Image: The Apartment (1960)
Have I become that which I formerly advocated against? Am I now part of the “administrative bloat” that sucks up the university budget and necessitates the underpayment of adjunct faculty? Is my job essential to the function of the college?
Four years ago, when I started the Adjunct Project, one of its primary messages was that institutions were overinvesting in the administrative side of the payroll, and thereby taking money from the people who actually make the university function — i.e., from those who fulfill the university’s most basic mission of teaching students. Many who contributed to the Adjunct Project blog also made the case that the university budget was being unfairly distributed to people who were performing “nonessential” jobs, to the detriment of the classroom teachers.
And there’s pretty good evidence for that argument.
We all know that the majority of faculty are being paid far less than the average administrative employee. While living as one of those underpaid faculty members, I felt as though every time I turned around some new administrative position was being fabricated. And that job usually included a salary and benefits while, across the hallway, we adjunct professors languished in poverty with no sign of advancement. How, I often wondered, could institutions keep expanding the “nonessential” administrative ranks without even considering the possibility of first awarding raises to contingent faculty — the people without whom the university couldn’t function for a single day?
Few would deny that administrative bloat is a real problem. Not just at universities, but in the private sector as well. Once a new position is created, it’s hard to eliminate it down the road. Offices end up rehiring for the same job when it becomes vacant, without re-evaluating whether the position is still needed. That’s how an organization’s payroll gradually gets out of hand, and universities are no exception.
Well, now I hold one of those administrative positions. I don’t doubt there are people who believe, just as I once did, that jobs like mine are a drain on the budget. I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about that occasionally — especially during the lean economic times currently faced by campuses across the country, including in my own state of Kentucky where our new governor has practically chopped off an appendage of the state university allocation. If the new budget passes, the cuts will be so deep that we will likely see a lot more than basic pruning.
Those looming cutbacks have me wondering again about those questions we asked with the Adjunct Project. What jobs are essential to the function of the university? Where should the remaining money be allocated? What does the budgetary distribution say about the priorities of the university?
The answers to such questions are above my pay grade. But I can’t help thinking about them — even in the context of my own position at the university. Will my role be considered essential enough to keep? And more philosophically, should my position exist when some of my colleagues in the classroom are not earning a living wage for their very essential role in the daily operation of the institution that employs us all?
As the manager of our college website, I know it serves many purposes that directly affect the way the college functions. I think that what I do is essential but I still wonder occasionally if I’m doing enough to justify my role within the constraints of a tightening budget.
Professional growth requires stepping back and thinking about the value we provide, even if it means facing some tough questions. This kind of self-reflection is all the more poignant to someone like me who has been a vocal critic of disparate payroll allocation and unfair hiring practices.
Having now been on both sides of the budgetary divide, I have a unique perspective on the work required to make a university function. Clearly, the university couldn’t exist without the teachers. I believe that as staunchly as I always have. But now I also know that the same is true for many of the administrative staff members — though probably not for all.
Student loan debt adds a whole new dimension to this discussion. I’m acutely aware of the fact that every dollar I spend is probably coming from a student who is racking up a crushing bill, and that also concerns me as I ponder my place within the university budget.
So here I am wrestling to reconcile the convictions of my past with the goals of my future. Am I providing real value to the university and to the students who pay my salary? Or am I part of the problem?