The Phenomenon of Bull$*#% University Jobs



Editor’s note: Picking up on a recent and intriguing trend featured in the Guardian newspaper in the UK, where, as their editors put it, “academics can tell it like it is,” we at the Bulletin thought it would be interesting to provide space for scholars who’d like to give their honest and critical take on the state of academic life as they see it.

There is good reason why the Guardian has a series on anonymous (disgruntled) academics. There is a lot of complaining about the state of universities. Increasingly, universities are modelled on the private sector as senior academics, or those with such aspirations, do their best to be ruthless business people, or act out something like David Graeber’s description of ‘bullshit jobs’. Despite academics routinely proclaiming their hatred of levels of administration and monitoring, administration grows and grows to make sure as much of working life as possible is monitored and every box ticked, irrespective of relevance for day-to-day working. It is far from clear that this has any benefits for students but it continues despite the best efforts of academics. The administrative increase has no doubt contributed to the job (potentially) taking over every day and almost every evening of the week.

The business model also means that leadership and consultation is understood as agreeing with those above you and implementing whatever changes they want. Disagreeing with those above still elicits the morally dubious cliché: resistant to change. To really rub noses in it, there are the annual stories of the most senior academics getting huge salaries and pay increases, accompanied by the argument used to justify paying bankers top salaries: we won’t get the top leaders if we don’t pay them top money! It’s not difficult to understand why there is resentment, especially when some university staff are not even on a living wage. Would it really impoverish the most senior managment if they got, for instance, 300k instead of 400k? Would they actually starve? Would it be a great sacrifice for them to get a pay decrease and drop to a presumably comfortable 150k? Or 50k, which is still well above the national average? The money saved could be put to good use (e.g. contribute to giving certain staff a living wage) in a way that’s more effective than a circular email explaining how all staff are valued.

But the very well-paid position of the most senior academics reflects – perhaps dimly – the position of the standard academic, certainly the more senior standard ones (also well-paid), but their apprentices too. Academics are still part of a system of privilege, academia is tied to state and private power and the results of scholarship largely reflect such interests. And if you went into higher education thinking it was all about imparting your great wisdom to multitudes thirsting for your knowledge, then you really weren’t paying attention.

So what is to be done? There are still victories to be won, no matter how small. Here are some modest suggestions:

  • Avoid management courses as much as possible. They are designed to turn you to the dark side and turning to the dark side will not really accomplish much. Certainly it will make you more money and give you ‘prestige’, as well as make you work more and more hours on administration and pedantry leadership and strategy, give you more stress, teach you to use managementspeak effortlessly, and do the dirty work of those above you by cutting courses and/or staff ‘task you’ with implementing ‘tough decisions’. Always ask for firm evidence if people tell you that becoming a manager is a ‘sacrifice’ worth making or ‘getting your hands dirty’ for the common good. A friend of mine once climbed quite high in the management hierarchy with noble ambitions for developing the humanities before realising that, after years of trying, the one accomplishment they got through was a minor change in student assessment criteria.
  • If you want to progress into management and make more money and prestige, ask yourself why you didn’t or don’t retrain or switch jobs to become a lawyer, business leader or management consultant.
  • You might be very clever, you might think you are an aristocrat-scholar who should be left alone to weave your intellectual magic, people might adore you for your book on divine warrior myths in the Ancient Near East, but you are not above doing boring jobs, even if you think you are and act as if you are. Virtually all committee meetings and administrative jobs are boring and many are pointless but some might help others (e.g. applications for postgraduate funding, tutorials, teaching timetables) and, as things stand, someone has to do these tasks, including you.
  • In fact, if you are an academic on a significant salary, why not job share? You’re rich enough and you can create a job for someone who hasn’t got one. If you really want to write that magnum opus and do less administration, a job share will presumably go some way to providing the answer. Or are you in it for the money, status and prestige?
  • Enjoy those parts of the job that can be enjoyable (e.g. teaching, research leave, seminars) which are probably reflective of the reasons you got into the subject – enjoyment and curiosity. Teaching is typically given up to become ‘more senior’. But you might find that teaching is more fun than attending power breakfasts. You might also find that you help students more by teaching.
  • Try to work collectively. The standard model is to concentrate bits of power in a given manager who will, theoretically, ‘inspire and lead’. Sometimes this person will be a disaster. Often the given person will get their way. But it is more difficult for someone on a power trip in the face of collectively agreed ideas, if only because people then have to be honest and admit that such bureaucracies are not democratic at all. But some victories are possible.
  • If you want to collaborate with colleagues in different subjects, collaborate with colleagues in different subjects. Maybe set up a research seminar or a conference or joint teaching, or just arrange to meet and chat through some ideas. There’s still plenty of autonomy in the job and the university will happily take credit. Writing up a five year strategic plan for more interdisciplinary research with extensive discussions in leading meetings probably won’t make much more difference in terms of research and ideas for all the prestige it may bring you.
  • In fact, there is still enough autonomy in the job to do some interesting things which you can do in place of some of the more boring things. Research ‘impact’ can indeed be a serious problem but it can be used for something worthwhile. Engagement with groups outside universities is now encouraged. There are people interested in research and ideas who may never have had the chance to interact with them to the extent you do. You might – should? – have more fun than a two hour meeting which will probably be no different without you and your witty insights designed to impress the chair or endless loud comments will not be missed that much.
  • The chances are that you will face a bureaucratic wall if you want to do something such as develop a module that crosses disciplines or want to introduce something that might allow more freedom in learning. In that case, why not collaborate with students more? They can get past bureaucratic walls far easier, if only because universities are terrified of students now because they pay huge fees.

No doubt there are plenty of other possibilities. Alternatively you could become a manager or pseudo-business person who is fulfilled by talking tough at meetings, attending as many management committees as possible, and writing an extensive document on Maximising Productivity and Synergies through Interdigitating Targets and Metrics, a document which, at best, has a vague correspondence to reality and which will be binned within two years and replaced with an equally pointless document.

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One Response to The Phenomenon of Bull$*#% University Jobs

  1. The Desire Called Gerry Healy says:

    you might think you are an aristocrat-scholar who should be left alone to weave your intellectual magic
    There’s a lot more to this off hand little comment than many readers of this blog would be comfortable exploring, but this is a thread worth pulling on because it gets to the heart of just why it is considered so objectionable for academics to be answerable to accountants and their ilk, and also why the notion of competitive remuneration is considered so, frankly, sinful in the humanities. I think it also limits the ability to engage in serious policy analysis since too many of even the most stultifyingly leftist academics are stuck with romantic notions of themselves. Faults aside, we should curtsey to Graeber for not pretending otherwise.

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