Last semester, Provost John Coatsworth “offered a single, loud cheer” at the April 1 Columbia University Senate Plenary, held on a quiet Friday afternoon. Coatsworth, whose utterances many of us believed were strictly limited to the destruction of organized graduate labor, actually had good reason to “offer cheer” on this balmy spring day: According to a faculty quality-of-life survey—the first issued of its kind—75 percent of Columbia faculty are satisfied with their experience at this school.
But as I read more of the survey, its results appeared less glossy. Only 40 percent of faculty members—representing both the Morningside campus and Columbia University Medical Center—participated. The greatest areas of faculty satisfaction were with the libraries, the quality of Columbia students, and the benefits package. Areas of dissatisfaction (referred to as “opportunity areas”) included funding for research support and space for meetings, conferences, and collaborative work.
Other “opportunity areas” included administrative support staff. We'll get to that in a little bit.
To me, the saddest finding of the survey is that while about two-thirds of Columbia's faculty feel that their colleagues value their research and scholarship, and 90 percent feel that students value their teaching, less than 40 percent feel that Columbia as an institution values their teaching. It sounds odd that education, one of the key reasons both faculty and students come to Columbia, is seemingly undervalued by the school itself. Why is this?
A few nights ago, I, like Coatsworth, also jubilantly “offered a single, loud cheer” after conducting some research of my own. I thought it would be interesting to examine Columbia from the human resources perspective, taking into account the size and breakdown of full-time faculty, part-time and graduate instructors, and the size of Columbia's “administration” (more on those saucy quotation marks later). I made a lot of Excel spreadsheets using information from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS (an offshoot of the U.S. Department of Education). What I found was consistent with many of the trends that people now cite as blights on higher education: the ballooning size of administrative bureaucracy, the increased reliance on non-tenured professors, and the disappointing male-to-female full-time faculty ratio. Perhaps my findings might offer insight into the reason Columbia doesn't value its faculty.
A dip into the data
A brief summary of my findings from IPEDS: While Columbia has been modestly increasing the size of its full-time faculty on the Morningside campus (it grew by 271 professors over the course of nine years—from 2005 to 2014), the percentage of professors not eligible for tenure has increased markedly. In 2005, the number of non-tenure-track professors was around 12 percent of the total number of full-time professors. In 2014, it was around 29 percent.
I'm now compelled to think about my own experiences with professors at both Columbia and Barnard. During my first two years here (and now beginning my third), I've only had one professor who was not on the tenure track (she is classified as a “lecturer” in a foreign language, and, according to the American Association of University Professors, 90 percent of all full-time lecturers are non-tenure track). Without giving away too many of her personal details, I want to go on the record as saying she is one of the most engaged, dedicated, intelligent, and caring professors I've ever had at college. In addition to giving me valuable advice about doing research abroad in France, she offered French movie nights for extra credit, final exam study sessions that doubled as cheese tastings, grammar help before quizzes, and constant, thorough feedback on how her students could improve a written piece. I could understand that, if my professor filled out the survey, she might report she felt valued by her students—and why she might feel undervalued by Columbia.
While I don't mean to suggest that any professor who is on a non-tenure track automatically deserves to be eligible for tenure—running a university is a business, I get it—I do find the increased percentage of non-tenure track professors troubling. Clearly, Columbia is putting its economic ends before the well-being of its full-time professors.
Then, of course, one must remark on the fact that the average monthly salary of full-time male professors has been consistently higher than that of female professors in every single job category. And the closer you look, the more bemusing things become. As just an example—and unfortunately a double whammy for my amazing French professor—the job of lecturer, the position receiving the lowest monthly salary, is also the only one that has consistently been filled by either more women than men, or an approximately equal number of both genders. Even so, female lecturers are paid less than male ones across the board. And while that elusive “Instructor” category looks promising for the champions of gender parity (for 2014-2015 at least), its ranks are probably reserved solely for the likes of Amal Clooney.
Now, I want to think about all the full-time professors I've had here. Excluding visiting professors, adjunct professors, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, I've had a total of four full-time female professors and nine male ones—about 30 percent women. This is actually pretty consistent with Columbia's average: There has only been a 5 percent increase recently in its proportion of female professors, from 30 percent in 2005 to 35 percent in 2014. More troublingly, Columbia is only beginning to narrow the pay gap between male and female professors: In 2005, the average pay gap was 34 percent. In 2014, it was 27 percent.
The deliberate pattern of employing fewer tenured full-time professors has also coincided with an increased reliance on part-time and graduate instructors on the Morningside campus. The number of part-time instructors has increased by 612 over the period of 2005-2014, or a rise of 81 percent (for reference, the amount of full-time instructors increased by only 21 percent in the same period of time). The number of graduate instructors has increased by 821, or 84 percent. Though the Columbia GWC-UAW has already made a strong enough argument on its own for why these instructors should be permitted to unionize, the fact that they seem to be replacing the role of some full-time professors only bolsters their case.
Again, I am inclined to reflect on my experiences with part-time and graduate instructors. I've been taught by two adjuncts, four graduate students, two postdoctoral fellows, and two visiting professors. While the average student might look at those numbers—and the general data trends—as cause for outrage, I actually don't think that part-time and graduate instructors are necessarily a bad thing. My instructors in the creative writing department have all been part-time, and their feedback on my writing has led to a confidence in my voice and style that I never had before coming here. The first history class I ever took at Columbia was taught by a postdoctoral fellow and is the very reason I decided to major in the discipline. The best class I've ever taken here, a seminar on the history of Pakistan from 1924 to 2014, was taught by a visiting professor. A friend of mine was in a Contemporary Civilization section taught by a graduate student who has just been appointed literary editor of The Nation. Other students have had the opportunity to take classes with world-renowned musicians, foreign scholars, and a practicing lawyer who brings his students on a trip to the Supreme Court every October.
These classes, and the people who teach them, enrich our undergraduate experience in a way that full-time professors—who are tethered to the demands of research and perhaps more insulated from life outside the ivory tower—sometimes cannot.
That said, the fact that the rise in part-time and graduate instructors coincides with the decrease in the rate of full-time hires is concerning. The examples I gave above represent only a sample—and perhaps not a representative one—of the kind of part-time professors Columbia hires. Indeed, my writing professors all have robust lives in the publishing world outside of their adjunct positions at Columbia, the visiting professors have positions at other universities, and I'm pretty certain The Nation pays its editors. The people who do lose out—and I'm sure there are hundreds—are the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who subsist on stipends with no form of guarantee they'll have a job in academia when they look for one, and the part-time faculty who are hired on a year-by-year basis and aren't entitled to leave, benefits, or any form of job security.
When students criticize the “administration,” we tend to conflate two disparate, though equally vexing, phenomena. The first phenomenon is the Goldberg Factor: the intractable power of a few figureheads, which has been long anthologized in everything from trenchant Spec think-pieces to student theater. The second phenomenon is the metastasizing numbers of administrators who we can't name, whose salaries presumably divert funding away from hiring more professors or offering adjuncts and graduate students better benefits. This is the Anonymity Factor. People tend to erroneously conflate the former and the latter—take for example, David Frum of The Atlantic, suggesting that college diversity officers represent an existential assault on the institution of higher education, when they only make up a minor portion of all administrators.
David (and the rest of us, for that matter) would do well to pay attention to the latter phenomenon. It might explain the aforementioned faculty dissatisfaction with administrative support staff (jobs that are distinct from what a bigwig like Goldberg might be tasked with).
But as you can see in the above graph, which was also created using IPEDS data, charting anonymity presents some problems of its own. If you were to judge from the three graphs above, you would think that the size of Columbia's administration on the Morningside campus has either decreased, stayed about the same, or increased in size by about 134 percent. I don't think any of these outcomes are accurate.
The data begins simply: There were 1,567 individuals with “executive/administrative/managerial” positions in 2005. That number climbed steadily to 2,414 in 2012, which is a depressing enough number in itself, but definitely consistent with the trends in the years prior. But, because of an outgrowth of classifications into which non-instructional staff were sorted (a list of those classifications can be seen at the bottom of this article*), numbers after 2012 become almost impossible to cobble together. For example. if you combine office and administrative support occupations and business and financial operations occupations for the 2012-2013 academic year, the sum is 2,451, a number that seems reflective of the previous increases in administration size (though perhaps not as dramatic as growth in previous years).
But after that academic year, we enter a Wild West of bureaucratic tumbleweed. The total number of office and administrative support occupations and business and financial operations occupations for the 2013-2014 academic year is 1,748, down from 2,451 in 2012—but it's highly unlikely that Columbia fired 693 people from the year before. If you look to other classifications, some things do begin to make sense: it appears that many individuals who had been classified as “administrative support” were later classified as “management occupations.” For example, in 2012-2013 there were 732 people in “management occupations” roles, but in 2013-2014, that number skyrocketed to 1,733, while the number of office and administrative support occupations declined from 1,985 to 1,242. There were only six job classifications from the 2005 academic year to the 2011 academic year. In the 2012 and 2013 academic year, there were thirteen. In 2014, there were twelve.
Even if the difference between someone who is classified as “administration” one year and “management” the next is purely semantic, this has disturbing implications. Quite simply, it is impossible to say just how many people are actually in Columbia's administration.
IPEDouS Rex: The Columbian tragedy
Even if we can't chart administrative bloat accurately, it is possible to draw a scaffold of the kinds of jobs that Columbia considers to be “administrative support,” and perhaps understand the construct looming behind the semantics. On their employment opportunities website, Columbia is currently hiring for 21 administrative positions on the Morningside campus. These jobs include roles like Administrative Assistant in Business Services (“comprehensive administrative support for the Procurement Office staff”), Executive Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute (“oversees all aspects of strategic planning and management for the Institute, consistent with the Institute's mission”), and Associate Director-SOGR (“overseeing the preparation and renewal of apartments, suites and units occupied by students, post-doctoral research fellows, faculty and staff”).
Looking at these postings made me sympathize with the Grand Columbia Auditor (presumably a senior administrator) who is tasked with classifying their non-instructional staff for each academic year. I personally would have a hard time deciding if an administrative assistant in business services should be classified as administrative support or business operations. I can understand why the data is inconsistent. The problem is, there is probably no way to go back and uncover the “true” growth of the size of Columbia's administration (by adhering to a consistent definition of “administrator pre-2012, and post-2012”).
Let's return to the faculty quality of life survey. 30 percent of Columbia faculty at any time say they are likely to leave within three years. At last semester's Senate plenary meeting, President Bollinger (perhaps blissfully unaware that 29 percent of Columbia's faculty are untenured and therefore would have no guarantee of being at the school in three years) offered this insight:
“In a way, everybody's always thinking about leaving. It's a restless group; life is miserable in front of that blank page. But the key point is that there may be, with deeper analysis, some actions to take that can make life better for everybody in a meaningful way.” (And with that, a sadcolumbiaboys caption was written).
But how does Bollinger, and the rest of the University administration (the figureheads, that is), propose to do that if they continue to clog their numbers with more administrators? And who will perform that meaningful “deeper analysis?” A new administrator? Even then, in the survey, faculty cited “administrative support staff” as one of their biggest areas of dissatisfaction. And here's the larger question: Does Columbia even know how many administrative support staff it has, especially since the numbers it reports to the U.S. Department of Education aren't internally consistent? Who could do some hardcore machine learning, AI, regression analytics, and figure out the true number of administrators who make up the hidden ranks of Columbia?
Hm. Sounds like the kind of research for some grad students.
*List of excluded classifications for 2005-2006 to 2011-2012: Other professionals (support/service), Technical and paraprofessionals, Clerical and secretarial, Skilled crafts, and Service/Maintenance
List of excluded classifications for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014: Archivists, Curators, and Museum Technicians, Librarians, Library Technicians, Other Teachers and Instructional Support Staff, Computer, Engineering, and Science Occupations, Community Service, Legal, Arts, and Media Occupations, Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations, Service Occupations, Natural Resources, Construction, and Maintenance Occupations, Production, Transportation, and Material Moving Occupations, and Research
List of excluded classifications for 2014-2015: Library and Student and Academic Affairs and Other Education Services Occupations, Computer, Engineering, and Science Occupations, Community, Social Service, Legal, Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media Occupations, Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations, Service Occupations, Natural Resources, Construction, and Maintenance Occupations, Production, Transportation, and Material Moving Occupations, and Research Staff
Elena Burger is a Barnard College junior majoring in history, with a cautious minor in economics. You can follow her on Twitter @VirtualElena. Unaccompanied Data Miner runs alternate Wednesdays.
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