NC State Copper Wolves

Why it’s dangerous to hate ALL administrators

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In the last year or so, we have seen a high number of articles or blog posts with a scathing attitude toward the 1) increasing number of administrators at universities, and 2) high salaries they make, relative to other employees of universities. According to the American Institutes for Research, higher ed institutions added an average of 87 administrators or professional employees every work day between 1987-2012. Most recently, people have been responding to a study that showed student debt grows faster at the universities whose leaders are paid the most. There’s a lot more out there if you just do a quick Google search, but suffice to say: there’s merit to this conversation, and I think it’s good that it is happening.

However, I’m increasingly dismayed by the vitriol and often (but not always) highly simplistic attitudes toward the discussion. As academics, we learn that the world is not black and white (eg. “Get rid of administrators completely!” “They are paid Himalayan salaries!”) but instead has many, many facets that require deep thought, much conversation, and serious consideration of all the elements in play. Above all, we as academics are taught to ask why. Why do we have so many administrators at universities?

I can’t answer that question in just a blog post, nor even as just one person at one school. But let’s consider some issues that could contribute to understanding the situation. Universities have become really complex working operations. Faculty play a key role, and ideally, universities could have a large majority (or even all!) of their faculty in tenure-track positions. Faculty contribute to the research, teaching, and service requirements at an institution, and the faculty I know do a great job at this. They are one of the reasons that NC State is a top school.

So who are the administrators? Yes, there are the standard President/Chancellor, Provost, and Deans whose jobs provide leadership for units on campus. There’s the grayer area of Vice Provosts, Vice Chancellors, and so on, who provide leadership within those large units or across several. Very often these are former faculty who have risen up the ranks. Some of these roles are the new ones that have been created over the last couple of decades and contribute to the statistics from the study mentioned above.

Then there are other administrators and professional employees at the university, like Head of the Libraries, Director of Information Technology, Director of Distance Education, Head of Human Resources — these are all people whose titles and roles at the university get them lumped into this category that people attack when they use the term “administrative bloat” or to assign as the cause of increasing college costs. These people also supervise other employees in this category as well, like Instructional Technologists, Librarians, or Human Resource Officers. These people almost always need advanced degrees for their jobs (or at least, at my own public institution in NC, that’s the case). Does anyone want to argue we don’t need librarians?

All of these titles I’ve mentioned, and there are many, many more, reflect the complex nature of a university. Yes, faculty play a key role in conducting research and making important contributions to knowledge with what they do. And yes, emphatically yes, students are here primarily to attend the courses taught by our faculty and earn degrees. But even those acts require other processes that necessitate people who serve other roles around the institution. Here’s a basic example: Let’s say a faculty member earns a multi-million dollar grant to run a research lab and uses some of the funds to hire some grad students, postdocs, and research assistants. Does that particular faculty member know how the minimum salary she can offer her postdocs is calculated? Whether dental coverage is a required part of a postdoc’s healthcare benefits? Does she know how many hours per week her graduate students can work if they are international students? And perhaps the most complex example: does she know how many hours a research assistant could work before certain Affordable Care Act regulations kick in, and how much of her grant monies she would have to set aside to account for the ACA changes that will take effect in years to come? (This last one is perhaps the best example, because the ACA has changed a lot since first enacted and will continue to change as different elements come into effect over the next few years. All of these examples include important legal requirements that are critical to get right.)

Generally, the answer is no, faculty don’t always know the answers to these questions. Did you get that kind of training in your PhD program? I didn’t. Certainly many PhDs do not get that formally, perhaps slightly informally if you worked in lab and your PI was open about these kinds of things. The point here is that higher education is subject to many different practices, regulations, and requirements, many of the same ones that other workplaces are subject to–because a university is a workplace, too! Is it practical for faculty to be primarily responsible for knowing all of these? Along with their research, teaching, and service responsibilities? Or is it more practical to have some administrators who are responsible for these things? Often, people in administrative roles bring knowledge, experience, and skills that are valuable for the university.

Here’s another example, one I thought of after reading Rebecca Schuman’s June 16 column for Slate in which she discusses the situation of 56 Canadian academics applying in groups of 4 for the University of Alberta’s opening for its next President. She includes in her discussion the example of a highly-paid former Ohio State President who received a retirement package worth nearly $6 million. She writes,

“If Gee had selflessly capped his buyout at, say, a meager $1 million, the university could have offered $10,000 scholarships to 500 additional students (or hired 100 new faculty at $50,000 each, give or take).”

I totally get her point — that’s a ton of money!! — and I agree with her in principle to critique that kind of retirement buyout. But this isn’t quite how it works to fund scholarships or faculty lines. Let me explain. In her piece, she’s suggesting Gee take $5 million less for the buyout and saying what universities could otherwise do with the money. Yes, you could have 500 $10,000 scholarships, or 100 faculty paid $50,000 (but no benefits! and who would pay the EI tax?) — but they would all just be for ONE YEAR. And then the money would be gone. More accurately, $1 million dollars for financial aid could get you just THREE $15,000 scholarships for students for one year, but they would last over many, many years. That’s because you don’t just immediately spend all of the money you’re given, but you invest the $1 million and then use the annual returns to pay for the scholarships. (My calculation assumes a conservative 4.5% rate of return on a $1 million investment.) Then, you can maintain the scholarships every year.

Funding graduate students is even more expensive — the rule of thumb around here is that a $1 million dollar donation can get you ONE annual fellowship for a graduate student. Just one!! Schuman’s commentary reminded me of this good example of why universities need an administrator who serves in development. These people understand how much money you really need to fund student scholarships AND how to make them last a long time.

My point with these two examples is that the situation of having many administrators at universities is really complex, and it’s because the university is a highly complex organism. We need some of these people to coordinate the complexities, and having some of these people leave faculty to more freely to pursue their research and teaching. Is the system perfect? Of course not. But I’d love to see articles that reflect these issues and interrogate the complexities. Don’t just hate all of the administrators. (And don’t assume they are all overpaid.) Is our university changing? Seems to be. What’s changing about higher education to have more professional staff? I think it’s important to have these conversations, which help to shape the future of our universities as we are tackling important issues like contingent labor, student-athlete unions, and the globalization of higher ed. But let’s do it with the nuance and strong research that we as academics have been taught to do.


Keeping perspective while writing

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Finishing your thesis or dissertation, or being a faculty member with publishing responsibilities, requires a lot of time and energy spent writing (among many other things). Indeed, it is a big part of being in the academy, and it can also be a difficult process. The plethora of “how to be more productive” blog posts out there just goes to show how much we fixate on writing, as that’s a key indicator of productivity for graduate students and faculty alike. And hearing the phrase “how to be more productive” can just make you feel like a paper mill whose main goal is to churn out final projects, taking the joy out of the process.

What’s often lost is some perspective on why writing matters and why we write in the academy. I would argue that remembering why, and also being a bit more reflective by thinking about your writing, would help many people have a better relationship with the process and help them to actually finish those writing projects they are doing. Stick with me:

Why do academics write?

To paraphrase Garvey (1972), communication is the essence of academia (and grad school). Yes, you are engaged in research, hopefully research that you really enjoy doing. But, you don’t just work in the lab or do textual analysis — you write about what happened during your research and what you discovered for an external audience beyond yourself. To adapt a common phrase: “If you don’t publish it (or defend it), it didn’t happen.” But you don’t write because you have to write up the results of your research. We write theses, dissertations, and journal articles because we have learned important things and made critical connections that are valuable for other people to know about. (Who, or how many, can be debatable, but at the very least, if you’re doing it, then it should be something worth knowing for other people.) We don’t write for the recognition, to prove how smart we are, or to churn out work not worth anything. We write for an audience who relies on what we are doing; we write to help build an informed citizenry; we write so that others may build on our work. All of these things means that we must be writing about what we are doing as academics.

Keeping Perspective

So, then, do you think about this when you sit down to write your thesis, dissertation, or journal article? Or do you sit down and write and instead think of how difficult it can be to type the right words and finish the project? Next time you have a writing session, start by thinking about why you are writing what you are writing. You don’t have to dwell on it for a long time, but acknowledge your purpose. For example, if you are a doctoral student, keep some perspective on the process. Yes, it is a required document, and when you finish, you will earn a PhD or EdD. But you are really writing for a couple of key reasons that aren’t just about finishing. One, you are earning an entry ticket into a research profession. This means that your goals in writing are to demonstrate to a small group of people with strong research credentials who are tasked with determining that you have what it takes to find research problems, design methods for solving it, conduct research, and see a large project through to completion. As such, your dissertation reflects this — you write chapter summaries in your introduction, you use transition paragraphs to explicitly link one chapter with the next, or one section of literature with your choice of methods, and so on.

The other thing you are doing in writing a dissertation is you are contributing to a field of research. So, you are writing about how the things you’ve been doing for the last year (or two or four) are things that other people who are interested in your topic should know about. Information they could use in future research. Information that builds on a long line of studies on a topic. Information that has determined the best method for approaching a problem. And so on. You have valuable things to say to a community of people interested in your area, and without finishing a dissertation, they can’t know what you’ve done.

How can you do this?

I think keeping perspective in your writing can easily be done with a little knowledge of your genre. Why are people interested in the kind of writing that you are doing? Keep them in mind while writing. Don’t think about how you have to churn out five more pages and your chapter or article will be done. Instead, think about how you can best tell your readers what you have done and found. If you are writing a research article, then one of your goals is to communicate what you’ve done in a way that clearly connects to work already accomplished in the field. Your readers are going to be other researchers and graduate students, but you might also be surprised at the broader audience you might have — the rise of science communication, for example, means that well-educated writers may adapt your article for broader publics and in a variety of venues. So, when you are writing, think about how you can best share what you know with the people who want to know it. Keep the perspective. Don’t “churn out pages” or have a “binge-writing” session. Be thoughtful and purposeful, and I bet things will go more smoothly.

Questions to ask to help you keep perspective:

  • What is the main purpose for writing this piece?
  • Who is interested in the information I have to share?
  • What organization and ideas will best communicate this to them?
  • What am I contributing to the field by writing?
Dissertation writing in Hunt Library

Event recap: Dissertation Institute

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The week of May 12-16, Thesis and Dissertation Support Services held our first-ever Dissertation Institute for NC State’s doctoral candidates. We had a total of fourteen students participate, and they came from a variety of disciplines: electrical engineering, sociology, economics, physics, and biomedical engineering, to name just a few. They all came together for a week-long intensive “bootcamp” for their dissertations that I spent this spring developing. Here’s a short summary of  the events and program elements in case you are interested in implementing this for your own doctoral program or university:

Day 1

The first day began with a brief orientation where we reviewed policies for the week and all of the awesome spaces available to us at our primary site, NC State’s award-winning Hunt Library. We then began the official program with the first activity: visually mapping their dissertations. For this activity, we used the whiteboard walls of Hunt’s Creativity Studio.

Dissertation Mapping

Dissertation mapping 2

When students were finished mapping their dissertations, we had group introductions where they described their projects and their current status. We wrapped up the first session with the students writing down their goal for the week of the Institute.

Institute goals

They then began their first writing block of the Institute. We followed a similar schedule each day: Day begins at 9 with a group session; first writing block begins at 9:30; lunch break from 12-1 (although many students wrote through this!); second group session at 1pm; writing block from 1:30-3:30; and final recap session as a group at 3:30. Students often stayed from 4-6pm to continue to work on their projects — we had a really hard-working group! Today’s afternoon group session had students talking about their biggest challenges in dissertation writing. After the afternoon writing block, we ended with a group recap. Students shared what they accomplished on the first day and what their goals were for the following day.

Day 2

The second day began with a group session on using transitions in their writing to improve their argument. We covered key reasons why writers need transitions and practical examples of how they work in the genre of the dissertation. After this opening group session, we began a key part of the week: one-on-one meetings with dissertation writing consultants! Each student had a 30 minute appointment with a consultant to talk about any element of their dissertation writing they wanted to. These appointments were throughout the day during the morning and afternoon writing blocks.

A student in a one-on-one session with a consultant

Today’s after lunch group session was a presentation by NC State’s ETD Editor, Erica Cutchins. She covered all the critical things students need to know: deadlines, policies, and procedures. This session was a hit!  After an afternoon writing block, students gathered at 3:30 to share what they got out of their first consultant session. Everyone was in agreement: working with the consultants was immensely helpful.

Day 3

Day 3 took place in Hunt Library’s Teaching and Visualization Lab. We began with a group instructional session by one of our writing consultants, Dr. Margy Horton. She covered the dissertation writing challenge of using sources, and helpfully posted her materials on her website for all.

Margy Horton - Using Sources

After the opening group session, students again had their morning writing blocks. Day 3 and Day 4’s writing blocks included “open hours” with the writing consultants, where students could drop in at any time and work with them again. The consultants stayed busy! This was truly the most helpful part of the week for many. In the afternoon instructional session, I covered writing research article introductions and Swales’ CARS model for doing so effectively. Like the previous days, this was then followed by a two hour writing block and a final group session where students shared their progress today and their goals for tomorrow.

Writing Introductions

Day 4

Day 4 looked much the same as Day 3. Today’s morning session was on project management, led by yours truly. We covered reasons why the dissertation feels so overwhelming and how effective project management helps it feel at least a little less so. The session ended with a discussion of effective tools dissertation writers use to manage all of their materials. The morning writing block again had open hours for working with writing consultants. Today’s afternoon session was led by our other dissertation writing consultant, Dr. Ashley Kelly. She talked about how to manage dissertation writing while on the job market and tips for keeping all of your application materials organized. Students again had an afternoon writing session and ended with a group session recapping their accomplishments today and goals for tomorrow–the final day of the program!

Dissertation writing in Hunt Library

Day 5

The final day of the program was packed with activities to help students continue to make progress throughout the summer. We didn’t have an opening instructional session this morning; instead, we dove right into a final writing block. During this final writing block, students had appointment times with the writing consultants, which we called an “Exit Interview.” In this exit interview, students set goals for the next 30-90 days and made a plan for contacting their advisors and sharing the progress they made during the week.

Exit interview with Dr. Ashley Kelly

At noon, students packed up their things and we headed off to a Celebration Lunch! The UGSA generously provided them with lunch on the final day to celebrate the progress they made on their dissertations during the week. We also had a special guest speaker, Dr. Nick Taylor from the Communication Department, who came and talked to the students about how to finish their dissertations and maintain a good relationship with writing once they have headed off into their profession. We had a great conversation at lunch, and it was a highly positive note to wrap up the Institute on.

Dr. Nick Taylor

Takeaways from the Dissertation Institute

All in all, our participants found the week to be highly worth their while. The combination of writing blocks, mini-instructional sessions on a variety of topics, consultant appointments, and group discussions helped them in myriad ways and gave them tools to continue to make progress. In their evaluations of the Institute, students raved about the time they had working with the consultants, finding it immensely helpful to talk through their projects with someone. Many thanks to our excellent consultants, Dr. Margy Horton and Dr. Ashley Kelly. Finally, when asked if students would recommend the Institute to other students in their program on a scale of 1-5, 5 being, “Absolutely!” — every student said they would “Absolutely!” recommend it!