One of the tropes of my favourite genre, the Death of theUniversity, is that the global multiversity is overwhelmed with “administrative”staff. Spurious statistics about massive increases in the amount university’s spend on “admin” are banded about. The people involved are characterised as monsters, intent on destroying academic freedom. The most recent of these was an attack on marketing from a physicist who had once done a marketing module at undergraduate level. Personally I feel fully skilled to comment on quantum physics from my B at GCSE A level, watching a few episodes of something by Prof. Brian Cox, and a quick flick through Nature.
There is no doubt some truth in some of these frustrations, but their unquestioned acceptance by many irritates me for three reasons. Firstly, I am a critical policy scholar, but in my work I would never criticise an individual or even a group of individuals for doing their job – they know not what they do (although I’m just about to start reading Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, so that may change). I will criticise the job they’re doing, and I will criticise the organisational practices and wider social structures that cause them to end up doing what they’re doing, but I won’t criticise them. It’s grossly unfair.
The second reason is I’m of the centre-left and in my trade union. Most of these staff are also in my trade union, or trade unions that closely work with my own. Attacking these staff is an attack on solidarity – the very thing we don’t want to attack. Much of the support for these vindictive statements treats them as hilarious cutting satire. Well I’m sorry, but I don’t think people doing fairly shitty jobs should be the subject of satire from the people who work with them.
Lastly, I dislike these attacks because in my broad experience administrative and professional support staff are wonderful. So I want to write a love letter to all the professional support staff who have helped me.
I love you student office staff, who tirelessly answer all the banal and quite frankly stupid questions from students that don’t hit my inbox; who deal with the ever-increasing pressures from us teaching staff as we struggle to meet the expectations of students; and that through your tireless hard work now know more about the University regulations that anyone else in the institution and stop us getting sued.
I love you research office staff, who without batting an eyelid, or letting me know that you want to kill me, will happily provide all that help that I needed a week ago, but just couldn’t manage to get around to because me and my colleagues are just too disorganised; you who can crack a laugh when you’re manning the registration desk at a conference when there’s a million better things for you to do.
I love you information services staff, who step in and upload my papers to the repository when I fail to do it every time, and get the books my students need with barely a fortnight’s notice because I left it too late to complete the syllabus. The library is a truly wonderful place, I just wish my students would use your resources more.
I love you equalities and disability staff; your emails asking for a syllabus a month before I’ve even thought about it irritate the f*ck out of me, but because of you people who even a decade ago would never have gone to university are sat in my classroom, engaging in teaching and learning and adding something new to the institution. Your incisive analysis of working environments and cultures helps me realise what’s happening around me. By working all the hours God sends, you vainly try and make it so not everyone has to work like this.
I love you research office managers, who surveys the field, knowing the bear pits that lie out there, and has the strategic adeptness to steer this ship of the university on a vaguely correct path; you know we’re pissed off at the world of research and the pressures we’re under; you know you have to make us look good in the REF and all sorts of global rankings. Writing those emails at 9pm on a Saturday night, you try your best to bring in the best, and deal with the worst.
I love you marketing managers, who can tell me how a 20-year-old in Shanghai views my institution and whether we should bother targeting rUK students in recruitment; your tireless efforts keep my classrooms full and diverse. I was befuddled when you removed the line from the university logo and changed the font, but when I look at my old slides I see why you did this.
And, yes, I love you vice principals too; you could pay me twice as much as you get and I wouldn’t do the job for the amount of shit you get from all of us. Oh yes, these meetings you chair are dull, but you are at so many more of them than me. I recognise that every other research strategy aims to put the university in the “top decile” and that decile can’t be all-encompassing, but I know you know that too but the strategy might just make the research environment more supportive for you. Your teaching and learning strategy will get howls of rage for its neologisms, but we will continue to educate to the highest possible standards with the best facilities.
I love you all. If people attack you as individuals because of things you have to do for systemic reasons, I will defend you. If academic critics attack “administration” I will ask them to do your job. Without you, this big, complex messy organisation called the university just would not work.