Rhetoric of Academic Administrators

As university budgets across North America contract, expect your local administrators — President, Provost, Dean, and even the occasional Chair — to revert to verbiage worthy of feral children, and to protect their own interests and jobs first, while sacrificing others in the name of (to use the appropriate student vernacular here) whatever.  We can start low and then look high, but it is all beslobbered with reactionary childishness that wants to look like thoughtfulness.

Daumier, "Third Class Coach"

Daumier, "Third Class Coach"

The low sample surfaced locally, a nearby Provost quoted in U.S. News about how beneficial it can be to unbother oneself about hiring people full-time with benefits, and to turn instead to adjunct faculty who can be paid precious little ($2,000 US per course in many instances at the Provost’s home institution), and the adjuncts receive no health benefits.  In the highlighted quotation, adjuncts in Nursing receive apparently $3,000 per course. Must be so-called market forces at work that raise those adjuncts’ salaries 33% higher than the salaries of their colleagues in the humanities.  At $2,000 US per course, an adjunct in the non-Nursing sector who is considered full-time could make over the course of two semesters (considered a full year in academic life, since summer teaching is under a separate budget), $16,000, a full $2,000+ below a living wage.  Texas Woman’s University has its second task force underway to address the matter of inadequate compensation for adjunct faculty members, but the current task force has been told by the person quoted in U.S. News not to expect any extra funding for adjuncts, but to look toward giving adjunct faculty members other forms of alleged compensation, such as improving their working conditions by offering access to computers and offices, as if those are amenities.  Provost Clayton has not expressed a wish to give up any of her own salary to ameliorate the problem.

Texas Woman’s University Provost Kay Clayton says raising the share of part-time faculty about 4 percentage points to 44 percent in the past five years might be helping her students. For instance, by hiring moonlighting nurses for about $3,000 per course to teach some nursing classes, the school helped keep this year’s tuition at $6,500 a year and, Clayton says, provided better teachers. “That is a real benefit to the students, because they are practitioners and bring in a wealth of experience,” she says.

What are those benefits to students whose instructors are nurses trying to make ends meet by teaching classes in their spare time from their full-time jobs as nurses, in the hours after a hard day’s work tending to patients?  Doubtless those instructors will be at their peak performance during the “moonlighting” hours.  Remember that the tuition for courses taught by moonlighters is exactly the same as that taught by full-time faculty making living wages with benefits, and whose career choice was to teach the students.  It is their profession, not a secondary job to which they bring a “wealth of experience” from another job.  One reason it is currently difficult to find Nursing faculty to cover all the Nursing courses is that academic salaries cannot compete with what nurses can achieve financially at hospitals and elsewhere.  In many cases at universities, it’s all about the Benjamins.

blood3The high example (though low in other senses) comes our way from Yale University.  President Richard Levin sent a holiday message to all employees at Yale in December.  The letter houses a cornucopia of rhetorical devices used by academic administrators, the best of which falls under the category of sigetics, the rhetoric of silence, a strategy that allows David Swensen and his colleagues in the Yale Investments Office to keep their jobs and this year’s bonuses, even though they are directly responsible for Yale having lost about one-quarter of its endowment. Imagine losing $4 billion of your company’s money and not only maintaining your job, but also being rewarded for the actions that precipitated those losses.  Still, someone must pay, and President Levin’s Dear John letter goes out to the people who will be abandoned financially.  Here’s the item, far down in the letter, framed in terms of something connected to non-faculty staff, because the people who will pay for David Swensen’s speculations are low in the ranks of concern at academic institutions:

We will reduce 2009-10 budgets by an amount equal to 5% of the salaries and benefits of all non-faculty staff.

Not even a thought that, say,  a small university-wide reduction in the salaries of all those making $75,000 US a year or more at Yale, the Corporation, might produce enough savings to prevent such a reduction.  No one at the top wants to open that discussion, or to talk to the people directly. The letter tells its readers to send via e-mail suggestions about budgetary savings. Applying this technological distance is another typical rhetorical strategy for academic administrators, a version of the dreaded task force.  My guess is that those messages to suggestions@yale.edu will be at least as interesting as President Levin’s letter. Readers here ought to feel free to use that e-mail address, and to communicate to President Levin a suggestion or two, but be sure to compose your missive after watching There Will Be Blood.


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