert strengths, and have the added benefit of making the introverted, perhaps socially anxious likes of me, who are commonly found in STEM, feel unsteady and thus easier to manipulate. With this particular power that be, the manipulation toolbox also includes the ever-popular request to meet without saying what the meeting is about, as well as impromptu phone or video calls, where some significant commitment is asked of me and I’m pressured to say yes or no without being given the opportunity to think about things. I hate it all.

The second issue is service. Many service duties simply aren’t necessary. There are many more committees than they were when I first joined, yet somehow the university functioned back then. For example, must we continuously tweak our curriculum? We just finished a big overhaul. Can we leave it alone for a second? Must we increase the frequency of formal review of our assistant professors? They are stressed enough without us making them turn in loads of paperwork twice as often as before, and waste the senior folks’ time on having to review all these. Must we add new layers of oversight of established, tenured faculty, as though they were disobedient children? FFS, these people are seasoned professionals, let them do their jobs, and don’t waste their time. Someone suggested that we should have mentoring committees for senior faculty. The idea was shut down, thankfully, but can you imagine? When is someone enough of a professional grownup? Never, some would have you believe. These are all insults and power grabs under the guise of help and care. The ever-increasing amounts of paperwork we are supposed to generate for the purpose  of assessing shit that doesn’t need assessing are likely designed specifically to waste faculty time while also tying their hands. Is it the case of wanting us to be too busy and distracted to not notice the lack of resources, the lack of actual boots-on-the-ground staff support, the black hole into which the overhead funds seem to vanish, the increasing number of well-paid special deanlets and associate vice something-somethings, the inability to actually effect any meaningful change even though we’re supposed to pride ourselves in faculty governance?

The third issue, one that Grumpies noted in their recent post, is the increasingly hostile attitude of a lot of administrative staff. It has become a serious energy drain. I am still of the mind that our department staff, the people who do absolutely vital, day-to-day work with faculty and students, are pretty uniformly wonderful and helpful, and there is a feeling we are all on the same team. However, moving to the college level, let alone the university sponsored programs office, you can really taste the venom. I don’t know if  the pandemic made things worse somehow, but even before it, they were not on the same team with faculty at all. They were (and are) not only unhelpful, but actively obstructive and dismissive. 

Here’s a fresh anecdote. I had made a purchase on one of my grants a few years ago. At the time, multiple people in the department and college had approved said purchase, and in fact had made me get the item through them at 2x the price I could’ve paid otherwise. Recently, the grant was getting closed out, and the university-level accountants came back saying the purchase wasn’t allowed. I managed to hunt down all the emails, but it turned out every single person I’d worked with regarding that purchase (something like five total) and who had all vetted and approved the purchase were now gone (retired, moved elsewhere, etc.), and the currently relevant person at the college level claimed they could not find any record of the purchase. I was basically told that I never should’ve charged the item to the grant to begin with and I was left holding the (2x greater than I would’ve wanted) bill. When I told them it seemed unfair to have me waste discretionary funds on this now since I hadn’t bought this item in vacuum and that the college and department certainly shared responsibility, I was all but told to go fuck myself. I am not a particularly vindictive person, but if I found out this rude, dismissive person got a really bad case of food poisoning or, better yet, got in a heap of trouble because they condescended to someone who isn’t as tired, jaded, or wussy as I am, I would very much let myself enjoy one delicious Schadenfreude high.

How’s the semester going for you, blogosphere? 

12 comments

  1. @nicoleandmaggie, I feel your pain. This was an item that really should’ve been paid from overhead, but don’t get me started on what happens with overhead money. If I didn’t have funds from my professorship, I’d have had to pay out of pocket, as well. They really like to go for those discretionary funds. Btw, I recently moved labs. I ended up paying a moving company from my personal funds to come and move the heavy items like desks and shelves because I didn’t want my students and postdoc moving heavy furniture and possibly getting injured. I was also all but told to go fuck myself when I repeatedly asked dept and college for assistance with moving. Somehow there are always movers and help available for brand new faculty, but us established folks might as well be chopped liver. I couldn’t get anyone to lift a finger. Finally I said, fuck it, I can throw a little bit of money on this problem and solve it, and I did. I am still clearly very salty that I had to do this, but at least none of my people got hurt.

  2. Ugh. So ridiculous.

    My recent excitement was that they lost my bursary (more on that next week…). Apparently nobody realized that my bursary funding would go away when I got promoted to Full. So for a week I was trying to figure out why a $50 refund request got turned down and nobody would answer my emails until all of a sudden it’s payroll and the one competent person in accounting (who handles student employment) asks me how I want to pay for my RA this week since I no longer have a bursary (news to me), and then her email to the same people I emailed last week is answered to confirm that my bursary is MIA. Then a day later my chair is like, “my bad”. In theory a bursary has been reinstated today using different funds. But I don’t have a new account number yet. So…

  3. I don’t disagree with your observations on how angry and difficult so many of our administrative colleagues are. However, I implore you and others to see what is largely behind that. Few universities have real promotion strategies for administrative faculty. In contrast, tenure track faculty know that after a specific number of years, they will come up for promotion and we know what that pathway looks like. In addition, we are all underpaid, but I would argue that administrative faculty (excluding executive administrators) are even more underpaid than tenure-track/tenured. The result is that these people get hired and stay at a university for just a few years before realizing there is no future for them, no growth potential, and they leave. Many leave academia altogether. We end up having a constant stream of new people, needing to be trained, who barely learn the job before they give up in desperation and leave. The end result for those of us who are long-term employees is a dysfunctional administrative system, where paperwork is lost, performed incorrectly, performed inefficiently, and the gears slow down or even stop. The few left trying to still run the machine are angry and lash out at those of use who are also angry because so much of this work keeps being pushed back on us, and we have critical grants and students that are incredibly negatively impacted by this mess. What we need is vision at the highest levels to change this broken system. Employees of all levels in academia – especially employees at are lower down in the system (e.g. not the upper administrators) need to be paid a living wage, need to be given workloads that are sustainable, and need to have incentives to keep them there long term. Most universities have promotion pathways for tenure-track academics but not for all the other types of jobs that administrative positions fill. Universities also have terrible supervisors who don’t treat administrative personnel well. A high percentage of administrative personnel are women or minorities and bias towards them plays a role in how awful they are treated. Much change needs to occur in academia all around, but I implore you to have some empathy for your administrative colleagues. Many are not treated well and tenured academics should join with them to change the system, not blame them for a very broken system that hurts us all.

  4. Michael, glad you liked the term ‘deanlet’ lol! Sadly, I can’t take credit for it. I first heard it from a hilariously grumpy, now happily retired former colleague.

  5. Full Prof, I hear you. I do think there is a promotion structure for staff here, and there have been efforts in that direction in recent years, which include more staff recognition through awards etc. The promotion structure isn’t ideal yet, but we don’t have much turnover, or people do move around but stay at the university. Our folks have excellent health and benefits, which has always been a big draw of the university job. Still, I am sure for many the situation could be better, as you note. But faculty and students have no say in any of that. I understand people are overworked and maybe need to get the frustrations out on someone, but I am sorry, I don’t want to be that someone. There are already enough people whose shit I have to eat with a smile.

    Our department staff are absolutely amazing, every single one of them (OK, all but one, who means well, but is just way too rigid to work with faculty). I make sure I thank them, compliment them on a job well done, give the Christmas gifts; when I get a grant or other good news I treat them to lunch and similar. My problem is that some people (not all, but some) in the college and university grants, purchasing etc. offices are just vicious. For example, for over 10 years, the college grants person associated with our department has been this mean, condescending woman. I thought it was just me she hated, but upon discussing with a couple of colleagues, apparently she’s been awful pretty much to everyone, including our wonderful, patient, and uber-competent department grants person. The folks doing the college grants appear to be decently paid (we’re a public school, so I can check salaries). This year, that woman is still there, but thankfully no longer in charge of our department. Instead, we got a new college liaison and I can’t tell you how much of a fucking relief it’s been. Such a friendly, professional, nice person, and even more competent and with better attention to detail than the grouch. I no longer have to mentally prepare myself before sending an email. The two women are doing the exact same job.

    Some people are kind and courteous and professional no matter what they do or who they interact with. And some people are just dicks.

  6. Full Prof, now with numbers for salaries:
    1. College grant a-hole (from previous comment): $87k
    2. Purchasing a-hole who all but told me to fuck myself about a purchase (from main post): $87k
    3. College excellent, professional replacement of college grant a-hole from 1: $78k
    4. Department excellent, patient, professional grants person who’s been around for ages, longer than any of the others: $78k
    5. Junior-ish department ultrarigid person, who’s not exactly evil but definitely thinks faculty are theirs to scold and police, kind of like inmates in a low-security prison: $73k
    Each one of these folks have been getting raises every year, at least in the last five years as per the database. 
    As I said, some people are kind and courteous and professional, and some people are just dicks no matter what they do or who they interact with or how much they’re paid.

  7. Profdirector: What might be the point of this comparison? It’s like apples to oranges. These folks typically have a Bachelor’s degree and, as per earlier comment, tend to earn high $70k to high $80k. Those who have an MS tend to be supervisors and earn more (for example, the supervisor of the college grants staff mentioned in my previous comment makes $120k). Assistant professors in my department have PhDs in a STEM field pays well outside academia. Starting assistant prof salaries are about $100k.

  8. At my institution (a small PUI in the southwest), the grants, HR, and registrar folks are paid more than the assistant professors in my college (Arts & Sciences). I had wondered if the discrepancy in pay contributed to the administrative staff’s disdain for the faculty.

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