Chronicle of Higher Education, Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone:
I would like to write about the bullshitization of academic life: that is, the degree to which those involved in teaching and academic management spend more and more of their time involved in tasks which they secretly — or not so secretly — believe to be entirely pointless.
For a number of years now, I have been conducting research on forms of employment seen as utterly pointless by those who perform them. The proportion of these jobs is startlingly high. Surveys in Britain and Holland reveal that 37 to 40 percent of all workers there are convinced that their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world. ... According to a 2016 survey, American office workers reported that they spent four out of eight hours doing their actual jobs; the rest of the time was spent in email, useless meetings, and pointless administrative tasks. ...
And then there’s higher education.
In most universities nowadays — and this seems to be true almost everywhere — academic staff find themselves spending less and less time studying, teaching, and writing about things, and more and more time measuring, assessing, discussing, and quantifying the way in which they study, teach, and write about things (or the way in which they propose to do so in the future). ...
All of this will hardly be news to most Chronicle readers. What strikes me as insufficiently discussed is that this has happened at a time when the number of administrative-support staff in most universities has skyrocketed. Consider here some figures culled from Benjamin Ginsberg’s book The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford, 2011). In American universities from 1985 to 2005, the number of both students and faculty members went up by about half, the number of full-fledged administrative positions by 85 percent — and the number of administrative staff by 240 percent.
In theory, these are support-staff. They exist to make other peoples’ jobs easier. In the classic conception of the university, at least, they are there to save scholars the trouble of having to think about how to organize room assignments or authorize travel payments, allowing them to instead think great thoughts or grade papers. No doubt most support-staff still do perform such work. But if that were their primary role, then logically, when they double or triple in number, lecturers and researchers should have to do much less admin as a result. Instead they appear to be doing far more.
This is a conundrum. Let me suggest a solution. Support staff no longer mainly exist to support the faculty. In fact, not only are many of these newly created jobs in academic administration classic bullshit jobs, but it is the proliferation of these pointless jobs that is responsible for the bullshitization of real work — real work, here, defined not only as teaching and scholarship but also as actually useful administrative work in support of either. What’s more, it seems to me this is a direct effect of the death of the university, at least in its original medieval conception as a guild of self-organized scholars. Gayatri Spivak, a literary critic and university professor at Columbia, has observed that, in her student days, when people spoke of "the university," it was assumed they were referring to the faculty. Nowadays it’s assumed they are referring to the administration. And this administration is increasingly modeling itself on corporate management. ...
[T]he phenomenon of bullshit jobs is one of the most compelling arguments in favor of a policy of universal basic income. One common objection to simply providing everyone with the means to live and then allowing us to make up our own minds about how we see fit to contribute to society is that the streets will immediately fill up with bad poets, annoying street musicians, and vendors of pamphlets full of crank theories. No doubt there would be a little of this, but if 40 percent of all workers are already engaged in activities they consider entirely pointless, how could it be worse than the situation we already have? At least this way they’d be happier.
A likely result of universal guaranteed income would be the rapid defection of a large number of academics from their university positions to intellectual circles where they would once again be able to argue about ideas and research things they actually find interesting. They might establish free schools where they could teach anyone who wished to learn. Universities would not become extinct. They would retain many strategic advantages. But they would be forced to de-bullshitize very rapidly.