They've Got Us Outnumbered

March 14, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Full-time jobs in higher education:
  • Faculty - 48.6%
  • Administrators - 51.4%
The data are from the National Center for Education Statistics (part of the Department of Education) and are reported at Inside Higher Ed.

They’ve been gaining on us for a long time, but this year they’ve finally overtaken us. In part, it’s because Parkinson’s law* leads to the mitosis of administrative positions. But the other part is the key term “full-time.” Universities increasingly rely on adjunct faculty – part-timers who get paid piecework to teach one or two courses. In my own department, there have been several semesters when over 40% of our courses were taught by adjuncts.

It’s a great system. The adjuncts are usually good teachers – often better than the full-timers. Teaching is the core of their work, they do a lot of it, and because they teach at so many different schools, they have a diversity of experience that’s an asset in the classroom.

It’s good for the university too. It allows the administration to maintain “flexibility.” And most important, it saves a bundle of money. Hence the preponderance of administrators over faculty.

Still, most of us want to retain the fantasy of colleges and universities as institutions of higher learning, not higher administration (or, as with the superendowed elite schools, institutions of higher financial exploits).

I think I have the solution: adjunct administrators.

Instead of hiring another Vice-president for Administrative Organization or another Dean of Organizational Administration, hire part-timers. Low salary, no benefits, no long-term commitment.

I’m a department chair, and at least half of what I do in that role could be done by an adjunct – signing forms that I don’t read, writing recommendations that say nothing, nodding sympathetically while listening to complaints from students. Administrators higher up the line do these same things. I know because I see the lines for their signatures on the same forms and recommendations.

I’m not saying fire anyone. But the next time an administrator or two retires, give the real half of their work to one person, and hire adjuncts to do the other half. After all, the two most important areas in the university – computer tech support and parking – are already staffed mostly by part-time hourly employees, often students. And they generally do a good job. Well, maybe not the parking.

* “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

“An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.”
“Officials make work for each other.”
The total of those employed inside a bureaucracy rises by 5-7% per year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.”


Brad Wright said...

What a great idea! Probably too rational, though, to be adopted by administrators.

christopher uggen said...

nice post, jay. i think we'd do well to consider more project-based administrators. for some projects, a three- to five-year window is all that is needed to ramp up and wind down big initiatives.