Saturday, June 06, 2009

administrators think like a bank--faculty think like a credit union

Higher education faculty and administrators continue to butt heads because they see colleges as two very different things. Administrators see them like banks or corporations, and themselves as CEO's, and faculty see college as more like a credit union.

For those who aren't familiar with credit unions, they are owned and run by their employees and customers, so they have a vested interest in seeing that employees are treated fairly, customers are well-taken care of, and of course that the credit union itself continues to be solvent. This is more or less how faculty see the college, as a community of scholars that should take care of all its members. Students should get a good education for their money, faculty should be able to make enough to support their families, and yes even administrators should be fairly compensated for their duties of making sure the electric bill gets paid and enough buildings are built to hold all the classes.

That is profoundly different from the bank or corporate model. A bank is concerned for the financial welfare of shareholders and a small group of senior executives. Customers and lower level employees exist only to enrich that group.

Ideally, market forces could pressure them to provide a similar product to the credit union since one way to make a profit is to provide the best product at the best price.

Unfortunately, there are less admirable ways to reward those shareholders.

For example, they could provide progressively shoddier products for the same price and hope their customers don't notice. This was the path GM and Chrysler took beginning in the 70's. It worked for a while, but now they are teetering on bankruptcy. In higher education, there are any number of ways they can do this. One is by increasing class sizes and converting too many in person classes to online. Administrators actually have the nerve to call increasing class size "productivity" when it is really the opposite--increasing the appearance of education while delivering a diluted version of the reality.

The other way they can reward the few at the expense of the many is relying heavily on underpaid part time workers. This is done more in higher ed than just about any other industry except maybe Walmart. This also creates the false impression of a labor "glut" because underpaid part time faculty work more than a full time load by stringing several jobs together. The few who do get full time jobs are pressured to teach more than a full load, so administrators get their money's worth for what they are forced to pay out in benefits. If both full timers and part timers are overworked, that means fewer total jobs will be available.

Administrators also measure their success in bookkeeping games more than the quality or even quantity of education delivered. Here in California, this is most obvious in the budgeting of "reserves," money given by the state that districts put in the bank instead of spending on education. A small percentage of this is required to cover things they can't cut in bad years like pensions, but districts sock away far more--the highest I heard was something like 25%--and at the same time they will be denying faculty health insurance benefits in labor negotiations, cutting jobs, or even doing away with the school paper at most campuses as happened in one district where I work. This seems an awful lot like the problem with GM and Enron--they got so wrapped up in short term profits that they made crappy products and fired people to look profitable on paper while they were really undermining public trust which eventually leads to no customers, no products, and no profits.

Higher ed and community colleges also ape the corporate practice of giving ever higher salaries to top executives while cutting salaries of faculty or even cutting faculty jobs. At several districts where I worked, the chancellor made a six figure salary, more than the governor of California. This serves two purposes that are both bad for education: one is it makes top administrators as a breed apart from the faculty they work with. People who actually teach are no better than "burger flippers" as the VP at one of my schools said to union leaders. The inflated salary is also necessary because the job requires a rare skill that is cherished in the corporate world as well--being able to harm others without hesitation or losing sleep. They must be able to fire people and deny them things like health insurance solely to pad profits or in the case of community colleges, pad their reserves.

I ran this corporate analogy by a couple of people and one person objected--he said when he worked in the corporate world, he was actually treated and compensated better than he ever had been teaching at community college.

There is another weakness with the analogy as well. The corporate world went through a phase of laying off middle managers, partly to legitimately trim bloat, but also as part of gaming the books to look more profitable than they really were. Community college administrators do the exact opposite. Shortly after one of my districts closed the school paper at two out of three campuses, the new chancellor decided the district needed a new VP, whose salary would be double the budget of the student papers he closed. They also push to replace department chairs, who are faculty, with deans, who are administrators and typically paid far more. Why replace someone with a person paid far more? To extinguish something that has existed at colleges and universities for centuries but hasn't existed in the corporate world, a form of democracy called "shared governance." The idea is administrators have control of money issues, and faculty control all things actually related to teaching. This division of labor has been very successful, but is uncomfortably close to a cooperative, a "socialist" business structure that corporations will not tolerate, and part of the reason why we and NATO invaded Yugoslavia--to forcibly convert the cooperative businesses there to a corporate model that would benefit the few (most living in another country) at the expense of the many. By replacing faculty managers with administrator ones, they are trying to snuff out all expectation in faculty of having control over the job and eventually even over the content they teach.

A final weakness with the analogy is that public universities and colleges have a very different relationship with for-profit businesses than those businesses have with each other. A for-profit business will always try to buy people (labor) and things for the lowest price possible to increase their profits. Public colleges and universities will try to buy people for the lowest price possible (except top execs) but not so with things. This is because they get most of their money from the state but their boards of trustees are composed of local business people who see their position as a way to add to their profits--not by creating a more educated workforce that therefore has more buying power, but by swinging contracts toward themselves or their cronies. For administrators, the payoff is more direct in the form of kickbacks. I have heard stories about this my whole teaching career. One faculty member, now retired, told me he served on a committee that worked for months evaluating software only to be have their choice over-ruled by an administrator and different, more expensive software bought instead. Did the person who made this decision know more than the people who would actually be using it day in and day out?


I actually got to experience kickbacks first hand. I was evaluating a piece of equipment for possible purchase and use in the classroom, and the vendor was dropping off a cart of samples for students to try out, but had one in a box by itself that they handed to me. They said they thought it was important for me to have one to play around with myself. I asked when I needed to return it to them, and they said I didn't. I had no use for the gadget, but they clearly thought it would sway my decision (as if I had the power to decide to buy their stuff). The same thing probably goes on with bigger bribes at the district level.

The most recent case I heard was about a school district that paid more than twice market value for a piece of property in the midst of a real estate glut and collapsed market. What are the odds that part of that overpayment didn't end up in the pocket of the administrator who made the purchase?

Clearly, in the ways that colleges and universities diverge from the corporate model, it is for the worse, and the differences that are good they are trying to undo.

The consequences of choosing the corporate model over the cooperative one are not hypothetical or small.

I was talking to a retired faculty member about the current budget debacle here in California and the misplaced priorities of administrators, and he said he wondered how long it was until the whole education system collapsed too--the way Wall Street already has.

As Wall Street and banks have crumbled, choking on their own greed and incompetence, more and more consumers are realizing that credit unions are a safer and more stable place to put their money. If we trust that model with our money, shouldn't we trust it with our kids' college education too?


Thomas E. Reed said...

There is a self-correcting factor. The big rationale for getting a college education was to become a leech. That is, the very sort of executive you demean as college administrators. Those are the people who lie, cheat and steal to make their companies look good.

They are like the birds of the field who do not sew or reap. The ones who do are the grunt workers, the factory workers who are losing their jobs all over the place. They are the real generators of wealth and economic security, and they don't need to have a college education.

Since those "big money, high tech" jobs are going to India, why should people bother getting a college education anyway? Or, for that matter, finish high school? Intellectual fulfillment and spiritual awakening, and all the rest of that liberal arts justification, don't matter. Getting food and shelter matter.

So, therefore, once people wake up, admissions to college will decrease. Government will stop funding education (they're already pretty far along with that). That massive mother leech on the economy, education, will stop producing other leeches, the executive class. This corrective process is occurring right now. It needs to accelerate.

Princess Dante said...

Sure Tom, let's all neglect the importance of intelligence and become mindless idiots. We can wobble around with no other goal or purpose other than to someday make enough money at our minimum wage Blockbuster job for that new high tech air conditioner that doubles as a convection oven.

The problem here is not money per say, it's the treatment of the faculty. It's things like the absurd overbooking of classes. My creative writing class had to resort to stealing desks from other classrooms and cramming as many seats as possible. The room was so crowded and overpopulated that there was hardly enough of a path to make it out the door to use the restroom, let alone meet the fire marshal regulations. Quickly it becomes survival of the fittest, but instead of survival we are fighting for the teachers attention, or fighting the shoulder pain from raising our hands for so long to ask a question. The difficulty in optimally benefiting from a class is raised dramatically. Then you wonder if it's really worth the money to get a jumbled string of knowledge and a C- because the teacher didn't even know your name.

When the faculty become the victims, so do the students.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but the problem of (poor) education begins in elementary school. If the kids don't understand their lessons, they are just pushed up into the next grade, and if they do REALLY bad, they are simply put in special ed classes. This continues through grade 12, and then the kids are thrust upon the world with no idea of what awaits them, but at least now there's the internet so kids can research things and get SOME idea of what they MAY be getting into, but still are they prepared for it? Probably not. As far as faculty, yes, there are not enough good teachers because the incentive isn't there(pay raises, bonuses) and a lot of teachers are overloaded and even spending their own funds on their students/classes, which is outrageous! Thomas, I understand your frustration and what you're saying, but I think you've got it wrong. Instead of chucking a college education, let's get the kids to work their asses off BEFORE college with a QUALITY education, then work them even harder once they are actually IN college so that they can compete in the world market. For instance, how many mathematicians, scientists, engineers, physicists, etc, are REALLY out there? I think if math and science were taught correctly, i.e. more funding for better lab equipment, laptops etc, we would find a LOT more Einsteins here in the USA.

Princess Dante said...

Education isn't the issue either. It's a matter of motivating the students to actually accomplish the work and go to grad school for a degree. Anyone can obtain the same knowledge as a physics PhD if they spend time in a library. However, without a degree you won't be getting a job. If it were just about the information then colleges would be out of business. Ultimately you are paying tuition for your degree. Therefore, it's key to create an environment where the students are motivated to complete the work and get a decent grade. along with making sure the students actually attend class regularly. This is a job for both the college administration and the teachers. The administration creates the physical environment, i.e. making sure classes aren't overloaded and the equipment is up to date, and the faculty ensures the students are interested in the class and want to get that A+. If someone does their job incorrectly the whole system falls apart.

As I said before, when the faculty become the victims, so do the students.

Anonymous said...

Bush and his no child left behind did much more harm than good. Teachers taught kids how to pass tests. Period. Then the cost to go to college has gone through the ceiling. If a student has to work two or three jobs just to make tuition, how can that student possibly have enough energy to pay attention in a too crowded classroom? We tell young people to get an education in order to get a decent job and then fill those jobs with foreign visa workers because we can work them harder for less of a wage. The whole system sucks. When budget cuts need to be made, what is first on the list? Education. Students for most of their educational career don't vote so politicians feel safe screwing with our country's future. We've dumbed down our kids to the point that when they finally do get to vote, they have no idea how their own government works which makes them dangerous and easily manipulated by scumbag politicians. It's all very sad and Americans need to get their priorities straight. It should be less about money and more about our kids and the future of our democracy.