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Saturday, March 31, 2018

The invisible burden (ii)

Let's say that a professor's time is worth $30 an hour.  Then a message sent to all faculty members and taking 1 minute to read costs $0.50 x the number of professors in the university.  A meeting of 10 faculty members for an hour costs $300! We could monetize our efforts in that way. An hour long sexual harassment training, multiplied by the average hourly wage of the number of people required to take it. That has an economic cost to it. That's not even counting the cost of creating and administering the training, monitoring it to make sure everyone does it. A message from the chancellor to the university community saying he won't fire the football coach has an economic cost to, though it seems trivial. Getting information daily or weekly from the humanities center (each grant you can apply for is a separate message from them!), the college, the graduate school, the office of first year retention etc...    

The fact that each of these things is small, in and of itself, disguises the real costs. In fact, the multiplication of very small items is actually more distracting, than if there were one large thing you had to take care of. You have to be organized in getting all the small things done and keeping track of everything, and that is a task in and of itself. So if I complain about doing something that only takes 2 minutes, you could say, "Oh, that's trivial, that's only two minutes."  But you would be wrong.

It gets worse: it is not just that each these things takes a small amount of time, but that they sap energy and attention, which are more valuable than time itself. They are the invisible service burden that we have just by being faculty members, even if cannot list them as items on our cv.  

All of the goals of the university are significant ones: increasing equity, diversity, sustainability, retaining students, increasing research productivity, improving teaching, reducing time to degree for graduate students, complying with Title IX.  Every administrator charged with one of these areas needs to engage with the faculty in order to further these goals, but nobody is monitoring the total effect of all of it on faculty time, energy, and attention, or working to reduce the cumulative weight of this burden.

***

Imagine, instead of this, that you had went to a cabin in the woods and did your research for six months with no communications from the university at all, or to an "scholars' colony" on the model of an artist's colony.            

6 comments:

Leslie said...

One colleague just spent a bunch of time stressing over ordering lunches for an event. He was good humored about it and not considering himself too good to do it, but there were a lot of bureaucratic steps and it was his first time. I wish we still had (efficient) secretaries, enough of them. The really bright ones keep quitting.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Back when I was selling seminars to universities for a living, I sometimes had to remind them that my fee was a drop in the bucket of the cost of the time they were asking their faculty to spend attending them and following up afterwards. Not only were they paying me to occupy the attention of dozens of scholars who could otherwise be doing other things, they were asking me to help those scholars get more out of hundreds of hours of writing time afterwards. To focus on what they were paying me for this was a misperception of the issue.

(Though I don't think Leslie was making this same point, fretting about the cost of lunch is equally pointless. The basic cost of staff attendance should be on the budget when planning an event. This would put the other expenses in perspective.)

PS. I'm not sure $30/hour is the true "billable" rate of a faculty member. It's not what the professor earns that counts, but what the professor's labor "brings in" to the university. In general, university administrators have a bad habit of seeing their employees mainly as an expense. They are not good a valuing the product of their labor. This, as Jonathan points out, leads them too easily to waste their time.

Jonathan said...

The exact dollar amount is not significant for my argument. I was figuring 30 as the hourly rate for someone earning about 70,000 a year.

Let's say from the point of view of the employer. If you pay someone x-dollars an hour, then you want to be make sure that the kind of things they are doing are beneficial in proportion to that. You wouldn't pay someone $50 an hours to rake leaves, for example. Why pay a full professor earning $100,000 a year to do that kind of labor? It's even worse because even raking leaves has some productive value and might be exercise, but sorting through useless emails is not productive at all and takes away time and energy from other productive activities.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, that's the math I imagined you did. But consider a consulting or legal firm. The value of their employees is not measured in their salary translated into an hourly wage. At least not all of them. Some people earn significantly more (for the firm) when they are working for a client. And that's the time they could be spending when they are sitting in a seminar.

Jonathan said...

Yes. But there university doesn't monetize our consulting. That is on the side, and I give some away for free. We can monetize our research grants, but that is more for the sciences. That leaves students tuition. But they could hire someone for less to cover some classes...

Anonymous said...

I actually get dinged for some things I do. If I help someone get someone a Fulbright, which brings massive prestige to program and is a HUGE consulting job, it is actually considered a poorer use of time than say, teaching an extra class. But they would say the extra class is more valuable because it brings in more student credit hours. That is way short-sighted since there are so many benefits to things like Fulbrights. Or placement in graduate school -- I am still burned that letters of recommendation don't count, or being an outside evaluator for tenure/promotion (although reviewing for journals does count).