At Memorial University, the push for expanding administrative roles is relentless. Jennifer Browne, the Director of Student Life, has embarked on an endeavor aimed at bridging the perceived skills gap among students in their transition to the workforce. Browne, in her doctorate dissertation titled “Addressing the Skills Awareness Gap through Impactful On-Campus Employment,” stated that the purpose of a university is to equip students with skills to transition to the workforce. She asserted, “Expectations to effectively prepare post-secondary graduates for successful career outcomes are intensifying.” This direction seems to divert from the fundamental essence of higher education. Preparing students for specific jobs in the labour market is not the purpose of a university. The purpose of a university is for students to learn to think critically and engage with different ideas. NYU professor Jonathan Haidt stated, “The academy aims to be an arena where truth is sought, discovered, and explored. When the university is functioning at its best, students learn to present arguments and receive counter-arguments in pursuit of truth.”
The first possible solution that Browne proposes to address the skills awareness gap is the “Status Quo.” Browne admits that in this model, student participation is low. She said a review of the required resources “shows no change from current demands, thereby placing no additional strains on current fiscal or staffing models.” However, Browne found that solution four, a “Supervisor and Career Centre Collaborative Approach,” was best suited to address the skills awareness gap. Furthermore, Browne states, “It requires securing fiscal and human resources during a time of significant financial restraint.”
Browne lauds the former university president, Vianne Timmons, insinuating a potential transformation in the institution’s leadership approach with a more collaborative style. She eagerly expresses interest in aligning with senior leaders to pursue shared objectives. However, her notion of shared goals revolves around the expansion of administrative positions across the university.
Evidently, expanding the Student Life portfolio and increasing budget allocations bolsters Browne’s CV, facilitating her upward trajectory within the administrative hierarchy. Browne has stated public support for the Student Services $50 per student semesterly fee. It is important to point out that this mandatory fee was imposed against the will of students. There was no student vote held on it. It suggests a disconnect between administrative decisions and the student body’s desires. This imposition insinuates a presumption that students lack the wisdom to discern what’s best for them, with decisions unilaterally made by the administration.
Former President Vianne Timmons created several new senior administrative positions during her time, including the creation of a Vice-President (Advancement and External Relations) at $204,843 per year and the creation of Senior Advisor to the President, Government Relations and Strategic Initiatives at $140,393 a year.
Author, speaker, and podcaster Srinivas Rao penned an article titled “How the American Higher Education System Became a Factory for Bullshit Jobs.” On the night of his graduation, Rao walked over to his study abroad coordinator and asked, “What exactly does an assistant dean of students do here?” She looked at him with a blank stare, and he asked, “he doesn’t do shit, does he?” She replied, “No comment.” At a town hall, Rao grilled the Dean for an hour, causing another student to ask him why he didn’t go easy on her. Reo explained that the Dean might think that the president of the university is her boss, but it is his tuition dollars that pay her salary. Reo said, “I have a right to hold her accountable.” Furthermore, Reo stated, “It’s the responsibility of college and graduate students everywhere to hold the leaders of educational institutions accountable.” Rao suggested that the Business school close the career office, divide everyone’s salaries by the number of students, and issue a refund. This idea could also be applied to Memorial University’s Career Development Office and the entire Student Life portfolio.
However, Rao stated that the issues at his alma mater point to a much bigger problem. He said that usually when the price of a product goes up, it is because an organization has made substantial improvements to that product. However, he said that is not the case with higher education. He said that most people are getting less of an ROI on the investment in their education than at any previous time. He said that the rising cost of tuition is due to American institutions of higher education becoming factories for what author and anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.” Rao stated, “These bullshit jobs don’t belong to the professors, the students who bust their asses to pay tuition by working part-time or the grad students. They belong to the administrators. He said that the administrator-to-student ratio is out of whack. Moreover, he stated, “Universities manufacture bullshit jobs like assistant dean, vice provost, and staff their offices with other unnecessary positions. Then, they pass the cost on to students, who are left with an insurmountable mountain of debt.”
Rao brings up the prevailing cultural narrative that going to university will lead to a better job and a better life, but the data shows that is not true. Rao stated, “…colleges are in many ways breeding grounds for conformity. They’re about choosing from the options in front of you and crossing off the checkboxes of society’s life plan.” Rao then quoted Naval Ravikant: “One of the problems is that schools and our educational system, and even our way of raising children, replace curiosity with compliance. And once you replace the curiosity with the compliance, you get an obedient factory worker, but you no longer get a creative thinker. And you need creativity, you need the ability to feed your own brain to learn whatever you want.”
Graeber argued that there are millions of people across the world, including clerical workers, administrators, consultants, telemarketers, corporate lawyers, service personnel, and others, who are working away at meaningless, unnecessary jobs, and they know it. Graeber stated, “Bullshit jobs are jobs which even the person doing the job can’t really justify the existence of, but they have to pretend that there’s some reason for it to exist.” Furthermore, Graeber stated, “A lot of bullshit jobs are just manufactured middle-management positions with no real utility in the world, but they exist anyway in order to justify the careers of the people performing them. But if they went away tomorrow, it would make no difference at all.”
Author Andy Merrifield argued that most “professionalism” is simply play-acting. People go through the motions of a role, perform all the right actions like obtaining graduate degrees, working their way through public service and advancing through the corporate world, and eventually, they are granted a certain privileged status reflected in their wealth and financial security, and it is assumed that they have gained wisdom and leadership. Merrifield warned that it is society’s critical flaw and that the only thing those people demonstrate is their ability to conform unthinkingly to the expectations of others who, in turn, conform. Merrifield stated that we have a class of professionals like academic, bureaucratic, corporate, and political who have little to no actual talent beyond the ability to mimic what is demanded by their roles, and they have been invested with tremendous public authority and trust. The key quality of these people is their ability to say what their superiors want to hear. They’ve come to believe in the myth of their own success and go through mindless routines of obtaining their PhDs. Merrifield stated that we put a positive spin on the routines, calling it discipline and perseverance, but it is a pointless vacuity. These professionals convince themselves that their efforts have some meaning and value, not to realize that they’re wasting their lives.
The overarching concern revolves around the proliferation of administrative positions within educational institutions, the disconnect between their actions and the actual needs of students, and the inherent flaws in the higher education system. The focus is shifting from empowering critical thinking to perpetuating roles that may lack genuine purpose and utility, leading to inflated costs and educational devaluation. This, in turn, raises significant questions about the true essence and direction of higher education.
Matt Barter is a fourth-year student in the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. He enjoys reading thought-provoking articles, walks in nature, and volunteering in the community.