PHRASING

Higher Ed administrators are, bluntly, the worst people on Earth. Take everything obnoxious about the MBA and law school types, give them no relevant skills other than self-promotion, pay them exorbitantly, and give them jobs consisting mostly of filling their own time with endless Meetings and Committees. It is a high six-figure "Dig hole, fill hole" job, yet by and large they seem to think they are brilliant and important because, hey, they don't merely work at a university, they're in charge of it. Picture a baby in a car seat using a toy steering wheel to pretend to drive a car. Pay it $250,000 per year and call it Associate Dean of Development, teach it outdated 90s business school jargon, and you've got yourself the perfect administrator.

Sure, some Deans and Presidents and Provosts are great. They're brilliant and have vision. For the most part, though, it is just staggering how ignorant they are as a whole. If you want to learn a lot about which online schools or public university system branch campuses are offering the best deals on tuition and the easiest classes, peruse the CV of the higher ups at any university. Like all people who aren't terribly bright, they're incredibly tone deaf. They don't quite understand why everyone dislikes them so much, being incapable of differentiating between things to say with the Inside and Outside voices.

This Chronicle piece from the always hilarious "Provost Prose" column has made the rounds recently as an example of just how utterly clueless and tone deaf the academic One Percent can be:

My wife and I gave our daughter a choice for her sixteenth birthday. If she wanted, she could have a party or we could go on a family cruise. Deep down I was hoping she would select the cruise but my wife and I were both very careful not to have our choices influence the conversation. I was very pleased when the choice was a cruise but then there was a major surprise. She would like her birthday cruise to be the same islands cruise we took as a family six years ago.
I tried to convince her to select another cruise destination. The 2008 cruise was terrific but there were still so many places for all of us to see that I didn't want to consider a repeat prior to visiting more places for the first time. But since this was my daughter's cruise, we went with her decision.

But there were differences worth noting the second time around. The ship hadn't changed much and the itinerary/tours hardly changed at all but what did change made the experience even more special. The staff seemed noticeably more positive and supportive. Last time, this wasn't a strong point; this time it helped enhance the experience. And the food was also noticeably better, both the buffet style food as well as the specialty restaurants. There was even one outstanding chocolate dessert which always resonates well with me. The entertainment was also more substantial. Overall, even though so much remained the same, the changes noticeably enriched the experience.

In the cruising business as well as in higher education and almost all other businesses, it is often the little touches that make the difference between an OK or good experience and a memorable experience. The overall experience matters most but customer satisfaction is often determined at the margin. Small changes can make meaningful differences. Some of these changes cost money, others are cost neutral. For those of us in higher education, even when our programs are strong it is worth the extra time and effort to see what can be strengthened.

Where to start.

Perhaps, as we approach the tenth birthday of the era of furloughs and frozen salaries, it is not the best idea to write a column about how as the Provost you give your brat teenager birthday gifts that cost many thousands of dollars. When the faculty and staff have gone six years without a raise (or are getting their 0.5% annual pittance increase) and tuition goes up 5-10% every year, you might think twice about advertising your own largesse. If you were smart. Instead of a Monty Python parody of an Upper Class Twit.

Additionally, even if well meaning, perhaps a pleasure cruise is not the best metaphor for the college educational experience. We're supposed to want them to learn something, right? Not merely to be entertained? But…

…administrators really do buy the "Student as Customer" "business model" for higher education. The student pays (more accurately, either the student loan programs or the Bank of Daddy pays) and we are supposed to fawning serve them not unlike dining hall staff on one of Carnival's pestilent shit-barges. Is everyone here having enough fun? What can I do to make your college experience more fun, Allyssonn?

If you want to know everything that is wrong with higher education without having to do copious research, just bookmark this page and remind yourself that people like this are running it.

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45 Responses to “PHRASING”

  1. bad Jim Says:

    Strongly disagree. Going to college is just like taking an ocean cruise. My first year at Berkeley was like The Raft of the Medusa.

    Sadly, later years were less eventful; while there were still riots every spring, we never got another helicopter spraying tear gas or the National Guard rounding everyone up downtown.

  2. Xynzee Says:

    I'm absolutely astounded! How on Earth were you able to find an article that touched on three of your least favourite things? Douche bag administrator, cruises and devaluing of the purpose of higher education? You should go buy a lottery ticket after hitting that trifecta. Far freakin' out!

    I won't be surprised if I read about a poli-sci lecturer going postal in the near future.
    Actually, please don't. I'm one of your tragics who looks forward to reading your blog.

    I can imagine this guy sitting on the lido deck thinking, "Zip lines. What we need are more zip lines. That ought to increase enrolment. Bonus! Come to papa!"

  3. Anonymouse Says:

    Wow, I'm sending out the URL to this article to my co-workers. We're not in academia, but the mentality is exactly the same. Nobody in my company has had a raise in 4 years, and we dealt with furloughs last fall that cut our salaries further (not the workload, though, never that!), yet the owner of the company took five cruises this past year, including the latest where it wasn't just him and his wife and child, but also his parents and the wife's kids from a previous marriage and their spouses. They also saw several Broadway plays (a really long day trip, but most likely an over-nighter in NYC) and flew into Boston to catch the Red Sox playing our local team. He's also got season tickets to our football team. The last time I spoke with his wife, she whined to me about the skyrocketing cost of designer shoes. In just a couple of weeks, we're all expected at his beach house (tank of gas, bridge tolls, most of the day spent traveling back and forth) so they can show off their upgraded home theater. It's like we're from different planets.

  4. Major Kong Says:

    Pay it $250,000 per year and call it Associate Dean of Development

    Sigh. I must have picked the wrong line on Career Day.

  5. anotherbozo Says:

    @ bad Jim: I'm curious when you went to Berkeley. I'm class of '64 and avoided what demonstrations there were to enjoy some brilliant people for $60 a semester (even as I was terrified, being on my own for the first time in my life).

    This is Ed at his most hilarious and devastating. Or hilariously devastating. "dig hole, fill hole….Picture a baby in a car seat using a toy steering wheel to pretend to drive a car." But mostly he lets the fellow hang himself. There may or may not have been overpaid, administrative fat at Berkeley, but there sure as hell was at the institutions I went on to serve for 40+ years as a threadbare professor.

    Hope this column makes it around to a few campus newspapers, though it might be a bit much to hope it goes viral.

  6. Major Kong Says:

    From what I'm told UC Berkeley is an excellent school.

    One of my right-wing coworkers was telling me how his daughter wanted to attend UC Berkeley but he didn't want to send her there. I guess in his mind, because some hippies burned a flag there in 1970, that makes it a hotbed of Communism in the year 2014.

    This is what I have to put up with at work.

  7. bb in GA Says:

    @major

    What is this 'at work' you speak of …?

    College administrators have changed not one iota in the 50 years or so I have been ASSociated with them…

    They will occupy that last ring in the Inferno next to where Judas is stuck in Satan's mouth…

    //bb

  8. c u n d gulag Says:

    bb,
    They may not have changed, but there are far more Administrators than there were decades ago.

    When I went to what was then a relatively small private college from '76 to '81, I could go and talk to my Dean pretty much whenever I wanted to.

    Fast-forward 13 years later, when I became an Adjunct there, there were now an addition layer or two of Administrators between the students and their Dean.

    I went to a reunion a few years ago, and saw a few of my old Professors, and they told me that now, there were even more layers of Administrators.

    And when you looked in the parking lot when I was a student, the nice cars belonged to the Deans and Professors.
    Now, the nicer and newer cars are the students, the Deans, and the Administrators – the Professors all drive old cars.

    Shit's all fucked-up, and shit…

  9. Sarah Says:

    administrators really do buy the "Student as Customer" "business model" for higher education. […] and we are supposed to fawning serve them not unlike dining hall staff on one of Carnival's pestilent shit-barges.

    I completed two associate degrees (an Associate in Arts and an Associate in Science) simultaneously at a local state college which has several campuses and, according to their promotional materials, serves up to 60,000 students at any one time. Their promotional materials include various emphases on how the school exists solely for the students, the students are number 1, the students should expect to have all their needs met, et cetera. I thought that this was all meaningless feel-good marketing that wasn't supposed to be taken literally until I heard one professor complaining about how she felt put-upon by students (some of whom weren't even her students!) who wanted hand-holding up to and including having their work done for them. During my last semester before graduation I was sitting out in a hall waiting for class to start, just sitting there reading and sipping my coffee, when a student stormed angrily out of a classroom down the hall, stomping and door-slamming, with a professor behind her wanting to find out what was the problem. She turned on him furiously and proceeded to throw a screaming fit at him, berating him about how he was patronizing her in class (I kind of got the impression she expected him to kiss her ass? I don't know). That was embarrassing to watch, and I actually gathered up my things on the pretense of going to use the bathroom and scuttled out of there. The professor and the student were both gone when I got back.

  10. Graham Says:

    Well, universities sound like they are run exactly the same as every other medium-sized company. Badly, and top-heavy.

  11. Benny Lava Says:

    "If you want to know everything that is wrong with higher education without having to do copious research, just bookmark this page and remind yourself that people like this are running it."

    I will. Thank you.

  12. Dave Dell Says:

    Schools as business… Similarly to most major corporations, government bureaus, mega-churches, fake non-profits, and real non-profits the bloat is in the administrative staff. In 1984 my wife started at the local major land-grant university college of business as a 3/4 time budget clerk. They had a Dean and an assistant Dean a Secretary/Receptionist and my wife supplemented by student workers. There is now a Dean and 3 assistant/associate Deans and a staff of dozens. Since it is the College of Business there are special programs each with a staff equivalent of an Associate Dean and support staff. All these people make inordinate amounts of money. Additionally, since it is the College of Business they charge extra per credit hour some of which is retained by the CBA and some of which is passed into the overall University budget.

    Administrative overhead. High paid administrative overhead. I will say that the CBA does pay its adjunct faculty in the 50 to 70 K range. Don't know about the grad students that instruct.

  13. Anderson Says:

    "Running X like a business" means ripping off as many customers and workers as possible to inflate the salaries of the CEO and his flunkies, preferably while spending taxpayer money as well via subsidies and fed contracts.

  14. Misterben Says:

    I work for a relatively small company. Anyone on the executive team has a net worth somewhere around 200 times that of even the highest-paid regular employee. No raises in years, natch.

  15. Davis X. Machina Says:

    Those core competencies don't leverage themselves, people.

  16. Middle Seaman Says:

    Right, many of the people running higher education are certified mean morons. Been at same uni for 30 years and saw many dozens of them. There are noticeable exceptions and they do make a difference.

    Making students' life better, e.g. support when they run into trouble, happens to be on the retail level. We faculty have to do it. A prof may be a great scholar but still be quite stupid. Actually many of them are. They also think that helping students isn't part of their job description.

    At my undergraduate school we used to say: the uni consist of 3 communities, students, faculty and administration. Faculty hates administration. Administration hates faculty. And faculty and administration hate the students.

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  18. cat Says:

    I would feel sorry for their child being raised by such a narcissist, but then its really to late and they've probably screwed their child up. Well, screwed in the sense 90% of the population will hate them. They'll probably land a 6 figure job via their parents connections and the access to educational resources the rest of would be jealous off.

  19. charluckles Says:

    "It is a high six-figure "Dig hole, fill hole" job."

    Knocked that out of the park.

    I arrived early enough for a meeting with several administrators the other day that I was treated to a wonderful conversation between a small group of people collectively earning close to a million dollars per year in compensation. The gist, complaints about how set their schedule was and that they didn't have any open time during the day. I am over here busting my ass every day so that my kid can have decent health care and my family can eat, and you guys are going to complain about pulling down $200,000 per year to sit in meetings and twiddle your thumbs? Dig hole, fill hole. Could not have said it better.

  20. D.N. Nation Says:

    "it is often the little touches that make the difference between an OK or good experience and a memorable experience. The overall experience matters most but customer satisfaction is often determined at the margin."

    This brilliant train of thought is found in mission statements, rebranding guides, pep talks, employee guides, etc., etc., the world over. This is not a new thought, nor is it an intriguing one. "Do what you can to make the experience better at all points." No shit. That'll be a seven-figure salary, then?

  21. quixote Says:

    We have some kind of social metastatic cancer. The same problem of resource-hogging proliferating nonfunctional jerks is everywhere. The immune system to hold them in check doesn't seem to exist. All we can do is look on in horror as new sores ulcerate all over.

    As the old Russian joke says, the realist hopes the aliens will land and solve our problems. The dreamers think we can get our act together and do it ourselves.

  22. Major Kong Says:

    @bb

    I'm an airline pilot. Night freight actually.

    Our crew force demographically tends to be white, male, middle-aged, ex-military, southern and upper-middle-class. As you can imagine they tend to be a right-wing bunch on average.

    I generally try to avoid political discussions at work but some of these folks just can't let it go.

    Actual statement from a Captain I was paired with:

    "The economy won't improve until someone assassinates Obama"

    My response was:

    "Dave, what made you think that I'd agree with you or that I wanted to hear that in first place?"

  23. Graham Says:

    Jeez, major Kong, and I thought I worked with some pretty shitty people.

  24. bill Says:

    Just read first sentence…. no, tech execs are the worst. I'll go finish now…

  25. Bitter Scribe Says:

    Major: UC Berkeley is an outstanding school, and I say that as a Stanford grad who was carefully trained to see them as the enemy. Your co-worker is an idiot.

    And Ed, I'm curious…how do you get away with writing stuff like this? Are your bosses not aware of your blog, or do you have tenure and not have to worry about recriminations?

  26. Alan C Says:

    quixote Says:
    We have some kind of social metastatic cancer. The same problem of resource-hogging proliferating nonfunctional jerks is everywhere.

    We've always had them. They used to be called nobility. Now they're called administrators.

  27. Sarah Says:

    We have some kind of social metastatic cancer. The same problem of resource-hogging proliferating nonfunctional jerks is everywhere. The immune system to hold them in check doesn't seem to exist.

    We actually did have those. It was a combination of union membership, minimum wage laws, wage and hour laws, various forms of anti-discrimination measures, and the social safety net, as well as public education. All of which were intended to ensure that the little guy didn't get fucked over–or to the extent that he or she did, that the effects were mitigated. The Powers that Be convinced us that we could each achieve our own anti-fucked-over measures on our own, as individuals, and the hell with society and solidarity.

  28. Woz Says:

    Fantastic piece, but I have to admit the best part was your hypothetical college student being named "Allyssonn." Too perfect.

  29. gene108 Says:

    @DN Nation

    Mission Statements, vision statements, etc. have been badly abused by folks, with nothing better to do.

    At their core, they are essential to any organization. An organization needs some sort of goal to work towards, a mission if you will, otherwise you have a bunch of folks doing their own thing and hoping for the best.

    I think that as the mess of health care access and cost begin to be addressed, the mess of rising higher education costs will be the next great challenge for America to deal with.

    Just like the health care sector was getting into a death spiral, with increasing costs and less affordable access, I think higher ed. will be hitting that point, where change has to come, in order for higher ed. to survive in the long run.

  30. Rich Says:

    Deans and Associate Deans are among the worst but any administrator with Associate anything in their title is going to be a thoroughgoing tool.

    Yeas ago after my dissertation defense, an Associate Dean for my grad school called me and told me that my letter quality print version of the diss was non-compliant (it was on the right paper, in the right font and with the right margins, and by this time letter quality looked better than type). he threatened to hold up award of my PhD which was a condition of the employment I was about to start in a couple weeks (I needed the PhD to qualify as graduate faculty and w/o it, I wouldn't be able to teach the course assignments I was trying to prepare). We somehow worked it out so that I could submit with some sort of better letter quality print–I forget the compromise, but it struck me that he should have better things to do than make a long distance call (these were still being metered in academic departments–they quit doing this somewhere in the 90s in most places) to make an empty threat. Clearly he didn't have a real job and whatever power insecurities he had were taken out on grad students. I was furious and having gone through all of my hoops, i refused to be intimidated by this guy.

    Needless to say, I have been wary of the potential "toolness" when I subsequently met Deans on the job market. having left the academic world, I still occasionally meet academic administrators and deal with their non-academic toolish counterparts.

  31. Xynzee Says:

    @Major: because countries that have random political assassinations have such flourishing stable economies…

    I'd almost be tempted to make a phone call about such a tool.

    Pity the planet isn't under threat from a "space goat".

  32. Anon Says:

    Ed, I've been meaning to ask you this for a long time, but never had an appropriate thread in which to do so:

    What do you think of Bloom's Taxonomy in particular, and of educationism(?) in general?

  33. Csicopper Says:

    This person is in charge of something?

    Unreal.

  34. bad Jim Says:

    I'm class of 72, so in my freshman year we had tear gas all through the winter quarter (TWLF strike) and the People's Park riot in the spring. The subsequent spring disturbances weren't up to the same standard, but they were there.

    Not that I'm complaining; it was an exciting time and place. There were so many bookstores back then! Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues now are shadows of their former selves; the happening retail district is what, 9th Street? and the stores are the same ones you'd find anywhere, which is increasingly the case worldwide. Sigh. I am old.

    It was and is one of the best universities in the world. It was a lot less expensive back then. I treasure my diploma, signed by Ronald Reagan.

  35. Ed Says:

    @Bitter Scribe: The secret is not giving a fuck.

  36. Karon Says:

    Ed, I love your site – you had me at my two favorites – Gin and Tacos.

    I started reading this and thought that we were also discussing Human Resources. I had to do this for an employer. Paid my own way in certification, and couldn't drop it soon enough. Talk about justifying your own existence. A thoroughly wide spread phenomenon.

    Keep preaching to the choir – I LOVE it!

  37. Tim R. Mortiss Says:

    Just read a story in the Boston Herald about all the raises
    handed out to the administrators of the flailing state healthcare exchange
    (yes, there was a 'Deputy Director of Media Relations' among the titles)
    I join with other commenters in suggesting that this is some sort of
    general symptom. I think it is a corollary of the law of economics which
    states that 'people who set their own salaries generally make more
    money than people whose salaries are set by others'.

  38. Ursula Says:

    @Sarah, don't forget the high marginal tax rate, which did prevent people from making money the way they're making it now – by squeezing the rest of us for every last bit.

  39. bb in GA Says:

    @major

    Looks like the college admins are going to have make some room in the Inferno for you airline captain 'ass-ociates.'

    I disagree with Mr Obama because all of us right-of-center types are racist /sarc off , but political assassination talk is just evil if you want to continue with our political system in some recognizable form.

    //bb

  40. Nanjosf Says:

    "Take everything obnoxious about the MBA and law school types, give them no relevant skills other than self-promotion, pay them exorbitantly, and give them jobs consisting mostly of filling their own time with endless Meetings and Committees. It is a high six-figure "Dig hole, fill hole" job, yet by and large they seem to think they are brilliant and important because, hey, they don't merely work at a university, they're in charge of it."

    True Ed. And some wonder why that MBA doesn't open the door they were promised. Oh yes I've seen that as well in my business and the opposite as well. The arrogance is palpitating – and we ignore them, happily.

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  42. Pat Says:

    I realize you're making a serious point, and all, but….

    man am I now pissed you didn't start this blog under the name "Higher Ed." Or even "Higher Ed Ed."

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