Monday, August 26, 2019

How "Meetings Day" Sums Up The Worst Of Working In Low-Level Higher Ed

Getting bawled out by jerks in suits is something salespeople and academics have in common

Tomorrow the school year begins for me, like it does for most educators, with a day of meetings. In fact, I will have four days of meetings, although a lot of that time will be with the students I advise and their parents. Those meetings are usually a great way to jump back into the school year. I am not as hot about the school and division-wide meetings we do, but I am generally just not a meetings guy. The administrators at my school do a good job of running them and making them relevant, so it's hard to complain too much. I come out of them feeling like we at least are doing something important with our time.

This is a far cry from my time in higher education. At many universities there is a big "Meetings Day" with sessions at the university, college, and department level. I have been spending the day feeling anxious just remembering those days. The message they tended to impart was that the faculty were peons. When I was a visiting assistant professor I was basically not told to go the meetings, the subtext being that I was "the help" and not welcome in through the front door.

Then I became a tenure track professor and realized that as belittling as it was to not be welcome at university events, having to attend the meetings was actually worse. I started at my job in August of 2008, which meant meetings the following years were full of talk of cutbacks, austerity, and the general message that we should shut up about it because we were all lucky to have a job.

What was surreal was how the austerity talk mingled with the usual administrator bragging over stuff that they built and "initiatives" they were planning. One year we heard about hiring and salary freezes and library cutbacks, but also how the new residence hall would have a big purple beacon on top. Why? Because the old residence hall being torn down had one and it needed to be replaced with a better one. Why? Because the school color was purple, and the beacon would signal that our sports teams had won their match that day to all the yokels in the small East Texas town where we were located.

The president of the school was so pleased to announce this. That year, like every other year, his annual presidential speech was met with a standing ovation after some of the older die hards would admonish the rest of us to join them. It was like something out of a Politburo meeting. At the college level meeting that followed we heard less about building and more about "initiatives." My favorite one is almost too ridiculous to describe. A land developer building a residential complex on a lake in the hill country over a two hundred miles from us wanted to partner with the college to have events there. We were a local university in East Texas and in the midst of having our travel budgets cut professors were being given some kind of time share pitch. I assumed this was some sort of tax dodge, and I could not believe that the dean was actually trying to sell this pile of crap to us. I have a friend from those days and we still get a laugh at the mere mention of it.

The day ended with department-level meetings, which were up and down but usually displayed our disfunction pretty openly. I still remember the time after a meeting I went to lunch with some of my colleagues and two of them joked about committing a violent act against one of their coworkers. (This should have been a clue that they would later backstab me.) Or the time I had to hear someone go off on how the United States needed to start a war with Russia over the crisis in Georgia back in 2008.

The Meetings Day was always the worst way to start the school year. It killed my morale because it made it obvious that me and my work were of little value to the institution that I worked for. Sometimes it also felt like a dark look into the future. Working for a long period of time at a regional state institution in an isolated small town that was never on the list of places you wanted a live takes a toll on your well-being. Every Meetings Day I noticed the two alternatives: to embrace cynicism to the point of calcification (I was already on that road) or to join the cult and to invest in the institution. After all, if you think the place you work for is shit, doesn't that kind of also make you shit too? That was the calculation that the people who stood for the university's president's propaganda speech had made.

I'm glad I chose the forbidden option, to simply leave the whole thing behind. However, on days like this I think about what could have been. My old university was full of a lot of good people. If they had been given the power to run things instead being forced to obey the whims of others, that institution could've been something special. Today I am thinking of all my friends and colleagues still working in the world of low-level higher ed, and hoping against hope that the tide can be turned and that universities will someday be worthy of their faculty and students.

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