Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Administrative Self-importance Syndrome (ASS)

It's 7:00 p.m. on a Thursday. You're still at the office, at your administrative post—been there since 8:00 a.m. Everyone else is gone, and good riddance, too, as now you can finally get some work done, as they aren't coming to you one after another, students, faculty, and staff,  with their problems, their complaints, and their chit-chat. They can live their lives, do their own research, if that's what moves them, though you doubt many are working on that just now as you toil away in the darkened building, seeing to the University's business.

Congratulations, you've got Administrative Self-importance Syndrome (ASS).

Stage One  signs of ASS include:
  • Faculty and students assume you are doing important things, and so either butter you up (when they want something) or believe you are screwing them over (most of the time--especially faculty). They can't all be wrong, can they?
  • You get a certain frisson from being at the table where other people with ASS discuss Big Issues, normally impending doom, while faculty are probably on Facebook and students are doing whatever students do these days. The people at the table sound important, and think they're important, and you're there, so you're important too.
In Stage Two ASS you recognize that as efficient and visionary as you are, there's only so much you can do. Even you need help. Civil Service staff can be great, but paying people $18,000 a year with no chance of promotion doesn't exactly guarantee you'll get the cream of the crop. So you figure out a way to hire a Associate-You, who makes a decent salary. Behold: A "Professional Non-Faculty" position is born. And your mini-me needs support staff too--that's only fair.

In Stage Three ASS you have a Big Idea that will promote Student Success. To promote it you and your minions work even harder than you had previously. But there are limits. So eventually you set up a separate administrative fiefdom, graciously handing over those duties to another administrator and their support staff. You have a legacy.

Recovery from this condition isn't easy. Experto crede. You may notice that  you are writing lots of reports no one ever reads,* and taking part in lots of initiatives that never initiate anything. Well, not everyone is as good administrator as you are: some things fall between the cracks. So the only way to really recover is to go cold turkey. Something crazy happens--maybe you get sick, maybe you rediscover you have a family--and you take some time off without spending half of it on email. You come back and no one seems to notice that you haven't been doing your job for the last two weeks. You take two hours to go through your in-box, but most of the problems there have resolved themselves during your absence. In two hours you make up two weeks of work. At this point you risk suffering from an identity crisis, unless you quickly plunge into today's absolutely essential business.

This is, in case you're wondering, somewhat satirical. But I'm trying to capture two real facets of university administrative life: most administrators do work very hard, yet it's very hard to see what most of them are accomplishing. Some administrative work is absolutely necessary, including forms of routine drudgery that nevertheless require someone with experience and a PhD to ensure they don't blow up into a crisis. And there are, on occasion, real crises that require administrative intervention. Some administrators do make a difference for the good, and others for the bad.

But it's awfully hard to evaluate administrators or, more important still, the need for administrative posts. There's no peer review like that we get for research. Of course reputations spread, fairly reliably; faculty and other administrators will have a view of which chairs, which deans, and which vice-provosts are worth a damn. But those views don't correlate very well with who succeeds in an administrative career. We don't even have something as reliable as student evaluations for administrators.

So there's fertile ground for a vicious cycle. Most administrators work quite hard. It's very difficult to judge the importance of their work, so they judge it by the effort they put in. And administrators do have some power--not a ton of power, but some power. So they put resources where they see effort being made, administration. Then those new administrators get to work, and see how hard they are working, and . . .

I'm not saying this is the whole story. The NY Times had an article just today on the millions of dollars some universities are spending on administrative support to deal with sexual crimes and misdemeanors. And there are lots of other external forces on universities, forces driving administrative growth: assessment, performance based funding, etc. But I suspect that ASS--really just hardworking people thinking what they do matters, despite the lack of clear evidence to that effect--produces more than its fair share of administrative bloat, as well as a good deal of the defensiveness among administrators when someone dares to say "administrative bloat".


*Note to self: there just may be some overlap with blogging here.


  1. As they have thought for decades, students are really coming here because of the quality of the administrators, not faculty or programs!

  2. You forgot an important stage: start a pilot program that requires extra work from faculty and grad students, including a study of whether the pilot program is working. Then you can put on your cv that you created an initiative. One that worked. Doesn't mean you're going to fund it, silly! You'll just create another pilot program which depends on the hard work of faculty and grad students. Then you'll have two initiatives to claim!


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