Running the University (and everything else) like a Business


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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23 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I am shocked that this wasn’t picked up. It’s got unions, class issues, universities turning its back on former students… this was a great piece.

    The silly rules about operating budgets vs. capital funds is one hell of a perverse incentive. If they’re willing to put custodial in there, what else are they putting in there? Dean’s alcohol budget?

    How much money (overhead) would they really be saving by doing this? Is it really more than they’d lose in quality control and bad press?

    The “running a place like a business” needs to change to “running a place like a business that expects to be here five/ten/twenty years from now”. The willingness to eat its own seed corn so it won’t have to dip into its operating budget is stupid, stupid, stupid.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Jaybird says:

      probably because it’s not ‘Murica! (Heck Yeah!). But Maclean’s might run it as an example of the Harper House of Horror that is the present day Great White North.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kolohe says:

        Oooh! Good idea, Kolohe!

        Dude, mash the two posts together, put another 1000 words in there, and send it to Maclean’s. It’s worth a shot.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Kolohe says:

        Oooh! I did not think of that! Thanks!

        Interestingly, Maclean’s ran a piece a few years ago on Canada being one of the worst countries in the industrialized world in which to have a PhD. I remember it very distinctly because it came out the month before I defended my dissertation!!Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      Jay: Thanks! I did sent it to a number of left-leaning sites and I’ve noticed that some corners of the internet write more about identities and personalities than structures, which was my explanation. I was more surprised, actually, that the conservative publication I sent it to wasn’t interested. [Note: Alas, one of the best left-leaning sites I sent it to did get back with interest the day after it went up here- alas, I sort of jumped the gun!]

      The contract fight was mindblowing to me because the university spent a fortune on lawyers and took fourteen months, finally going to binding arbitration with the crown in order to fight their cleaners. However, the maintenance union was pushing for a raise to a “professional wage” because wages have been frozen for I think the last seven years for cleaners. So, I’ve heard it suggested that our university was under pressure from the other local universities not to cave and set a precedent. The other thing is, if you hire contract workers, they don’t get the sick leave, vacation time, pensions, and other perqs (reimbursed tuition for full-timers!) that regular workers would get.

      The drawback probably wouldn’t be bad press so much, but the quality of the work would drop off. Without getting too specific, some of the work we do is actually dangerous if done incorrectly, so I’m not sure how they’d handle that. But, in general, people get really pissed if their workplace looks filthy. So, maybe they’ll keep us. I have also considered whether this is an effort on their part to get a better contract in 2018, after a number of people will likely quit. They’re offering a payout to anyone who quits ($10,000!!), but since most of the regulars think they’re getting fired, MAYBE they could let them quit and keep the rest of us to twice as much work, but keep our jobs.Report

  2. Avatar Glyph says:

    I really liked the descriptions in the second and last paras, Rufus.

    Also, having once been a university student, I will just say that it is very possible the saboteurs are students, particularly on-campus-housed ones. They often get bored, and find novel or surprising ways to gain access to restricted areas and equipment. And monkey with them.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Glyph says:

      I’d think it could have been the students, but we’re definitely the key suspects with security. At least, they’ve posted all of their fliers asking for tips about the damages on the doors of the janitor’s closets or inside the closets, which seems to be clear enough. They also appealed to us at an already surreal annual departmental meeting. In their defense though, I think we’re the only ones aside from some tradesmen with the keys to get into those rooms.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Rufus F. says:

        You’d be surprised at what “keys” open which doors and start up what equipment. And on-campus students have nothing but time to try things.

        For example, we figured out how to open the dorm elevator’s exterior doors using a wire coat hanger and the emergency access hole while the car was on the floor below. You could then “ride” the elevator car from on top (there’s an override control on the roof you can use to “drive” the car; this causes great consternation to the unknowing and hapless passengers inside it). We also figured out that our dorm room keys could be used to start up the golf carts used by campus maintenance (leading to many a midnight joyride, some property damage, and occasional pursuit by campus police), as well as a Caterpillar machine and a scissor lift. My roommates once got into the baseball field sports equipment lockers somehow, and I came back to our room to find one of them dressed in full catcher’s regalia sitting on his bunk. When I visited my brother at his school, we got drunk one night and managed to get into the theoretically-locked performing arts building, and stupidly climbed backstage scaffolding until we got access to the roof. In high school a few of us got access to a storage room and stole a bunch of chocolate (we had to pay it back).

        Even if your university is using higher-tech access control like keycards and such, I wouldn’t put it past resourceful and bored students to figure out workarounds, like those kids who figured out how to steal cars that use key fobs and ignition buttons, using a $20 signal booster.Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    This is very well written, I don’t understand what the other publications are smoking that they didn’t pick it up. It also kind-of plays to my biases and opinions re: university administrations.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Re: The Graveyard Shift

    A decade ago when I was trying for a career as a theatre director, I heard being a legal proofreader was a great way to make money because it paid a fairly high wage (18-24 an hour) and was not as physically demanding as waiting or bar tending.

    In order to please the temp agencies, I would do a graveyard shift every now and then. These would also from 10 PM-6 AM or 12 AM-8 AM. They were also always for BigLaw firms.

    I always found the situation very strange because I would be sitting in a big office tower in the middle of the night and it would be in Midtown Manhattan or around Wall Street. I was living at home on Long Island and would head home as everyone else was pouring into work.

    The graveyard position was not just filled with freelancing proofreaders. There were a whole load of staff word processors working through the night making sure that documents were ready for the morning. There were also a bunch of staff proofreaders. The word processors tended to be blue-collar, the proofreaders tended to be people with artistic training. I remember one guy was a novelist and one woman was a composer. Or was it the other way around?

    I’d gathered that many of the typists were on the graveyard shift for years if not decades. I suppose there is a nice quiet to working the night shift, you don’t have an associate or partner on your back demanding that something be done now because they are usually at home asleep. You have a supervisor but she also had her assignments. There were about ten or so word processors and three or so full-time proofreaders.

    Still this is the Marvel of Global Capitalism that an overnight staff of word processors is necessary. I wonder if the recession destroyed these jobs?Report

  5. Another great piece.

    fits a university like a slot machine in a church

    I don’t think you’re a Heinlein reader, otherwise I’d suspect that was a Stranger in a Strange Land reference.Report

  6. Avatar aaron david says:

    A very good piece Rufus.

    One thing though:
    “At work they’ve started sabotaging the machinery that keeps the buildings functioning. It happens late at night and no one really knows quite how it’s going down, but they know for certain that someone or a small group of people is going into the mechanical rooms that regulate the buildings’ temperature, power supply, water flow, air flow, and countless other vital functions, and they’re shutting off machines, breaking others, turning the temperature up to stifling or down to freezing, sending too much water through the pipes, and even smashing the machines themselves, leaving the campus buildings in disarray. The most likely culprits are janitors”

    Its not janitors.

    Its the stationary engineers who are doing it. This is actually my true field, and most of the equipment to control what you are describing is pretty specific to the trade, and making even minor adjustments is quite difficult.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to aaron david says:

      Thanks! I am SO going to mention this tomorrow at work! Like I said above, Campus Security is really making it clear they think one of the cleaners did it, which given what you’re saying here is pretty hilarious.Report

  7. Avatar zic says:

    On publishing:

    First, I would try for print mags over on-line sites. Even though it seems a harder medium to break into, it gives you ‘credibility’ that makes it easier to convince on-line publishers to take a risk. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

    Second is the submission itself. When submitting a piece like this, scope out potential publications, spend some time looking at back issues, and try to identify a specific editor working on the publication to send a query; you’ll ask them if they want to see the piece, but not actually send it to them.

    Third is the nature of the query. It has to do three things. First, it has to give the editor a reason to publish the piece, so it must answer the question “Why is this timely.” That’s probably more important than the actual content of the piece you’re submitting, which is the second goal, a brief synopsis of the submission. Third is biographical, establishing you’ve got the chops to publish, and includes your portfolio of work, education, etc.

    It’s also helpful to work your network; who do you know who’s published in the types of places you want to submit? Ask for names and references. A real connection that pulls you out of the slush pile is a leg up; and it’s helpful to work those connections hard.

    One market you might want to consider is radio; I submitted some pieces to Maine Public Radio; had one accepted, and it opened a lot of doors for me. Not to mention that recording the piece was a blast. This piece seems like it would be quite comfortable on CBC; it’s lovely.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to zic says:

      Thanks for this advice. I will follow up on this.

      I should note that I posted this here because I simply hadn’t heard back from a number of sites after a few months of shopping it around. With my unerringly bad sense of timing I did hear back this morning from a site that is very popular and pays pretty well asking if they could run it, provided it had not been run elsewhere. They had a “crazy March” apparently.. So, clearly, I should be taking all the advice on publishing I can get and not relying on my instincts, which are usually not great!Report

  8. Avatar Damon says:

    “Sensing an unnecessary expense…..replaced with whatever company bids the lowest.”
    Damn right they will.
    “I have been told that, if we work hard enough until then, we could be recommended to be rehired by that contracted company and work the same job, part-time, for minimum wage. The old-timers are understandably glum.” Yes, the “recommendation” that goes to the circular file. No one’s hiring a bunch of older workers with the associated higher costs when they can get cheaper younger folks to do the job and be less disgruntled.

    ““Running a university like a business” also requires, for some strange reason, creating a bloated and top heavy, well-renumerated, administrative structure to implement this yield-driven “free market” model that fits a university like a slot machine in a church.”
    Nah, that’s just the excuse. A bureaucrat’s job is to preserve and extend his work. All those folks aren’t really necessary. In fact, people who are not used to working in a for profit organization that relentlessly focuses on managing costs and profitability cannot make the transition well to that model.Report

    • Avatar Barry in reply to Damon says:

      When somebody talks about ‘running [public, non-profit whatever] like a business, it always means that those somebodies want to be in a small, extremely well-paid and powerful elite, sucking all of the money.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Barry says:

        Oh? I’ll be glad to tell the old biddies you approve of them using SLIDE RULES, and can’t fucking be bothered to support those of us with enough talent to let five people do the work of 500.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Damon says:

      the search for “profitability” has cost our non-profits direly. Unless you really think it’s acceptable for the Komen Foundation to support more cancer causing activities…Report

  9. Avatar Damon says:

    The old guys know they are going to get hosed because they will. Being recommended means nothing. BFD.

    ““Running a university like a business” also requires, for some strange reason, creating a bloated and top heavy, well-renumerated, administrative structure to implement this yield-driven “free market” model that fits a university like a slot machine in a church.” No it doesn’t, that’s just the BS they claim. A bureaucrat desires to expand and increase his power and authority. Those are the lies they tell to expand their scope. It’s been my experience that those who don’t come from the for profit world don’t make the transition well and end up making things worse, so odds are, this will all end much worse.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Damon says:

      “No it doesn’t, that’s just the BS they claim. A bureaucrat desires to expand and increase his power and authority. Those are the lies they tell to expand their scope.”

      Yeah, sadly, I think this is dead on. I know an increasing number of university presidents do come from the profit world now, but the BIG caveats are they don’t seem to have spent a lot of time there, they often have NO experience with academia, and they’re coming into a hugely artificially inflated market anyway. The deanlets and deanlings and other bureaucrats beneath them, meanwhile, have spent their professional career in this world trying to establish more offices and more underlings.Report