The Overworked College Administrator

Professors complain about growing workloads and often blame campus managers. But we’re drowning, too, writes Barbara Mainwaring.


August 10, 2007

Right after Labor Day each year, I offer bets to my administrative peers on how long it will take for a faculty member who’s been away from the college for the past three months to declare wearily, “I’m exhausted.” I never get any takers: We all know we’ll hear it the first day faculty return to campus from their vacations.

Now, I know it isn’t all fun and games at the beach for summering faculty who teach at colleges with traditional academic calendars. They’ve spent at least some of their time conducting research, writing papers for publication or presenting at conferences, developing course syllabuses, and reading texts they will assign to their students in the coming semesters. Having just spent a year reading piles of articles and a dozen books to prepare to teach just a couple of guest lectures in a fairly uncharted field as part of an established graduate course (with no reduction in my job duties), I have new respect and sympathy for the enormous amount of work faculty perform, as well as for the centrality of that work to a college’s mission.

Faculty are the pivot around which the college’s entire operation spins -- their role analogous to engineers’ in software firms and doctors’ in hospitals. Faculty form that contingent of skilled workers without whom there would be no education for students, and no work for administrators. In short, it’s all about them. Which is why we administrators, who, incidentally work all summer long -- often forfeiting earned vacation days because of the demands and deadlines of our jobs -- are not allowed to complain or even raise the subject of our own crushing workloads.

Online searches on Google, and even Inside Higher Ed, for information on “administrative workloads” turns up thousands of references -- about faculty workloads. And occasionally, graduate students’. To find any discussion of administrators’ workloads, I had to go to Australia -- to comments by the president of the Association for Tertiary Education Management on a report that had taken this topic under consideration in 2003. And even there, the issue was discussed from the perspective of administrators taking on more faculty work.

But, why can’t both faculty and staff be recognized as overworked? Does there have to be an oppressor (administrators) and the oppressed (faculty)?

As an administrative director at a small East Coast university, I spend my days performing meaningful, challenging work. Yet, like many other college administrators, even those at institutions with more than enough financial resources to hire adequate staff, I struggle daily with an impossible workload. Why this should be so, I’m not exactly sure, and I am unlikely to find out. At the college where I work, it’s verboten to bring up the subject with our supervisors, as damaging as it would be at a high-powered law firm where one was trying to make partner.

We directors are warned that those above us in the administrative hierarchy, that is, deans and vice presidents, “don’t want to hear it.” The slightest reference to the problem, in fact, elicits from our superiors one of two responses: Some euphemistic phrase accurately translated as, “Suck it up,” or a diatribe on the boss’s own heavy responsibilities.

This conspiracy of silence wasn’t always the case. About five years ago, my institution actually hired someone to analyze administrators’ workload. But the woman was given so many (unrelated) urgent projects that she has never gotten around to pursuing her original mandate. And, it’s unlikely that she ever will.

I suspect that the aversion to open discussion of administrators’ workload might be that such an acknowledgment contradicts the image of universities and perhaps of nonprofits in general as humane, caring institutions, where thoughtful deliberation, rather than wild-eyed speed, is the norm. Yet, my colleagues and I race around frantically, fragmented and frustrated by the number of committee assignments we have (yes, we are as “committeed” out as faculty are); by the hours of “pre-work” required for all the mandatory, yet largely irrelevant and often redundant, training sessions we must sit through; by the endless meetings large and small that put us even further behind than we would have been had we been feverishly producing at our desks; by the arcanely complicated bureaucratic paperwork we must complete, and the dozens of e-mails and telephone calls we are required to respond to each day, including weekends. And although we seldom have sufficient staff, we must mentor, direct, supervise, discipline and employ complicated processes to evaluate whatever staff, student workers, or interns we are fortunate enough to have snagged.

The number of administrators in higher education has grown steadily from 44,700 over the past decade or so. If there are more of us to do the work, why do we feel so overburdened? For one thing, colleges are educating more students and hiring more faculty -- many of them part timers -- to teach them. Seventeen million students and about 1.4 million faculty members are served and supported by about 800,000 administrators and professional staff, who recruit and evaluate the students, determine, coordinate, and award them financial aid, produce catalogs, now in print and online, schedule their courses, register them for classes, process their records, and oversee their daily lives. Administrators supervise the building and maintenance of additional classrooms, dormitories, and cafeterias in which to teach, house, and feed all these students. We write and review faculty contracts, calculate their paychecks and oversee their benefits (different for full-time and contract faculty), advertise their courses and special lectures, and keep track of academic department business.

Not only is the student population bigger, it is diverse, which often calls for customization. For example, adult learners, whose numbers have grown enormously over the past twenty years, might need schedules that differ from those of younger students, usually eschew campus living, and favor online classes or those held at satellite campuses more convenient to their jobs or homes. Administrators must arrange all of this.

Another explanation for the burgeoning administrative class is technology, which was supposed to make us all -- faculty, staff, students, and society at large -- more productive. Perhaps it has, but it has also necessitated large administrative departments to install and maintain hundreds and, in large institutions, thousands of computers, as well as sophisticated meeting, teaching, and library technology, and train students and faculty to use it all.

If my college is anything to go by, the expectations of parents, students, faculty, and staff alike have changed. Post-9-11, parents of undergraduates considering my college rank safety as their number one concern, thus the beefed up (and better trained) security personnel on campus. Parents’ second highest priority is career preparation. Traditional age undergraduates and their parents, as well as adult students, expect the college to staff career centers with counselors and libraries and up-to-date databases of desirable jobs to position students and alumni to compete in the marketplace. Faculty, staff, and students, reflecting the values present elsewhere in American society, demand a wider variety of foods prepared by chefs, short order cooks, and salad and sandwich makers to turn out healthy meals, and more cashiers to get everyone through the cafeteria checkout lines faster. And, finally, the entire college community expects there to be employees to shepherd guests to the parking lot, and greet and direct them, once inside. This all requires non-academic staff.

Although I was aware that my colleagues were as busy as I was, I had not realized how deeply it was affecting them because I was not privy to their private meltdowns. Then, a 35-year veteran at my college confessed that, overwrought by the amount of work she had on her desk and the thought that, once again, she would have to forgo a well-deserved day off, she had collapsed, sobbing, in a dean’s office. The dean related that she herself had nearly gone over the edge after rushing through a job for the president, only to be asked why it had taken her so long. The Friday after the director and dean swapped their stories, a staff member reporting to the director suddenly “lost it” -- that is, began sobbing on the job because of the volume of work she would have to accomplish over the weekend. The director now worried that her hard-working employee would quit, exacerbating an already dire situation. She also felt guilty for pushing down so much work: We directors are forced to treat our employees the way our bosses treat us, giving them ever greater amounts of work with ever more impossible deadlines. Accomplishing all this work only gets us more work. There is no such thing as capacity; it is assumed that we can always take on something more.

Unlike some managers, my boss always gives me public credit for my work and enthusiastically compliments its quality, and for that I am grateful. But there is never any acknowledgment of the nights, weekends and vacation days it costs me to produce that work. I once woke up with a fever, congestion and body aches. Too ill to shower, dress, and drive to my office, I called in sick. At 7:15 I sat down in my home office and worked, with a 20-minute break for lunch, until 5 p.m. So much for sick time.

But, actually, I was told by an HR director several years ago that the aggregate number of sick days taken by employees at my college has escalated, and that senior management is aware that much of our increased health care costs are due to treatments and medications for anxiety, depression, high blood pressure and other stress-related disorders.

As a result of this intelligence, I thought our bosses would consider that they might be driving us relentlessly. But their demands have not abated, even when they could. I served on a committee that required onerous amounts of clerical work from its members. There was sufficient money in the committee’s budget to engage a student worker to take meeting notes and handle some of the other paperwork the committee generated (and at the same time, be a part of an important college-wide initiative). But the committee’s senior manager, a process-oriented person who enjoyed generating reams of paper, flatly refused to hire administrative help, leaving the members with so much work that members began resigning.

I doubt that we would mind working this frenetically if we were rewarded by occasional exhilaration at having momentarily caught up. But to work like this day after day just to remain desperately behind is absurd.

We are overworked. Our bosses are overworked. Where is all this work originating? From the president? The Board of Trustees? Are their ambitions for the school no greater than ours, but their timetable less realistic?

I am now being asked to attend evening functions on behalf of the college. But, frankly, that’s where I might have to draw the line. After all, my nights are reserved for doing the overflow work I can’t possibly accomplish during my days.

P.S. After I wrote this, I mustered the courage to ask for more staff. On reviewing the case I presented for (including examples of typical days at work), my manager admitted that it was compelling. She has arranged for me to have more staff. Oh, and to take on more responsibilities ...


Barbara Mainwaring is the pseudonym of a middle manager at a private university on the East Coast.


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