What Kind of Business Practices?

In 2007-8, when the recession hit, most universities stopped hiring people for tenure-track positions. A little over a half of the universities where I applied for a job in 2007-8 and 2008-9 replied saying that the search had been cancelled due to budget constraints. Instead, universities started to create an ever-growing number of contingent teaching positions at an even faster pace than before.

There was a university, however, that adopted a different strategy. It responded to the recession not with lay-offs and cancellations of tenured positions but by hiring aggressively. In 2007-8, this university hired 45 new tenure-track faculty members. In 2008-9, it hired even more people. Fifty-three new scholars entered the university in the rank of tenure-track Assistant Professor in that year and I was among them. Next year, three dozen new TT professors were hired.

During the new employee orientation, these new hires were told insistently and repeatedly, “We want you to get tenure with us. We will do all we can to facilitate your tenure-track progress.” And it was all true. Since then, the university has demonstrated that it has real commitment to supporting the professional aspirations of these new hires. At the same time, the number of new contingent faculty members who were hired by this university during each of the academic years in question can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

These tenure-track hires were people who had graduated from fantastic graduate programs and had suddenly discovered that nobody needed them because of the recession. The university I’m talking about used this opportunity to hire brilliant, enthusiastic young academics who will raise the research profile of the school dramatically and are already doing so. Since the work conditions are very good and the benefits are very generous, this large group of new hires has the time and the energy to explore new teaching strategies and connect to the students on a personal level. As a result, everybody wins.

We keep hearing that universities are starting to act like businesses and it harms academia at large. The problem, however, is not only that we adopt business models but that we adopt really bad business models. Companies that operate on the revolving-door model, that hire people, squeeze them dry and throw them out within a few years represent a very poor, unproductive approach to business. They are oriented towards a short-term profit-making and soon create a very bad reputation for themselves. To give just one example, my sister and her business partner have created a very successful business from the ground and were aided greatly in that effort by the fact that their chief competitor, a big, well-established old company had abandoned its standards of excellence and had become a revolving-door place of employment. Now, the clients are abandoning it in droves and seeking out competitors who attract and retain talented, loyal employees.

I often have a feeling that when colleges hire administrators with a background in business, they select people whose business skills are not very good. They frequently don’t even realize that treating employees like crap and offering them no opportunities to grow within the company is a stupid practice both in business and in academia.

16 comments on “What Kind of Business Practices?

  1. I have seen a variant of this strategy in which a university decides to hire people in research areas which are not currently popular. This means that they can get better quality faculty than they could otherwise afford, and build a reputation in an area which they ‘carve out’ for themselves.

  2. Problems like this make me wonder at the extent to which MBA programs are diploma factories, actually. I mean, yes it’s great to have some education in the ways of the private sector before pursuing a career there, but if turning operations into “revolving door” systems is the best that most administrators can come up with, I strongly suspect that the ability to innovate is something that they are not being taught effectively in business school.

    • That’s a very good point. The way to distinguish a good MBA program from a lousy one is to see what kind of students they are accepting. A good MBA accepts people who have had years of working in managerial capacities and who are working right now. Shitty programs accept 23-year-olds fresh from college.

  3. And I wonder whether the MBA market is becoming saturated. I happen to be acquainted with a man in his early thirties with an MBA and some experience pre MBA in finance who is doing construction work to pay his bills because he has not been able to find a job which uses his skills. His MBA is from a traditional university.

    • It’s becoming saturated because people get accepted into the programs who shouldn’t be accepted. As a result, a program becomes a rip off.

      Believe me, I have seen those MBA kids at an Ivy school who strut around like they have made billions already. Their profs are all theoretical scientists who have never seen an actual business except on a textbook page.

      My sister was in a very prestigious business program and they were asked to do marketing projects on no budget. Because, you know, in real companies, you can have marketing campaigns with no budget specified.

      She didn’t even want to go to her graduation ceremony because the entire education had felt like a complete sham.

    • I have finally watched the film Inside Job. It’s not new news if you’ve been reading the papers, but it really does make the point that academic Business/Econ programs in this country are entirely disconnected with reality.

      • “it really does make the point that academic Business/Econ programs in this country are entirely disconnected with reality.”

        – Oh yes. This is what I keep hearing from people who went into business programs and then tried working in business.

  4. Is there any graduate program in a field other than business which is a realistic objective for a 47-year-old? Would a 2.8 undergrad GPA be an absolute dealbreaker? Rightly or not (and I do still believe in solidarity FWIW), I’ve become somewhat humble (moving goal posts, moving cheese and all) and frankly I’d see an MA in math followed by a $6k/yr PT community college gig (or three) as a step up from my “career” as just a temp. At least it would be a job that, at least in theory, requires some intelligence.

    • I don’t know about 47, but my first thesis advisor finished his graduate program at the age of 41 and became the leading authority in the world in his field.

      Are you the 47-year-old person in question? What kind of a job, do you think, would make you feel really happy? What does it look like?

      Last year, I had a student who graduated from our Spanish program. He worked in his own business his entire life. Never really liked it but felt obligated to continue to support his family. But he always dreamt of being a teacher. Of Spanish that he didn’t speak a word of. So he did the Major in Spanish and has now moved to Nicaragua to improve his Spanish. Then, he is planning to start teaching. He was the most brilliant student we have had in a while. He is now 66.

      • Are you the 47-year-old person in question? What kind of a job, do you think, would make you feel really happy? What does it look like?

        Some good news: I just did the math, and it turns out I’m still only 46.

        A job that would really make me happy would be primarily analytical in character. I like the idea, for example, of data mining, but am largely horrified by most of the uses to which it is put. I like the idea of taking an existing product (or service) category, and making a version of it that doesn’t suck. I’d like to establish a data mining praxis that doesn’t suck. As far as I can tell, the least atrocious uses of data mining in the present day world are in basic research, although even some of the research uses raise serious concerns such as with people’s intimate medical records. There’s also the question of whether I’m scary-smart enough to do statistics or computer science at that level.

        The absolutely ideal job would involve cutting-edge research that is non-proprietary and non-classified, no non-disclosure agreements, no pressure to migrate from technical to managerial roles, and no selling soap to acquaintances. The trick of course is to find the best actually-feasible compromise between that and what’s realistic. When it comes to pick-your-poison, in my case, physically harsh working conditions are a lesser evil than mentally or socially harsh ones. Proprietary technology is a lesser evil than classified. At the risk of coming across as un-patriotic, I must confess that “I don’t do defense work.” A strict dress code is a lesser evil than strict contractual strings. Being asked to do dangerous tasks is a lesser evil than being asked to sell stuff.

        Of the things I do as hobbies, writing and debugging code is what I enjoy most, followed by writing stuff like this (i.e. blogging). IT is a notoriously entry-level-hostile profession, at least to those of us who take people’s statements (e.g. of job requirements) at face value, so one of the things I’m currently working on is what you might call “portfolio.” Must admit as of this moment I’m in very early stages of this. First entry is my cute but largely unsubstantial public opinion poll website. Next I’m thinking an Android app; hopefully one that doesn’t suck. Perhaps with a truly dazzling portfolio of gifts to the world of free software some entry-level-hostile minds can be pried open. Worth a try, anyway.

        When I was a kid I wanted to be a math professor when I was to grow up. When keeping up with the undergraduate curriculum became an overwhelming struggle, I basically gave up. Part of it was poor work ethic (and of course immaturity) but there were other factors. For example, I tended to load up on 18-credit-hour semesters, certainly never under 15. As a Pell Grant student I figured, since the university charged a flat rate for anything from 12-18 credit hours, 18 credit hours means the most bang for the taxpayers’ buck. Talk about penny wise and pound foolish, but I was young, and naive even for my age. I considered it beneath myself to take a course I was clearly intellectually overqualified for; somehow felt like cheating. Then there were the quirky little things. Though right handed, I wrote with my left hand all through college, taking notes, taking exams, you name it… I never used pencils for anything (and still don’t)…not for crossword puzzles, not for (400-level) math homework, not for nothing. OK, almost nothing. Even I wasn’t so self-defeating as to do a scan-tron in pen, or even a #3 pencil. Did first year chemistry with a slide rule. So did a lot of people, but this was the eighties, and of course not the eighties in the Soviet Fucking Union. If I had a time machine I’d tell younger self that, while there are times when it makes sense to do things the hard way, this isn’t one of those times. But I don’t. Maybe I need a shrink more than I need a grad school app. I have had some success tutoring students through their math classes. Interesting story on how I got involved in that. Being Pell Grant eligible, I was also work study eligible. They had a big spiral bound book of work study jobs, right, and one of the pages says math tutors, sign up at the math department office, so I go there and ask to apply, math secretary hands me a sign-in sheet so I signed-in, name and phone number, same as the other schmucks. Little did I know that that particular sign-in sheet had nothing to do with work study jobs and mere hours later students are calling me to ask about tutoring, asking how much do I charge. Being a LSE case I put it at $4/hr (minimum wage at the time was $3.35). But nevertheless I unwittingly (which in my case is key) hung (hanged?) a shingle of sorts, and traded services for money. It’s one of very few experiences during college years that actually increased my level of self esteem. Otherwise college was a frontal assault in that department. At any rate, I know I can teach. Not so sure whether I can teach in a classroom environment. Don’t think I’m anywhere near street wise enough to teach K-12, but from this blog I occasionally get impression maybe college students today are just as tough? Dono.

        Ironic thing is, so far anyway, college years were by far the best years of my life. Living in a college town in which car-non-ownership is actually feasible was Freedom Itself. Also by far the closest to a normal social life I have ever experienced. Never before or since have I gotten my friend count above the half dozen mark or so.

        Oh, and another thing. For my foreign language requirement I took Russian. I really really wanted to go non-Indo-European on that one, but there was this thing in the math section of the college catalog that said that most graduate programs expect students to be able to read, pick 2, of French, German, Russian. Having had French in high school, clearly Russian was the only respectable choice. But getting back to the proverbial time machine, I’d tell pathetically naive youthful self, read it again, it didn’t say anything about having akademichiski kredit for these pedestrian Frankish or Germanic languages, or this interesting but nevertheless Indo-European slavic language, and even you’re old enough to know that a math paper in Russian is 10% Russian and 90% math. Take what you WANT, GIRL!

        Anyway, more later. This is ultra-heavy for a comment to a comment. Just trying to answer the question in the spirit in which it was asked, though.

        • “Some good news: I just did the math, and it turns out I’m still only 46.”

          – You write like a very young person, which I think is great.

          Lori, have you considered contacting a professional job recruiter? Many job recruiters suck but if you do happen to find good, professional one, it can be really helpful. The good thing is that they don’t charge you a penny, so you never get to pay anything for their services whether they help or not.

          “Being asked to do dangerous tasks is a lesser evil than being asked to sell stuff.”

          – For me, anything is better than being in sales. Gosh, I’d just die. This is why it bugs me when I’m asked to act as a sort of a salesperson at work, selling our program to students and their parents.

          “Of the things I do as hobbies, writing and debugging code is what I enjoy most, followed by writing stuff like this (i.e. blogging).”

          – Social media specialists are in quite a demand nowadays.

  5. Actually teaching high school / community college Spanish is something you can get into at quite a late age. It’s really expanding and they appreciate good people.

    • “Really??? What are the hallmarks of youthful writing, anyway?”

      – Enthusiasm, passion, thirst for knowledge, receptivity to new ideas.

      Old people keep repeating the same thing like broken records. :-) Young people always say something new and unexpected.

      I hope everybody understands that I don’t use “old” and “young” as chronological categories.

  6. Pingback: Stupid Jerkwad Dares to Take a Good University’s Name in Vain « Clarissa's Blog

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