Administrative Jenga

About twenty years ago, while I was still on the job market, I’d applied for a position at a major research university, and got a nice phone call from the chair of the department, a writer whose work I was familiar with from my own research. Our conversation made it clear that the position wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined, though the chair had been familiar with my research and was trying to figure out whether I could fit into the broader life of the department while still bringing my particular interests and skills.

As the conversation went on, I asked directly (following a bit of advice I’d recently read) what criteria were most central in their tenure decisions. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Research funding.” And I thought, “Oh. It’s a commissioned sales position.”

Grant proposal writing is one of the primary roles of the contemporary college faculty member, one of the visible acts of devotion that must be conducted to remain a member of the flock. This is absolutely true at the world of the R1, the most research-focused universities, but it’s increasingly true at the lower tiers of schools as well, as colleges try any number of strategies to raise money in the face of reduced undergraduate enrollment and decreased state support.

Let’s think, though, about a single successful grant, and how many people at an institution are implicated in creating and sustaining it. On the front end, there’s probably an office of sponsored research, a person or people who are paid to investigate funding opportunities, to publicize those opportunities across the faculty, and to help faculty members write effective proposals. They’re also paid to predict the internal accommodations that a funded project will require, and to help coordinate internally with a surprising number of other players.

  • Will this project require added space? Different space? Specialized technical demands for worker safety or animal care or student and staff training?
  • Will this project require technology we’re familiar with, that will add to the IT group’s workload?
  • Will this project require technology we’re not familiar with, that will change the IT or facilities groups’ workload?
  • Will this project require hiring?
  • Will this project influence the way we recruit graduate students?
  • Will this project require the management and recruitment of postdoctoral researchers?
  • Will this project influence our undergraduate curriculum, offering opportunities for new courses?
  • Will this project require oversight for the treatment of human or animal participants?
  • Will this project require adherence to a new body of federal regulations?
  • Will this project require participation or partnerships with outside agencies or businesses? If so, how do we fit into their policies (and into their accounting)?
  • Did we already have different fundraising plans for this proposed sponsor that your project would supersede or interfere with?

And then, of course, any time you’re handling money, you’re adding a burden to bookkeepers and accountants who distribute it across the various players within and beyond the college, and who eventually justify your expenses to the funder.

That’s one grant. Imagine fifty. Imagine five hundred. Imagine five thousand, ranging from computational chemistry to writers’ archives.

The lone genius in the attic, the Wright Brothers in their bike shop, Thomas Edison in the garage, Margaret Mead setting sail for Samoa… that’s not how scholarly life works any more. Every decision is interlinked, every division of the institution impinges on every other, and every good idea has to be weighed on something other than its own simple merits.

The American Institutes of Research have shown that the only real growth in college employment over the past twenty years is in the community they call “professional staff,” that body of personnel who manage all of this complexity—and whose very existence increases that complexity. And since, for most institutions, research is a money-losing endeavor (just like football), the cost of adding professional staff is indirectly offset by not hiring faculty. If you can’t demonstrably cover your own weight through significant research support, you become a much less attractive candidate. A mere teacher. And colleges can get those nearly for free.

More on this tomorrow.