Streamlining 'Shadow Work'

Cornell looks for ways to cut time professors spend on administrative requirements, as opposed to teaching and research.

November 8, 2016
 
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Bagging our own groceries, printing out boarding passes, pumping our own gas -- everyone's day involves some "shadow work," tasks that previously would have been performed by someone else paid to do them. But academics’ professional lives increasingly are subsumed by such shadow work, and the implications for their core efforts are stark. How much actual research does a researcher get to do, for example, when he or she spends hours a week on various administrative burdens?

While faculty shadow work is a widely acknowledged problem, it’s gone unaddressed at many institutions. It’s rarely, if ever, out of malice. But administrators who want some information think nothing of sending a survey to hundreds or thousands of professors and giving them a deadline. It only takes a click from a central office, but it's one more task for professors.

Cornell University is trying stem the tide with a new initiative aimed at recentering academic work on academics.

“There’s a core group of faculty here that’s very sensitive to this issue, and we have to address it, or it’s a path to perdition,” said Sol Gruner, John L. Wetherill Professor of Physics at Cornell and a member of its new working group on bureaucracy reduction. “We’ve also had an administration that’s been sensitive to the fact that academics are feeling increasingly put upon in this way.”

Gruner chaired a committee of arts and sciences faculty members that produced a 2015 report on streamlining research administration. The committee found that administrative burdens on faculty and staff have “grown explosively at Cornell” and are now a “major impediment to the successful functioning of the university.” The report identified two main sources of burden: shadow work, which it defined as the displacement of work from trained staff onto faculty, and “overzealous risk management, which paralyzes research function.”

Regarding shadow work, the report says that there was a time when “faculty and staff research travel was largely handled by a university travel office and when much of the routine burden of writing papers and grants, requesting reimbursements, collecting information for sponsored project progress reports, performing inventories, etc., was handled by secretarial and unit office staff. No longer.”

Today, the committee continued, “faculty and research staff are increasingly required to do these things themselves. In polling colleagues across the college about research inefficiencies, we find the growth of shadow work -- the movement of work that does not require a great deal of training to perform from lower-paid staff to more highly trained and paid faculty and staff -- to be a serious problem at the root of many complaints pertaining to red tape and work inefficiency. We believe that nothing is more corrosive to academic excellence than squeezing out all time to think.”

Shadow work creeps because it seems likes a simple way to cut personnel cuts, according to the report. But it’s often just assumed that replacement processes foisted onto faculty members, such as data entry, will save time or costs over all.

While the new faculty or staff user “incurs considerable mental overhead in task switching, especially for tasks that are performed only occasionally,” the report says, “a staff member serving many end users can get very efficient at collecting and entering information simply because they do it more often.”

To reduce shadow work, the committee emphasized drawing a clear distinction between centralized staff and those embedded in academic units. While centralized staff often create more work for faculty members, localized staff often reduce it. The report argues, for example, that professors “with major research enterprises are in effect the CEOs of small companies and as such need significant support.”

Next, the committee urged rigorous study, or “validation,” of new policies and procedures that are supposed to save time or costs.

“The understanding must be that, without exception, the new process will not be implemented until the end-user group is of a consensus that the new process is (a) required, and (b) on balance less work than the process being replaced, and (c) not redundant with other processes,” the report says. “A sustained, long-term solution will require a deep understanding of what shadow work is, and the development of ways to quantitatively measure it” as scholars.

Administrative tasks for further study include travel, purchasing, reimbursement, human resources issues, safety reporting, progress reports to sponsors and administrative units.

“How many hours a month are typically being spent performing each function?” the report asks.

The committee proposed a five-part plan to alleviate the administrative burdens on faculty and staff, including recommitting to the notion that Cornell’s highest goal is excellence in research and teaching, and making “all decisions about policy and procedure through this lens.” Other ideas include limiting and in some cases reversing the centralization of staff and appointing an “anti-red tape czar” to oversee and adopt streamlining efforts.

The group had the support of Cornell’s president, Elizabeth Garrett. But she died of cancer in March, just six months after her inauguration, putting the bureaucracy reduction initiative somewhat on hold.

Cornell’s new interim president and president emeritus, Hunter R. Rawlings III, has since backed the initiative.

“The time faculty and academic staff spend on tasks not directly related to the academic mission has grown as compliance requirements and the use of technology have increased, and the hidden costs of this shadow work have become a critical issue throughout higher education,” Rawlings said in a recent statement. “Faculty and academic staff time should be prioritized toward our primary goal of excellence in scholarship -- learning, discovery and engagement.”

Rawlings, Gruner and mix of other faculty members and administrators have formed a new working group dedicated to the issue of reducing bureaucracy, of which shadow work is a major contributor. “We’re looking at what’s consuming our time and how we can reduce it so we can more effectively teach and do research,” Gruner said. “Our approach is to ask common-sense questions when we’re undergoing a change in procedure or doing some new kind of survey … about whether we’re decreasing the work load and whether we’re improving the situation in terms of what people have to do ancillary to their job.”

First up is testing Concur, an integrated travel management system the university is considering adopting. The dean of the faculty is currently accepting volunteers to test whether the program actually saves them time, compared to their current practices for arranging and getting reimbursed for work-related travel.

Gruner said arranging travel through, say, a travel agent 15 to 20 years ago took a 15-minute phone call. Now it can take the faculty member working on his or her own up to an hour or more, he said -- at a significant cost to the university.

“That’s not really why I was hired -- I was hired to do teaching and research,” he said. Testing the system and not just assuming it is efficient is the kind of change that this effort wants to see become the norm.

Charlie Van Loan, dean of the university faculty, said the "benefit to Cornell is obvious — more time for teaching and research. One wasted 15-minute slot spent on pointless bureaucracy can ruin a whole day."

Shadow work isn’t new. But at Cornell and elsewhere, Gruner said, the 2008 financial crisis brought new efforts to shrink budgets -- meaning reductions in clerical and other staff and the displacement of certain kinds of work onto faculty members.

Information on how much time shadow work costs faculty members is scant, probably because it’s hard to measure and varies widely from discipline to discipline and institution to institution. Gruner's own demands differ from those placed on a faculty member in a department with large numbers of undergraduates, many of whom will want recommendation letters to pursue graduate school, for example, he said. And of course demands placed on Cornell professors will differ from those placed on community college instructors, who have large course loads and often large class sizes -- and often less administrative support.

Shadow work is also distinct from other administrative demands placed on faculty members, such as that related to federally funded research. But it’s safe to say that reducing shadow work would at least help alleviate other administrative pressures on faculty members, which remain high.

Two separate surveys of investigators by the Federal Demonstration Partnership, in 2005 and 2012, for example, found that principals of federally sponsored research projects spend, on average, 42 percent of their time on associated administrative tasks. A National Science Board task force on administrative burdens convened in 2012 found that researchers’ most burdensome requirements included financial management, the grant proposal process and progress and other outcome reporting.

A 2014 National Science Foundation report on the matter concluded that failure to address these issues has resulted in wasted federal research dollars, and that at a time of fiscal challenges and with low funding rates at many federal agencies, “it is imperative that these issues are addressed so that researchers can refocus their efforts on scientific discovery and translation.”

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