Friday, October 15, 2010

Administrator-Scholars: Do They Have a Future in the Academy?

So I was reading the Chronicle of Higher Ed this morning and noticed the great article by Donna M. Bickford and Anne Mitchell Whisnant, "Building a Corps of Administrator-Scholars." [See:]

Bickford and Whisnant, both of whom are administrators and adjunct faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, begin by noting that more and more humanities Ph.D.s are assuming a wide variety of full-time administrative roles in the academy while continuing to research, write, public speak, teach and publish on the side. The significant academic efforts of these mostly female "administrator-scholars," however, remain largely unrecognized and unrewarded by academe. What Bickford and Whisnant would like to see is the creation of a formal system designed to recognize and promote the unique contributions of administrators with Ph.D.s., particularly those who remain active in their respective fields of expertise.

 "We've presented a proposal [at UNC] to design a system of options and policies that would better support and recognize the contributions of nonfaculty administrators with Ph.D.'s who occupy an often awkward in-between space in the academic hierarchy. Already in academe, people are talking about alternate academic careers for Ph.D.'s. But the promise of those careers won't be fulfilled without systemic change. Universities must create formal structures to assist our growing cohort in pursuing scholarly research and teaching while continuing to develop administrative skills and talents," they argue.

I think this is a fabulous idea, and one which might make academic administration much more desirable as an alternate career for talented Ph.D.s interested in the non-teaching aspects of academe. But the slew of comments following the article are reflective of the continuing, stereotypical bifurcation of the academy into administrator/supportive-drone types versus faculty/knowledge-disseminators.

"The mission of the academy is to discover and disseminate knowledge. Everything else is support. The faculty complete the mission and the staff (administrators) provide the support. This piece sounds like a backdoor into the mission end of the academy," argues one critic. But wait, responds another, your attitude simply "perpetuates a class-based version of academia where the faculty are the elite, and the staff are their servants." Yet another critic calls foul on both the aims of the article and the assumption that administrators can, and should, assume more faculty-esque smart-people tasks: "It has nothing to do with being a servant or being elite. The university has certain tasks that need to be done. You were hired to do those important tasks. If you are busy doing the work of a faculty member, than who will be doing the administrative work? Will we have to hire yet another administrator-scholar to do the work for which you were hired?" Certain tasks are reserved for certain folks; end of story.

Apparently you cannot work in a "support" role at a university and simultaneously engage in, and be rewarded for completing, some of the tasks of a faculty member, otherwise there will be no one around doing your critical admin role, whatever that may be. Holding down the fort, answering phones, filing paperwork, typing, talking to students. You know, supporting stuff. To use a sports analogy, faculty members are like the boxers, who go out, take a beating in the ring and capture the crowd's attention; administrators are like the lackeys on the sidelines, squirting water in the boxers' mouths, wiping them down, smacking them on the ass, providing moral and sometimes physical support. The administrator-lackeys might dream about being in the ring, beating someone to a pulp, reveling in a bit of glory, but who, then, would clean their mouth guard or rub their muscles after the fight? No one, thats who.

Don't mess with me; I've got a mission.
So is there really a future for so-called administrator-scholars in academe? Is the academy really ready for them? Or will the old, time-honored adage remain true?

Administration and faculty, never the twain shall meet.
(At least not in the ring.)


Corinne said...

You should see some of the more recent CHE comments. There really is a deeply held perception that admin and faculty should not cross paths or perform similar tasks. Contributing to the university, in whatever form, should be reward enough. Oh, how sweet!

WorstProfEver said...

Thanks for reporting on what the Chronic's doing - I honestly can't bear to read it anymore.

It's really unfortunate to see people so divided, because I think teacher/administrator is a much more sane job description than teacher/scholar. Screw the research -- if people need to see evidence that teachers are doing something useful in all their luxurious "free" time, why shouldn't it be support-type stuff? I've met some very happy people who have teacher/admin gigs -- though (surprise surprise) they're still paid a pittance if they're called lecturer and way too much if they get the title of dean/director etc. Bifurcation, you betcha.

Eliza Woolf said...

I agree! The division between admin/faculty is unfortunate and even when a possible remedy is proposed, people poo-poo it. What a shame. I also think the gender issue here is quite interesting. It's mostly women with PhDs who've taken the admin path and are still hoping to keep their big toes in the academic puddle. But die-hard academics don't appreciate interlopers, as a rule, and other admin types don't appreciate colleagues who have faculty-style aspirations.
It reminds me of the spousal hire battle: "You chose to love another academic, dumb ass. So suffer the consequences, buck up, and run, don't walk, your application to Target! No one cares about your plight!!"

WorstProfEver said...

Oh, don't even get me started on the women in academia issue! Three people I know independently came to the conclusion that academic is the new school teacher -- i.e. ridiculously low pay for too much work, social "respect" without actual status, and therefore destined to become 90% female. This is one reason I'm so adamant about moving into a field where I can make some money, darn it. Economic empowerment, here we come!

Eliza Woolf said...

Good point. If you look at English faculty salaries in particular, they're already the lowest in academe. (Other than history.) And English departments everywhere are well known for being the domain of women. The vast majority of higher ed staff positions are also filled by women, which is why I am always surprised to hear that a PhD became an administrator and actually made a good salary, without taking the traditional (faculty first) route. And then there is the world of publishing: chock hull of women and some of lowest salaries in the world. The list goes on . . .

Female PhD Job Seeker said...

@ Worstprofever & Eliza Woolf. I've had contacts in the corporate world tell me that positions that are part-time, contractual, and/or low-paid (like freelance writing, proofreading, and editing gigs)are almost universally dominated by women.

For this reason, I've avoided adjunct teaching, library work, crappy tenure-track jobs, publishing jobs, low-level admin jobs, and high school teaching. Instead, I'm searching for a field/career track that will actually compensate me well for my efforts.

Needless to say, as a humanities PhD I'm still searching.

WorstProfEver said...

@FPJS, best of luck to you, and good for you just saying NO to exploitative jobs.

I used to be a non-capitalist feminist, but after observing what you've mentioned, I decided that didn't work. Now moving towards tech, which is a growing and lucrative field -- money first, history and writing best kept as a hobby.

@EW and @FPJS: Here's hoping that a few years from now drinking some expensive booze, arm-wrestling over which humanity is the least sellable (seriously, man, try saying "Classics" to anyone and watch their expression) and moving more female PhDs along the Underground.

Till then, back to my resumes/website. (What, me procrastinate?)

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I get very uncomfortable in a lot of conversations about the feminization of certain disciplines or kinds of work, because no matter how concerned or serious or feminist the commentator, they might as well just be saying "cootiefication." Feminization is represented as terminal, unlike male-domination in fields: once a field is female-dominated, pay and status drop through the floor and everyone who does it is constantly, and not directly, made to feel bad about contributing to the situation by being another female teacher, another female professional writer, another female administrator. Get enough women together in a field and they just screw each other over, the narrative goes. But it's also irreversible -- shifts in gender balance only go one way*. The ideal position for a woman is to be incredibly talented, driven, and successful in a prestigious male-dominated field; the ideal position for a man is the same. Unfortunately, the numbers won't let everyone do this, but they'll accommodate a hell of a lot more men than women.

But I'm awed by how well trained some of us are to flee the hordes of underpaid women, wash ourselves thoroughly, WORK OUT WORK OUT WORK OUT WORK OUT until our bodies are hard as glass, and go off in search of that noble, open frontier for the special women who haven't been professionally "feminized" yet -- which is to say, a job that pays enough to let you make your own decisions for decades. But it's not just pay. It's the helplessness imputed to the women in female-dominated fields: if the field is majority-female, clearly there's no power, no leadership, and no connection to the realms of real power and leadership without a designated, identifiable Liaison to Masculinity. Better to be a Liaison to Masculinity! Quick, do it before a bunch of other girls get there and make it all icky.

* This is famously not true with computers, I think, and I'm sure there are other exceptions. But I'm trying to describe the workings of a fantasy, and I'm pretty sure it's not solely my fantasy.

Eliza Woolf said...

Thanks, anonymous, for your thoughtful comment on the so-called "feminization" of certain professional fields. I can definitely see your point that it's a slippery slope argument: if we keep advising one another to flee female-dominated industries (like education, nursing, and library work) in order to make more $ and have more independence and professional respect, eventually there will be nowhere left to go. It's only a matter of time before women start flooding, and perhaps even dominating, nearly every professional field. (Which would be great, of course.)

At that point there won't really beed as much of a need to worry about feminizied fields. But in the meantime I do think, at least for me, that knowing certain jobs pay less or carry less professional weight b/c they are associated primarily with "expendable" women is a major turn off. I don't want women to be viewed this way, and I absolutely don't want to start off on another career path with limited financial prospects, but I'm not sure what the solution is exactly. Seems like something to be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on where one's passions truly lie.

Caitlin said...

Eliza, love the blog. I find it very sustaining.
I've been thinking about Anonymous's comment a lot recently, and what I find I object to most in it is precisely what I once objected to about cultural studies in general: the near-exclusive analysis of surface-level "representations" rather than material conditions.
Unless I'm very much mistaken, the argument for leaving traditionally feminine fields isn't because they're "icky" or have been "cootified" (to borrow your words) but because they don't pay. Period.
My guess is that most of us are perfectly willing to do something "icky" and girly if it paid well. I certainly would.

Eliza Woolf said...

Thanks, Caitlin! I agree with you, I'd be more than happy to work in an "icky" field if it paid well. Wouldn't bother me in the least. I would love to work as an editor for a commercial or academic press, for example, but am turned off by the very low salaries. If I was still 22, the salaries or the gender issue probably wouldn't bother me that much. But as a 30-something with a PhD, debt, and a family to support, I know find myself weighing my options more carefully. Thankfully there are people like Anne W. out there fighting the fight for the rest of us!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous here -- I'm pleasantly surprised to get responses to that bitter comment (I thought it was well after the blog-post expiration date). It's funny -- I think if I'd come across it, it would have pissed me off too. Not only do I agree that this is all about pay, and needing more of it, but I'm doing pretty much everything I criticized (except working out, ugh). We don't have real choices in the matter -- that is, living out "cultural studies bullshit" isn't a real choice. I totally agree. It just makes me bitter that there's seemingly no hope for collective action, and that for now seeking to enter fields that are still majority-male remains such a good strategy for boosting your income. But as long as feminization = devaluation, I fear that this strategy is going to keep failing in the long run.

I guess nursing is an interesting counterexample, though, of a field that has managed to gain in prestige and average salary over the past half-century or more. So maybe there's hope. Anyway, best of luck to all of you -- I think you're doing the right thing. It just depresses and worries me that this is the right thing.