Monday, May 2, 2016

An Open Letter to Dean Sprocket

Dear Dean Sprocket,

According to a certain theorem, as the numbers of monkeys, typewriters, and/or hours approach infinity, the probability approaches 1 that such a system will recreate the works of William Shakespeare. Given the available monkeys at the average zoo, some crayons, and a few hours, we'd have recorded for posterity the intellectual equivalent of your blog post of the other day.

Quite certain that you and my dean are one in the same, I detoured through your building to tell you off in person, only to find you already gone for the day. By your own "office occupancy analysis" we could therefore confirm that at any given time, you are at most 0% useful to our school. Now you see why we faculty are perfectly justified in thinking that you should pull in at least 100% of your salary from handouts dropped into a styrofoam cup next to your body splayed inertly in front of the methadone clinic, and that you should receive all other provisions from the dumpster behind the Popeyes at Pulaski and Highland.

Were you the least bit objective about yourself, your mad skillz in pop-psych would have long ago led you to conclude that you are the embodiment of both The Peter Principle and The Dunning-Kruger Effect, wrapped in one, innumerate, sociopathic package. With the confidence that only ignorance begets, you see issues as easy, until you're the one who has to solve them. Then, frustrated at how your simplistic decisions and unfunded mandates don't bear instant fruit, you retreat into your primate brain to fling feces. (I fear that I am now lowering myself by flinging the feces back, but I need some satisfaction in my life, and you've sucked almost all of that from my job and even my free time.)

You were surely a generic grade-school bully who held your prey's head in the toilet, but now you are more of a stereotypical "mean girl". Not content that evidence will persuade your opposition, you seek instead to undermine. You undermine our expertise, our authority, our sense of self-worth, and our belief in each other. You make us compete for inadequate resources and then smirk from the sidelines while we turn on each other. Is this something they teach in management school? I risk ascribing to malevolence what can be explained by incompetence: once, when I name-dropped W. Edwards Deming, you "corrected" me that he'd retired from the US Supreme Court years ago.

Given that you've never run a course nor even stood in front of a classroom for more than a few minutes per annum, I found your ideas on TED Talks, uh, "interesting". But this is a great opportunity for you to innovate by example. Next time you want to call a meeting, you should just go ahead and get a webcam and present your part of the meeting to your computer, and the committee will watch it just as soon as we have nothing better to do. Then, instead of being met with eyerolls and snores, your reports will be much more tolerable and informative: even if we mute the sound, we'll still know that you're spewing bullshit because we'll see your lips moving. There, see? I saved you all that time giving reports and made us a drinking game. But don't stop at just one of your miraculous, "time-saving" reports; make us a whole bunch! What's that? Recording takes just as much time as appearing in person? You don't say! Next time you're using that shiny box on your desk to check your stock performance, use the Google thingy to look up how many tens of hours go into preparing a few minutes of TED Talk. Look up "ultracrepidarianism" while you're at it. That's Google. G. O. O. Oh, fuck it.

My colleagues and I are quite adept at maths, thank you, thus your condescension about our understanding of averages was misplaced. Also misplaced was your thinking that we wouldn't hep to your jive that we are paid competitively. You see, when you compare us to a pool that includes several private colleges that have prep schools, and those schools and colleges compensate their faculty in part by providing on-campus housing, and you include only the take-home cash of said faculty in the overall salary averages, that shit has a way of coming out. And when it does, it looks and smells like you were hiding something, because, well, you were hiding something.

But what you're trying to hide most is how much you're fucking up. That stick lodged in your colon is a poor substitute for a spine when it comes time for you to pry funds from the board's talons, assuming you had any kind of vision for things that might require funding, which you don't. You can only pass along the numbers that your underlings provide, but to appear like you're actually doing something yourself, you "hold the line" when faculty bring you ideas that require investment. You are rewarded handsomely for "running a tight ship", but that will persist only as long as you keep the board oblivious to the conditions below deck.

You are squandering wonderful faculty who came from the best schools in the nation for the chance to work alongside each other. They have demonstrated astounding productivity with the meager resources they've been given; however, after a decade of colleagues being replaced at half the rate they are lost, we who remain have questioned whether we should remain loyal to an institution (or its "customers") when that loyalty is clearly not returned. Duty to each other is all that keeps some of us here, but we also concede that at some point, we all have to look out for number one. You could make such great strides if you regarded employees not as a necessary evil, but as a resource to respect and enjoy. But that would require that you regard this resource as human.

I once saw you as a human. It was a mild, spring day about a year ago, at a nearby country club for the afterparty of our president's inauguration. (I'm not sure why I was invited, and less sure why I attended; I always feel like an imposter at such things.) To pass the time, I decided to see if I could pry some dirt about one trustee from another. In need of more social lubricant, I sidled to the bar where your gin and tonic was being refilled. I offered you a "nice party, huh?" and you nodded assent, and as I discreetly emptied my drink in the awkward lull that followed, I almost launched into my usual joke about how I think presidential searches should be run. (They ask you one question: do you want this job? If you answer yes, you are declared incompetent; the first to say "fuck, no" is drafted.) But instead I blurted, "So, do you come here often?"

You said "Yeah, I'm a member… was..." and I suddenly saw it all. In the crow's feet of your bittersweet squint, in your hair just recently turned white---of course. You had to know the odds were against you, that presidents are always hired from outside the institution. Yet if you didn't toss your hat into the ring, the higher-ups would judge you harshly. So you'd nursed the illusion of possibility, until they finally passed you over and then served that shitty meal's custard, of all places, here. How could you come back after that?

I flashed on how I didn't make the cut for my high school's senior play, and then I was somehow talked into helping the pretty-boy lead work on his part. That was the fresh hell you were facing, and I wanted to spare you from dwelling on it, at least for the few minutes of the party. I mumbled something about how the new president, never a dean or instructor of record himself, was facing an uphill climb. You said if he did his job right, he'd always be pissing someone off. But I could tell you were talking about your own job.

Aw, fuck.

Drink with me again. I know you like golf, and there's a course near me to which I have some guest passes. (I seldom play, so you'll have the pleasure of kicking my ass; in return, I get to drive the cart.) We'll have some drinks, hit a quick nine or so, then retire to a pub I know, where many good beers are on tap. We'll get so buzzed that we'll need an Uber to take us home.

At the pub, I'll tell you about the man who stuffed all his savings under his mattress while his house fell apart around him. He ended up losing it all. Then I'll tell you about the man who dipped into his savings to make repairs as needed, and who even invested in some upgrades, the results of which he enjoyed for a few years until he moved. His house appreciated more quickly than the others in his neighborhood, and he turned a handsome profit. Then I'll tell you how you could enjoy these next few years till you retire on a high note. I will divine your legacy.

Ogre Proctor Hep.


  1. This started out as 100% proof, grade A snark and took a surprising, moving turn to the compassionate. Thanks OPH. Would that you could hit "Send" on it.

  2. Learned another new word.
    And, felt my heart grow a size too.

  3. I, too, appreciate the turn toward reconciliation at the end. I like to complain about administrators as much as the next person, but there are some good people in those positions (as well as some not-so-good people who have, indeed, been encouraged, and elevated, by forces beyond their control). The system, and the perverse incentives built into it, much more than individuals, strikes me as the problem (of course there's the question of how the system came to be, and what the human beings who created it were thinking, but that was probably a gradual process, and the road to hell sometimes really is paved with good intentions -- accountability, student support, saving the taxpayers/tuition-payers money, etc., etc.)

    That said, can we please, please think twice before we produce any more higher ed administration Ph.D.s, or even M.A.s? Getting a handle on costs *is* going to have to mean cutting administrative positions, because there just isn't anywhere else left to cut, and the laid-off personnel can't all be librarians and IT support staff and counselors/tutors. And when that happens, we're going to have another lost generation of people who got Ph.D.s in what they thought was a growing, in-demand field. A traditional Ph.D. (especially in a relevant field with some industry options: Stat/Applied Math, Psychology of various sorts, economics, etc.), fine; an MBA with a focus on the business of higher ed, (more or less) fine; but please no more higher ed administration grad degrees. It's just another higher-ed disaster waiting to happen.

    And Dean Sprocket's time is better spent on the links with OPH. He might learn something, and at least he won't be telling us how to teach while he's out there.

  4. Have highly-paid administrative position proliferated while moderately-but-securely-paid permanent faculty positions withered and vanished in other institutions as well as my own? What the hell are all these administrators DOING? Beyond creating more administration positions and hiring their friends, I mean.

  5. Somehow beguiling and beautiful, indeed.
    Thank you, OPH.

  6. More evidence – if any were needed – that OPH is a better person than I am.

    Rather than golf, I’d like my version of Dean Sprocket to go hunting…with Dick Cheney.

    Lovely post, OPH, and the middle paragraphs may end up on my office wall.

  7. You are all too generous. More thoughts later, but Merely Academic, the short answers are "yes" and "sucking up faculty salary lines".

    1. Oops, Cassandra was making the same point about administrative bloat.

  8. Apparently I can't remain angry with anyone, or persist in dehumanizing even the dean, beyond a certain point. It's obviously a character flaw.

    I seem to have veered from my intended investigation into the implications of Sprocket's views on faculty quality. How good must a dean be to hire and retain faculty "who will be happy to get an offer, any offer" and whose reasons for staying "can only be Stockholm Syndrome, Daddy didn't love you enough [etc.]" as he says? Could he be guilty of projection when he claims "the popular kids still don't want to come to your lame party", and isn't the party his as well? Ah, enough of this for now.

    @Curly, would that I could hit "send" indeed. I actually did send it, not to the alleged addressee, but to CM. It now strikes me that preparing a letter for this audience is far different from preparing a "do not send" letter that truly no-one else will see. For one thing, I tried much harder to be articulate and entertaining. Perhaps being a bit amused by my own snark got me more quickly to the edge of finding (or hoping for) some good in the dean and solutions to an erstwhile intractable problem.

    @EC1, hunting with Dick Cheney could solve the problem. It also occurs to me that golfers have been knocked unconscious by stray balls, and that some golf courses have alligators in their ponds.

    With my gall bladder adequately vented for now, I have discovered yet more solutions, which I have discussed with my colleagues. We'll see how it works out.

    @CCC and Bubba, thank you.

    @Cassandra, agreed on all points. Inasmuch as a higher ed grad degree is aimed at a particular type of job, perhaps the approach of one of the programs at my joint would be applicable. Said program's accrediting body has effectively capped the number of degrees nationwide (and perhaps regionwide; I don't know all details) granted per year by capping each program's enrollment. Before a new program can be accredited, or an existing one's cap raised, evidence must be given that its graduates will be able to find employment. (Surely caps can be lowered during re-accreditation, too.) The result is that there will be no "lost generation" of newly minted degree holders with no jobs to absorb them.

    I think a good cap for total higher ed grad degrees per annum would be the total number of institutions divided by 20. We only need one or two of those punks per institution, and once entrenched, their shelf life can be measured in decades.