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IN MY OPINION

Ageism, the new sexism, is hurting our universities

The root of the problem is that too much government funding is going to those who don’t teach.

By MICHAEL BAIRD | November 12, 2014

The article “When is the right time to retire?” addresses a very important issue, but seems to be rather one-sided in that it emphasizes arguments for faculty retiring as early as possible and even tries to place a bit of a guilt trip on those who don’t.

The article contains suggestions to the effect that younger people will never get jobs if their elders don’t get out of the way, that retirement of older faculty is necessary for university renewal to occur, and that faculty who refuse to retire when they should are too expensive for the university enterprise to remain sustainable.

While I agree that problems involving the professoriate are many and real, I would argue that the article places its focus and criticisms in the wrong direction. There is indeed a dearth of new positions in the university system, and the main reason certainly has to do with money. However, as the article also points out, most faculty continue to leave by age 65 and only one percent are in their 70s. Hardly a major problem, it would seem, and certainly one to which the system should be able to adjust.

Thus the suggestion by one Zita Mendes, that retirement at 60 be “mandatory” to give more deserving young people a chance to start their careers, is particularly misplaced, and is doubly ironic. What Ms. Mendes does not seem to realize is that precisely the same type of specious argument was made not so long ago in society at large, and at universities in particular, to prevent women from receiving employment of almost any kind; jobs, it was widely agreed, should go to men! Equally ironic, it was largely the current crop of aging faculty who, disregarding society’s then prevalent views, encouraged the hiring of serious numbers of women back in the 1970s and ‘80s.

It seems, however, that ageism, the new sexism, will continue to be a factor in our universities. (Until the current crop of younger faculty reach their 60s, when many will undoubtedly opt to postpone retirement as long as they can. At that point 70-year-old scholars likely will be as welcome as female colleagues are today).

I would make a case, not well addressed in the University Affairs article, that our real problem lies not in aging faculty but in burgeoning university bureaucracies. Parkinson’s Law, paraphrased somewhat, states that the number employed in a bureaucracy rises by five to seven percent a year irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.

To illustrate that this law appears to apply to the university system, I point to my own institution where, in the past four academic years (2009/10 to 2013/14), full-time undergraduate student levels have increased by 14.9 percent, government operating grants by 10.5 percent and the number of staff by 10.9 percent. In contrast, the number of faculty has decreased by 5.4 percent so that the number of staff (1,710) is now well over twice the number of faculty (777). Queen’s is a mid-sized university, and I suspect that similar trends are present in many other universities.

What seriously compounds the problem at Queen’s, and probably elsewhere, is that the expansion in size of the bureaucracy has apparently involved a concomitant increase in the numbers of administrators required to run the show. For instance, we currently enjoy the attention of one dean for about every 29 faculty, a ratio that arguably would be more appropriate at the departmental level, as a ratio of faculty to department chairs. Queen’s also employs over 100 directors, one for every 7.5 faculty, a ratio that not only seems extremely inappropriate but is actually worsening. The number of directors at Queen’s has increased by about 49 percent during the past four years.

This leads me to my final, more general point. Many if not most (or even all) of these relatively well-paid administrators do not teach and thus join the overwhelming majority of university employees who are not in the front lines, contributing directly to teaching, the main function of the university.

We are all aware of unfavorable comments in the press about perceived deterioration in the quality of education offered to university students in Canada these days. A variety of criticisms come our way, often reinforced by contrite admissions of inadequacies on our part by senior administrators. Indeed, while I can find many criticisms of university faculty in my collection of relevant columns from, for example, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, I can find only one identifying the root cause of the problem: the growth of expensive university bureaucracies at the expense of ever shrinking faculty numbers.

The imbalance in hiring policies in the Canadian university system is completely consistent with Parkinson’s Law of Bureaucracy, and is arguably the real problem that Canadian academics of all ages and ranks should be addressing.

Mike Baird is professor emeritus (chemistry) at Queen’s University, where he has taught and carried out research for over 47 years. He has received five awards for teaching and five for research.

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  1. Alison Acheson / November 12, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Recently I turned 50, and after a long number of years working as a sessional and practicing artist, I was offered a lecturer position. The thought of only working for a decade–at this point, after my education and growth on all levels–is unfathomable. This is not work that one stumbles over at a young age. And frankly I’ve learned exponentially in the past 5 years of my life and look forward to bringing that to my students and the position.

  2. LNeilson / November 12, 2014 at 9:30 am

    There you go again, UA – building bridges between administrators and faculty 😉

  3. karen / November 13, 2014 at 9:00 am

    Well put, Dr.Baird.
    It seems that every day I open my email to another notice about VP-of-something-new being hired. The corporatization and bureaucratization of our university system needs more serious scrutiny. Many of the management posts seem to consist primarily of PR work. If the universities put that kind of money into their faculty they wouldn’t need half as much PR!

  4. jeremy / November 14, 2014 at 9:30 am

    In regards to retirement, we have to keep in mind that many of the current compliment of faculty did not start at 25 and many 40+, so… retiring at 60 or even 70 is not even an option. The idea that people can equitably afford to retire is laughable at best. Sure there are the 150k people with their houses paid off and maybe a million in their retirement accounts, etc. but those are increasingly becoming a rarity, most people haven’t saved and many people can’t save because our relative earnings as professors have dropped immensely since the 1980s, and thus we can barely afford to stay in the middle class, and I have met several professors that live in subsidized housing situations because they can’t even get to middle class given the situation of their lives. We need to be careful about generalizing experiences and assumptions of the relative wealth of professors, because really the only wealth many of us have is the time to do research, and even that is under huge pressures.

  5. S Meister / November 14, 2014 at 10:00 am

    I fully understand and empathize with the frustration over expanding administration ranks. However, I caution against the use of phrasing such as “join the overwhelming majority of university employees who are not in the front lines, contributing directly to teaching, the main function of the university”

    Those not standing in front of a class are equally important to the teaching function of a university. Those employees in administrative and support functions have very direct impact on teaching activities and the student body. And with ever increasing student numbers, their functions become that much more important.

    Those tasks include, but are not limited to:
    – evaluating and processing the applications of the students who end up in the lecture halls.
    – scheduling of timetables, room bookings, etc. to ensure students and faculty actually end up in the same room together on a consistent basis.
    – collecting, process and administering funding and fees that allow the institutions to operate.
    – developing and administering financial support to ensure education remains at least somewhat open and accessible
    – developing the programing around academic support and student development.
    – ensuring physical space and facilities are kept in working order, to allow teaching to happen in spaces of an acceptable standard.
    – developing and supporting technological infrastructure
    – operating and maintaining libraries.

    I’ll stop listing in the interest of space.

    Are faculty employment numbers where they need to be? Not at all. However, pointing to the administration functions as being somehow less important and therefore less necessary is a dangerous and slippery slope. Could efficiencies be found in the administrative ranks? My experience says yes. But it’s just one piece of a much larger puzzle.

    The administrator-faculty debate is obviously not new. And it really does stem from a mutual misunderstanding and lack of first-hand knowledge of each others’ role.

    Many of your points are valid, but finger pointing between administration and faculty hasn’t worked to this point in our histories, and I’m confident in saying it’s unlikely to be effective going forward.

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