Funny about Money

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. ―Edmund Burke

Through the looking-glass in Layoff-Land

Never let it be said that The Great Desert University is not a weird place to work.

Yesterday one of our client editors dropped by to break a bottle of champagne over the latest issue of her journal to set to sea. While we were confabulating, the subject of the next issue came up, and I remarked that of course I did not know whether our office will still be in business when the spring 2009 issue is in preparation for press.

This caused a moment or two (or three) of stunned silence.

While she was struggling to catch her breath, I explained that the rumor mill first had it that everyone in my job category was to be laid off; then that only certain people in my category would be laid off; then that 50 people on our campus will go; then 100.

She said the university can’t be that broke, because it’s still hiring: her department is doing three searches right now, and Our Beloved Employer finally signed the candidate for the directorship of our sister program. I pointed out that the Learning Factory of Baja Arizona has a hiring freeze on; that I’d applied for a job there only to see the opening go away.

(Good God! She applied for a job there!?!) You could see the alarm as the thought registered.

This is one of those midcareer academics who’s been around long enough to have considerable clout but not long enough to be paid equitably. That means she has access to various ears.

“Well,” said I, “if you know any political strings to pull, now is the time to pull them, because from what I’ve been told the decisions will be made in December.”

“Okay,” said she.

Forthwith, she put the electronic touch on her chair, forwarding a copy to moi.

About three hours later, along comes this message from Her Deanship:

Just a note to say that we value the work of [your office] and the work you all do to support our journals. This is an integral part of [our vast unit’s] operations and value added.

This is classic Deanspeak. Deans do not say anything, not so much as “hello, how are you today,” in a direct manner. To do so would put them and everyone around them at risk. So, they speak in code.

What does it mean? Let’s parse it:

  • We value the work of your office: effectively without meaning. Everyone’s work is generally valued, even that of the scores of faculty associates who have already been canned. It’s an effort to be kind.
  • …support our journals…: meaningful. The degree to which a position supports the university’s mission will determine the likelihood that it will or will not survive the coming purge. Our office supports two parts of that mission: we support research and we provide meaningful real-world vocational training. Big, though not huge.
  • …an integral part of [our vast unit’s] operations…: this could border on huge. “Integral part” means “our vast unit would be significantly harmed by the loss of this program.” Good.
  • value added: interesting new buzzword! I haven’t heard that one in the present context. We’ll be tracking down its source and using it in our next report.

Mmm hm. I believe the gist of this message is “I don’t think you’re going to be laid off.”

LOL! We’ll find out soon enough. The Board of Regents meets in the first week of December; after that, more layoff announcements are expected.

Author: funny

This post may be a paid guest contribution.


  1. Wow, OK, I had always thought that the word “confabulate” essentially meant “to lie” (or more precisely “to make stuff up”). (I guess I’ve only heard the word in a psychological or neurological context.) The dictionary tells me now that it has another, much more innocent meaning. Thank you for revealing this to me!

    Also, I have heard from professor-type people that in general, faculty hirings and staff hirings and the associated budgets are very different. (This kind of makes sense- aren’t professors supposed to bring funding with them or at least find it very quickly?) So you may both have been right. It’s good that your clients are happy to stand up for you, though.

  2. LOL! I dunno…the word just popped into my mind and it sounded good. baaaaaad writer!

    A tenure-track faculty position entails a commitment on the part of the university to budget for that person’s salary FOR HIS OR HER ENTIRE CAREER at the university. In other words, an institution has to have solid funding to underwrite a tenurable line for the 30 or 40 years the person might stay in the job. That said, it’s not easy either to get a tenure-track job or, once you’ve landed it, to get tenure.

    A full-time nontenure-track position usually involves a contract of one to three years. These jobs, usually lecturerships or instructorships, are much more poorly paid than tenurable positions, and, because the university makes no promises, they are devoid of job security. Although they provide benefits, pay is poor and respect is lacking. You can be canned for any reason, fair or unfair: the university is not required to provide a reason and need only decline to renew a contract. Often such contracts are renewed for year after year, mostly out of inertia and because such faculty are cheap to hire. These jobs have only two advantages: 1) it IS a job (though most people could do better outside of academia) and 2) you’re usually not required to publish while teaching, performing community and university service, and pulling in grant money.

    A part-time nontenurable position is the lowest of the low. These are usually semester-to-semester contracts. Actually, you’re contracted to teach a specific class (or two, or three, or four). Pay is abysmal (truly: it prorates out to less than minimum wage), no health care or pension benefits attach to the job, and in most universities you don’t even get an office or a communal room to put your briefcase down between classes. These jobs have exactly no real benefit of any kind to the incumbents. Often filled by unemployed Ph.D.’s who try to cobble together five or six (or more!) sections a semester at two or three institutions to simulate a living wage, they represent the rawest kind of exploitation.

    All of the above jobs are exempt. “Exempt” means they are exempt from a variety of rules, among them the one that says you can’t be fired without cause. At the Great Desert University, exempt employees are hired to accomplish a job no matter how many or how few hours it takes to do it, whereas nonexempt employees are hired to be present and staff an office for a specific number of hours per week.

    Most staff positions are nonexempt. They’re just like jobs in any corporation or government agency, and similar rules and conditions govern them. In a state university, staff jobs are simply state jobs, with commensurately low pay and commensurately decent (usually) benefits packages.