How to avoid being sucked into the black hole of administration

Bureaucracy is the bane of every academic’s life. But who is to blame for its proliferation – and how can it be kept in check? Six academics have their say – while a registrar offers an equal and opposite reaction 

October 17, 2019
Black hole
Source: Getty/iStock montage

Basic physics

I’ll admit that my knowledge of physics is largely confined to the theme song of The Big Bang Theory. Increasingly, however, I find myself staring into the electronic time suck that is my email inbox and thinking about Einstein’s theory of general relativity. I wonder, in particular, if he was thinking of academia when he proposed that while the universe is finite, it has no limits.

Certainly, time seems to warp into something akin to jelly when 349 emails spring up overnight. Some of these requests are easily resolved: a seating disruption in the refec (no action required); a book contract from a scam publisher (delete); an invite to the annual Turnitin Conference (delete and block). Other emails, however, are not straightforward. This morning, for example, I received five “urgent” requests before my first class (which, by the way, is a 9am tutorial):

  • An online order form from the campus bookshop. “Barbara Baynton is out of print. Can you please set a different text? Perhaps something we’ve purchased previously? Something with reusability? The Great Gatsby, perhaps?” The course in question is Australian Stories.
  • A timetabling request from admin. “Your Friday class is over-subscribed. Would you like to increase the quota, and if so, by how much? A second class is possible, but it will require a minimum enrolment of ten to be viable.”
  • A courtesy reminder from an over-ambitious first year. “Just following up on the essay plan that I sent you on Sunday night. I’m aiming for 100%, so hopefully I’m on the right track? I also have some questions about Shakespeare and his metrical deviations. Is it possible to arrange a phone call with you to talk through the irregularities of iambic pentameter?”
  • A date claimer for the faculty breakfast. “Please click on the link below to register.” The link in the email doesn’t work.
  • A meeting request from Alex in Outreach & Events. “As you know, it was Open Day yesterday, and it’s come to our attention that we accidentally sent you the wrong polo shirt (men’s, extra-large). It would be great if we could meet, briefly, to discuss why the mix-up occurred. If you have a moment, we’ve also included a feedback survey. Tell us: how did we do?”

The above would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that reading and replying to emails has become the primary form of academic labour. Admin, and its panoply of pain, is the most pressing demand on my time. It is, in Einstein’s words, a colossal black hole from which nothing – not even light – can escape. Even messages that can’t be delivered bounce back.

Spaceman

The problem, then, is a perceptual illusion: how do we measure what we can’t see? And how do we manage things that aren’t measured? For every type of visible work that I do (for example, delivering a lecture), there is a disproportionate amount of “invisible” work that I must donate in order to complete the task on time (moderating papers, entering grades, reviewing coursework, attending meetings, updating software, digitalising resources, organising field trips...the list goes on). This admin work is not an optional add-on: it is, in fact, the work you must do in order to do your work.

If you’re in casual, hourly paid employment, the other problem is not an unsustainable workload, but, rather, the fact that you don’t have a service workload at all. Not officially, at least. But while your students (bless them) will assess you on the quality of your teaching, they will mostly judge your email response time.

When I first started tutoring, I used to worry that my reputation for ridiculously fast replies would, as one colleague warned, contribute to a toxic culture of overwork and unrealistic expectations. Now, when I open my inbox and begin the scroll of doom, I ask myself: “When it is too late to reply to an email?”

As an early career academic, the reality is that on most days, I spend more time “doing email” than doing research. This seems to me a heavy bureaucratic burden: one that is reflective, no doubt, of my own lack of e-resilience, but one that is more symptomatic of a workplace where the constant injunction is to be productive – to publish or perish, to be discoverable or die – in a system that is not only structurally boundless but where work, by extension, is potentially infinite.

I suppose, as Einstein said, it’s basic physics.

Kate Cantrell teaches creative writing and English literature at the University of Southern Queensland. 


Defying entropy

I was always told that universities that hire too many administrators set up a cycle of bureaucratic catalysis, as it breeds more administration for the academics, rather than decreasing the burden.

I certainly think that the admin burdens on UK academics are far too high, but it isn’t just the fault of the universities. My institution is always listening to try to improve things when I have asked for help, but the wider system pushes in the other direction. The reasons are obvious: the need for accountability, and also to see if excellence is being achieved, but a key issue is that many of the valued outcomes are impossible to measure, so ever more elaborate proxies and metrics are devised.

Nor, admittedly, do universities help themselves. They practise producing the outputs and run internal evaluations – and then evaluations of the evaluations of the evaluations. All this seems pointless and takes time. There is only so much you gain by gaming the system and I feel that these marginal gains might be offset by the effort of achieving them.

Then there is the explosion of software and web-driven admin systems that are meant to save us effort but are actually built for the benefit of the organisation rather than the individual – and are frequently out of date by the time their delayed and over-budget implementation is complete. One example I’ve seen are web-based performance and development reviews that are supposed to auto-populate your grants and papers. This is all well and good if the software works, but when it breaks you are left with a form that tells you you’ve failed to meet your objectives and you are the weakest link.

I have suggested to many organisations that a gold standard be introduced, such that for every new admin requirement introduced, an old one is withdrawn. However, no such standard is currently applied anywhere, as far as I know, which means that the academic is left deciding which emails they must respond to and which would be better ignored: a full-time job in itself.

I have noticed that much of the administration we are faced with underpins non-critical internal functions associated with compliance, internal reporting and, most annoyingly, gathering information for professional administrators writing reports for internal planning purposes. And there is the requirement from the UK government for academics to act as members of the border agency, responsible, seemingly in real time, for keeping track of researchers with UK work visas.

In deciding if I will do an admin task, I try to ask if anyone is going to read the document I produce. If I discover that it will merely be filed, I try not to do it – or, if pressed, I just produce a bland, non-offensive document in as short a time as possible.

I also divide admin into roughly three categories. The first concerns “mission-critical” activities that directly affect my team members or have an impact on the wider world; these include funding, teaching, research and issues of safety or compliance. The second relates to service: refereeing, writing letters of support, organising conferences, sitting on university committees and strategic planning. The third relates to what I call “entropic” tasks: request for statistics, discussions about discussions, new policies dreamed up that are not implementable with current resources.

Admin on Mars

I’ve tried many different techniques to prevent entropic tasks in particular from eroding my research and teaching time or extending my working hours. I used to worry that if I missed important admin, things would be bad, but I found that I had such a big task focusing on getting research funds – and then the privilege of being able to do this research – that prioritising was the only option. So I now ignore admin tasks I believe to be pointless: not out of anger, but simply because they are at the bottom of a bottomless pile.

I confine my email activity to a specific, regular slot in the day, and I try not to go beyond it (very important for preventing time-intensive tasks such as refereeing from spiralling out of control). This still amounts to an hour or two every day, but I am proud to have got that down from more than four previously and I now do lots of research-critical activities away from email to ensure that I’m focused.

Resistance is difficult, but it is far from futile.

Lee Cronin is Regius professor of chemistry at the University of Glasgow. 


Einstein’s universal force

As a career administrator, I share my professional services colleagues’ bemusement with the way in which “admin” is viewed by academic colleagues. Admin is what we do. It’s our job, our raison d’être and, dare I say, our passion. I love admin.

I do have enormous sympathy for academic colleagues who, as a recent THE article observed, have felt their research time (and holidays) squeezed by other work demands and pressures (“Summertime, and the living ain’t easy”, Features, 25 July). It is certainly true that the summer has been truncated for all. While in the distant past there may have been some staff in universities who were able to head off campus for three months without any guilt, those days are long gone. Indeed, it now feels that the quiet summer period has been squeezed into just one Thursday afternoon in the last week of July.

But let’s be careful about attributing blame. There is a view that the growth and impact of “admin” is somehow the fault of administrators who are all busy creating exciting new ways to require academics to undertake form-filling and other pointless bureaucratic activity. And it is all too easy for the hostility towards unwanted admin to translate into critique of administrators.

Universities are, undoubtedly, among the best organisations at creating unnecessary work for all staff, but it’s not just us. The reality is that the external regulatory burden on universities has grown significantly over the past 30 years, resulting in major bureaucratic pressures on institutions in terms of compliance. Still, all of us in professional services see it as one of our primary duties to minimise the unwarranted impact of this on academic staff and students. Our aim is actually to ensure that academic colleagues feel as little reduction in teaching and research time as possible – including during the summer.

Einstein

But academics can play a part in reducing the burden themselves, too. There are frequent complaints about the sheer scale of the demands around marking essays and examinations, particularly at peak times, but at least some of this is within the power of departments and individual academics to change. The size and frequency of assessments can be managed downwards by those who have responsibility for setting them, and this would surely have some impact on workload, as well as addressing concerns about over-assessment. Yet there often seems to be reluctance to do this.

Most of us administrators would be lousy teachers and are not really cut out for research either, so it is not wholly clear to me why some academic colleagues feel that they are best placed to create new administrative methods and procedures – especially if they then complain about the burden. We’re pretty good at it; we’ve had plenty of experience and we really do know what we are doing.

We aren’t perfect and, in pursuit of our genuine desire to make less work for everyone, we need to be much smarter about minimising assessments and killing our internally generated systems and processes. We also need to listen to academics about where the burden is hitting them hardest. But while the admin burden may feel oppressive, it would, in my view, be unmanageable without the efforts of professional administrators to mitigate the worst effects of external interventions.

So share the love for admin – and love your administrators, too.

Paul Greatrix is the registrar of the University of Nottingham. 


The law-governed universe

There are only two things that motivate tenured faculty to take on administrative duties. One is the idealistic notion that they can make a difference (which can take the form that if someone’s going to muck something up it may as well be me). The other is their incapacity to ward off guilt for not doing their civic duty. The two are not mutually exclusive and often they work in tandem.

I have indeed seen cases where someone with compassion and patience and a will to do right has made a difference – for example, reading a petition or proposal with great care and energy, when others might not. This is often most significant when it comes to making a decision that will affect a student. And one should feel at least a twinge of guilt at seeing the same people step up to do thankless tasks.

But today’s US academy places a greater burden on faculty than ever before, and the responsibilities of administration have exploded beyond belief. Possessing wisdom, patience, fortitude and humility has little or nothing to do with it. What one most benefits from is a keen legal mind.

Justice scales

I support the need for strict enforcement of laws and rules regarding sexual harassment and violence, free speech, privacy and the right to education. Most universities have training in place and offices that provide support for administrators. This is all good, but it does not obviate the fact that administrators are being asked to take on a whole new set of important concerns.

And unimportant ones as well. As the recent college admissions scandal shows, elite universities like Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton are often regarded more as social networks than as educational institutions. Issues of plagiarism, cheating, special favours and grade inflation are now much more prominent as a result of universities taking on this role as career preparation factories for the elites. This again places administrators in the role of enforcers, not educators.

It does the same to standard faculty. Indeed, much more of the administrative burden is placed on faculty these days, largely because more and more departments are staffed by adjuncts and part-time instructors, meaning that there are fewer and fewer tenured faculty able to serve as administrators (a role that, coincidentally, involves managing that adjunct labour with virtually zero power to introduce improvements to its cruel conditions).

Then there is committee work. While some committees end up seeing the products of their labour tabled or simply ignored, others can be quite rewarding; I remember serving on our committee on faculty staff human resources during the time that the US was transitioning to Obamacare. The discussions around medical benefits were complex, to be sure, but the attention to the well-being of staff and faculty was pretty impressive.

So, too, was an ad hoc committee on internet security and privacy. The work we thought we could do in a year stretched into three, but the result was a policy that was nuanced and respectful of privacy as much as it was attentive to security issues. Both these committees revealed my institution at its best.

In sum, there are administrative and committee assignments I take on because I feel they are important enough, but others that I try to eschew because they go too far beyond the educational mission. Besides, I did enough of those as a new professor. In the US we call this paying our dues. And mine are now paid in full.

David Palumbo-Liu is Louise Hewlett Nixon professor of comparative literature and, by courtesy, of English at Stanford University. 


Inescapable gravity

My plan for this piece was to review a sample of the obviously useless administrative tasks that fill up our working lives: to identify and laugh at the entirely unnecessary jobs, and highlight the marginally useful ones. It seemed simple enough.

Teaching, researching and pulling your collegiate weight all provide plenty of tasks that deserve our mockery, given how much time we devote to them. Essay moderation pairings, tracking student absences, submitting or double-checking expense reports, planning a conference via a thousand emails, external examining, requesting image permissions in an article – no aspect of our profession is free from administrivia. And as I (ideally) rise in the profession, I will (less ideally) have to face all sorts of new tasks that so far remain obscure to me. So much of it seems entirely useless, a product of our increasing culture of distrust, supervision and quantification.

Rocket

But perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty. Let’s start with that first example, essay moderation. When I coordinate our very large team-taught first-year module, I have to pair postgrad tutors with faculty tutors, to exchange samples of high marks, low marks and average marks for cross-checking. This ensures that all marks are consistent across the marking scale and eases the new tutors into their profession, while also making sure that none of the students will complain about marking disparities. Still with me? Now, for experienced tutors, woven comfortably into the culture of their university, moderation doesn’t provide much added benefit. It seems like just one more exchange of papers in a busy semester. But actually, of course, it’s good pedagogy, and it keeps us honest. When it’s done well, moderation teaches greener tutors what they can expect from their students, and prevents veteran markers from slipping into a complacent rut of high and low second-class marks.

Still, the Trac questionnaires that all UK academics fill out once a year or so are surely a waste, no? Estimating the number of hours per week spent on various tasks, according to category divisions that in no way resemble our working life, doesn’t even offer the transparent approach to costing promised by the imperfect acronym. Filling it out, you are offered boxes to tick for many different categories of externally funded research, but no options for the real obligations that eat up our days: reading proposals in preparation for an upcoming meeting, comparing train prices for that January conference, begging a colleague to chair your student’s conference panel, not to mention ploughing through your inbox.

I’ve never seen how these timesheets can turn out any useful or truthful results. But then a colleague tells me that she used them to prove that different research groups within her department received inequitable funding for the same activities. So even the tasks that make us groan in greatest misery apparently have their uses.

My colleague’s Trac story convinced me, grimly, that everything serves some function, even if not to us – and even, at times, to causes we disagree with. My new, chastened, take on admin comes in three parts.

First, most of the paperwork we are asked to do is indeed useless to us; much of it is useless to nearly everybody. But, second, 10 per cent of it is useful to somebody, somewhere. And, third, that “somebody” is floating. They cannot be identified and pinned down to do the work that benefits them the most, sparing the rest of us.

In this way, 90 per cent of the tasks we do are 90 per cent useless 90 per cent of the time. But those remaining 10 per cents mean that all that admin is here to stay.

Emily Michelson is senior lecturer in history at the University of St Andrews.


General Electric dreams

At a previous university, which shall remain nameless, I visited a student on placement. I bought two coffees at a nearby shop and discussed how she was doing. On return, I submitted my expenses form. It was sent back to me accompanied by a curt note which explained that “it is not University policy to offer hospitality to students”. I was told to resubmit the form after deleting the cost of the second coffee. Instead, I took the hump and replied that the second cup was also for me. My expenses were then paid without further complaint.

On another occasion, at the same institution, I did some consulting work with a colleague. When it was finished, we billed the client and got paid. I then rang the relevant department to enquire where I should send the £2,000 owed the university. There was a sharp intake of breath at the other end, followed by: “You’ve done this all wrong. We should have billed the client and then paid you.” I said I would remember this next time. But where to send the money now? There was a pause, followed by: “Forget about it this time. Just keep it.” And the line went dead.

At yet another institution, a senior professor who was himself addicted to administrivia compiled a policy and procedures manual for academic staff. It ran to 140 glossy pages. Mine ended up in the bin, as did those received by most of my colleagues. Anywhere that needs such a document is surely in dire need of psychiatric attention.

GE

So often in organisations, what begins as a sensible response to some need eventually outlives its usefulness and becomes an obstacle to the ends for which it was designed. Yet it lives on, because every lengthy form has someone infatuated with it – usually its designer, incapable of murdering their darling.

I am not advocating anarchy. Of course we need policies and guidelines, provided that they don’t treat adults like infants. But procedures and requests for information can become ties that bind rather than a guide to action. Many universities now use complex online systems for claiming expenses. Engaging with them feels like tussling with an angry dragon. I have known some colleagues to be so baffled that they haven’t bothered to claim money they are owed.

Nor are we generally consulted about what systems we might actually find helpful. When I once complained that I couldn’t understand how to submit an expenses form I received a 20-page manual to “help” me navigate the system. It was no more useful than the instructions that come with flat-pack furniture. Rather, it read like something translated from English into Esperanto and then back again, in both cases by a belligerent software program.

Yes, let’s have procedures. But let’s also cull many of those that signal distrust and have lived too long. We could do worse than follow the example of General Electric, whose famous Work Out programme in the 1980s created task forces charged with identifying bureaucratic processes that could be eliminated, reducing the volume of reports that needed to be written and the number of approvals required to make decisions. This prompted a dramatic fall in the number of meetings and forums that require minutes but waste hours. Billions of dollars were saved.

Others have since followed suit. Why can’t universities?

Dennis Tourish is professor of leadership and organisation studies at the University of Sussex. He is the author of Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research, just published by Cambridge University Press. 


The Big Bang

The inflation of the known universe began 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. The inflation of university students’ grades began 50 years ago, when administrators introduced student course evaluations in the 1960s. The trajectory of students’ grades and academics’ administrative workloads have followed a similar trajectory ever since that academic Big Bang.

Having experienced the managerial thrill of swelling their ranks and beginning to wield some power over those much better educated than themselves, administrators have in more recent decades latched on to learning outcomes. Invented by William Spady, an obscure sociologist embraced by administrators as one of their own, the idea is that all learning, of whatever kind – dance, economics, philosophy, computer science, accounting – should conform to the same universal counting system, whereby all teaching and learning is modularised into specifically named chunks that have to be measured precisely if they are going to be named and chunked in the first place.

Accounting types love the word “accountability” because it has the word “count” in it. Academics are always being told by administrators that everything about them and their work has to be counted in order to be “accountable” to the general public. It doesn’t, but as long as academics, through their governance processes, keep letting administrators get away with ever-proliferating measuring regimes, they will increasingly find requests for engaging in unproductive busywork piling up in their inboxes.

Desk in space

Administrators should be resisted in the same way that any authority that overreaches should be resisted. Go online and read (or reread) Thoreau’s classic, Civil Disobedience. Then go back to work and ignore the administrators.

That’s all there is to it. When a request for a report comes in, don’t file it – because you haven’t created it in the first place. Respect the nice friendly administrative folks in your own department by buying them gift baskets of chocolates and Pocky sticks. But for all emanations from deans, vice-presidents, pro vice-chancellors and the like, just hit delete.

When the course evaluations arrive in the inbox, ignore them. When the external reviewers ask for your learning outcomes, say that you’ve misplaced them – and maybe ask them to check back in seven years, when the next external review is due.

Skip the meetings. If they come to your office, take a nap. If they put something physical in your real-world faculty mailbox, consider whether paper would actually be put to better use in the compostable materials bin rather than the recycling one – and whether it makes any difference which of those varicoloured and confusingly labelled receptacles you put it in anyway, given that you’ve heard that it all ultimately ends up in landfill.

And if they complain to the politicians, that is also very easy to handle. Politicians and upper administrators cannot write and publish as well as the core academic staff, so any academic can beat them at the writing game without even breaking a sweat. Whose contribution needs measuring now?

That’s all it takes. Just pretend that all these administrators and their terrible ideas do not exist. And, in the end, they will not exist.

Michael Filimowicz is senior lecturer in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: How to resist the black hole of administration

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Reader's comments (4)

Of course there will always be administrative tasks and most of us are very thankful to the administrators who help us so much with their support. It is not their fault. Administration that is directly related to academic tasks, such as Board of Studies or Teaching Committee, are certainly reasonable. However, I have to agree that "software and web-driven admin systems that are meant to save us effort but are actually built for the benefit of the organisation" are a big problem. Academics should not spend days or weeks fiddling with timetabling trying to find appropriate rooms and times; they should not spend hours entering marks and double-checking them for accuracy; they should not be finding venues and ordering catering for conferences; they should not be having to figure out all the obscure ins-and-outs of creating budgets for different funding calls; they should not be sitting on hold on the phone for an hour trying to get a visa to go give a keynote talk. All of these things used to be done by skilled administrators who, because they did them all the time, were far more efficient. Then universities slashed support staff to "save money" meaning that expensive academic staff now waste their time doing these tasks as well as all the others they are still expected to do. No wonder average work-weeks for academics are now well over the Working Time Directive. The T&C at my institutions say explicitly: "You are expected to work such hours and days, including evenings, weekends and bank holidays and/or closure days, as are required for the proper discharge of your duties. Salary payments will be based on an expected working week of 37 hours. You are required to work such additional hours, within reason, as may be necessary for the proper performance of your duties. You will not be entitled to any overtime pay." No one will say what "within reason" is, but it is certainly well over 37 hours/week! I am not saying that academics shouldn't do administrative tasks, but they should be 1) tasks that they are best placed to do (e.g. chairing committees, designing programmes, overseeing strategies) and 2) of real benefit to the institution. Things like the pointless hours of agonising over "action plans" prompted by a statistically insignificant 4-point drop in a unreliable and non-evidence-based National Student Survey or going through three rounds of "mock REFs" which at the best will marginally affect any funding results is a brutal and draining waste of time. Never mind getting expense reports knocked back because tips were included in a dinner or having online travel forms crash because you don't know your exact times of travel since the tickets haven't been booked because THAT IS WHY YOU ARE FILLING OUT THE FORM. If universities actually used TRAC to look at workloads and reduce them to under 60 hours/week, that would be great - but since all they report is percentages, once again it is completely unclear who is benefiting from the exercise. And about emails - that is something people can control. Be clear to students and colleagues that you don't answer on weekends or evenings. Set aside time at the beginning and end of the day to read emails and don't look at them in-between. Of course there are urgent items, but if people picked up the phone or walked down the hall more, things would be resolved more quickly and with less stress. Sorry for the rant, but after 25 years of UK academia and seeing things getting continually worse, I have actually come to the point of thinking that change will only happen if the entire system collapses, which would be horrible, but at least then perhaps those who hold the reins might listen if it were their jobs on the line.
Sometimes what seems to be administrivia is actually quite core to teaching. I run final year projects in my department and there's a lot of admin work involved. Getting students set up with the right project and supervisor for them. Organising assessments - and sending calendar invites to everyone involved so that you get a student and 2 assessors in the same place at the right time (the one fail was a plaintive phone call at 4pm "The lab is dark and there's nobody here" - fortunately that student had got the day wrong, his assessment was 4pm the next day!). Chasing marking so that it's all ready for the exam board. Dealing with students, there's a steady stream of them knocking on my door. Today I actually managed to read 2 papers... but it's rare not to be interrupted! But to see students enthusiastic about a project that really excites them from September to May, watch them showing off their work - and crossing the stage in cap and gown come graduation - makes it all worthwhile.
"Academics shall teach and research; administrators shall do the administration", maybe not the exact words but the gist of what the Principal said in my first all-staff meeting in my first HEI. Words of wisdom I never forget. He did add "it's cheaper that way...."
To contain the bureaucratization of academia, academics must remain steadfast in their academic vision, mission and priorities when they are in their administrative roles. Not easy, but must be done. Needs building solid alliances both inside and outside the academia.
I think the problem with university administrators is aptly summarized in this, from the only administrator represented in the article, the registrar of the University of Nottingham: "academics can play a part in reducing the burden themselves, too. There are frequent complaints about the sheer scale of the demands around marking essays and examinations, particularly at peak times, but at least some of this is within the power of departments and individual academics to change. The size and frequency of assessments can be managed downwards by those who have responsibility for setting them, and this would surely have some impact on workload." In other words: the demands of administration impinge on the demands of teaching? What's your problem? Just teach less. Oh, and love your administrators. After all, we are what universities are really about.

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