Academic Bureaucracy

Over the last several weeks, my wife the university professor has been deluged with various new and additional academic requirements, touted by the administration as “improvements.” From my past, if limited, three years of teaching at the collegiate level and having watched my wife do it for almost twenty-five years, I’m convinced that absolutely none of these improvements have anything to do with improving teaching.

First was the requirement for rubrics in student syllabi. For those unfamiliar with rubrics, while the dictionary definition states that a rubric is a traditionally a heading or brief direction usually printed in red, in education a rubric has become an explanation for why something is required. At the collegiate level student syllabi used to be fairly short documents stating the course objectives, the assignments required to be read and by when; the dates for tests, and when papers, projects, performances were due; the grading policies and on what the grades were based. Now, the typical student syllabus runs fifteen to thirty pages. A sample “new” syllabus, incorporating the recommended rubrics, developed by the associate provost last year ran to almost sixty pages. Some students don’t even read that much in assigned readings, and many don’t even read the current syllabi. Exactly how is this near-contractual, rubric-laden syllabus, filled with the required extensive legalese, going to improve teaching or learning? It’s certainly going to require scores of additional hours on the part of professors, hours having little to do with improving the course or their teaching. What it does do is attempt to reduce the university’s legal exposure and shift it, as much as possible, to the individual teacher, especially if he or she doesn’t have a “contractual” syllabus.

The next bureaucratic assignment was to revamp all course descriptions and to modify all syllabi to incorporate ELOs, otherwise known as “educational learning outcomes,” in a format consistent with a pilot computer assessment program not yet used by any other university in the state. The format must be consistent in all fields of study, whether hard sciences, languages, art, music, physical education, business, pre-med, or economics, essentially attempting to shoehorn all disciplines into the same format and standards.

The latest pronouncement was that all documentation for professional evaluation will begin to be required in electronic format, PDF to be precise, in order to create greater efficiencies and reduce paper use. In addition, all job applications and supporting documentation must be electronic. Even as a tenured full professor, my wife is required to provide extensive documentation of her achievements annually, but the problem here is two-fold. First, most of that documentation exists in paper format and much of it will for years to come. This requires scanning and file conversion, plus learning additional computer programming skills, which is far more cumbersome and time consuming than making a simple paper copy. Second, since most senior faculty are also on tenure and promotion committees, when they review junior faculty for tenure and promotion, they have to read literally hundreds if not thousands of pages of documentation, documents that are virtually unintelligible on anything but either hard-copy paper or a full-sized computer screen. In the past, most professors would take the then-paper portfolios home and read them there, rather than stay late into the evening at their offices. Now, they’ll definitely have to stay, or print out paper copies for convenience. Even with the internet and WI-FI, trying to access the university computer system from off-campus is a tiresome and often frustrating experience.

From what I’ve observed, all of this, along with dozens of other smaller bureaucratic changes, has little to do with improving teaching, but more with bureaucratic ass-covering for the administrators. It’s all about making things easier and more efficient for the administrators. All of this paperwork – or the digital equivalent – does little to improve teaching, and just puts more work on the professors.

Interestingly enough, at least theoretically, administrators are supposed to facilitate making teaching better and to remove those barriers to better teaching, instead of imposing more non-teaching duties and requirements. Also, again theoretically, universities are supposed to be about teaching. So why are there more administrators, clerical staff, and athletic staff [some 57% of the total] among the 750 full-time employees than there are professors and full-time lecturers [43%]? Or, as my wife puts it, what does filling out endless forms about what she does and how she does it have to do with excellence in teaching? Especially when these bureaucratic requirements take so much time from preparation and teaching?

Or am I missing something?

8 thoughts on “Academic Bureaucracy”

  1. Wine Guy says:

    Bureaucracy is largely a cancer: it grows and metastasizes until it completely takes over the organism it is living within….

    Another way of putting it is the purpose of administration is more administration… the purpose of power is more power…. take your pick.

    The purpose SHOULD be to support those whose job it is to actually do the work of the university (hospital, uniformed service, etc.) in teaching (seeing patients, soldiering/”sailoring”). Sadly, it often is not.

  2. Bob Vowell says:

    Does that apply to the adjuncts as well, expecting that level of paperwork from someone not even being paid a living wage seems counter-productive.

    1. The adjuncts don’t have to submit documentation for tenure or promotion, but their syllabi have to conform to all the requirements; so they have to comply with two out of three.

  3. Corwin says:

    When I was teaching High School, it soon became obvious that everything done by the Admin was for their convenience and actually doing something to help either the teachers, or students have a worthwhile experience came down at the bottom of the list if it made the list at all. In the end fighting admin absurdities is why I gave up teaching.

  4. JakeB says:

    That sounds monstrous . . . I’ve taken classes both at one of the Cal State universities and via UCB extension in the last two years, and they remain with the 2-3 page syllabi.

    The problem with some of the admin departments is they have to produce to justify their existence, just as do faculty. Unfortunately what they produce is frequently useless wankery that the actual productive members of the university have to waste time dealing with. Parasites it seems are to be found in every realm.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    Why don’t the department heads step on this? Presumably these people are professors (or were, at one time).

    Or is it because the department heads are leading the charge?

    1. The administration has long since managed to ease out the majority of department chairs willing to speak out… and simply ignores the few who do.

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