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What’s that smell? Bullshit jobs in higher education

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This study examines the growth of administrative and non-academic staff positions in the United States higher education sector through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We first document the growth of these employments relative to increases in faculty positions and student enrollments, as well as common explanations therefor. Finding those explanations wanting, we proceed to synthesize the work of David Graeber, Benjamin Ginsberg, Roberto Michels, and Thorstein Veblen, developing an alternative explanation that focuses on the bureaucratic tendencies of large organizations and the business principles that have underwritten college and university management for more than a century. Next, using Graeber’s typology of bullshit jobs as applied to higher education we generate testable hypotheses related to our explanation. We then conduct our empirical analysis of the incidence of bullshit jobs in higher education. Finally, we summarize and discuss our findings and conclude with suggested topics for future research.
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REVIEW OF SOCIAL ECONOMY
https: I I doi.ar gl 1 0.1 080/00346764.2011.1 940255 fi) Routledge
fi \ Taylor & Francis Group
What's that smell? Bullshit jobs in higher education
Michael Delucchia, Richard B. Dadzieb, Erik Deanc and Xuan Phamd
alndependent Research Sociologist, Mililani, Hl, USA; bSchool of Business, Government, and
Economics, Seattle Pacific University,Seattle, WA, USA; cDepartment of Economics, Portland
Community College, Portland, OR, USA;dlndependent Researcher, Kansas City, MO, USA
ABSTRICT
This study examines the growth of administrative and non-academic staff posi-
tions in the United States higher education sector through the twentieth and
twenty-first centuries. We first document the growth of these employments rela-
tive to increases in faculty positions and student enrollments, as well as common
explanations therefor. Finding those explanations wanting, we proceed to syn-
thesize the work of David Graeber, Benjamin Ginsberg, Roberto Michels, and
Thorstein Veblen, developing an alternative explanation that focuses on the
bureaucratic tendencies of large organizations and the business principles that
have underwritten college and university management for more than a century.
Next, using Graeber's typology of bullshit jobs as applied to higher education we
generate testable hypotheses related to our explanation. We then conduct our
empirical analysis of the incidence of bullshit jobs in higher education. Finally,
we summarize and discuss our findings and conclude with suggested topics for
future research.
ARTICLE HTSTORY Received 16 March 2021; Accepted I June 2021
KEYWORDS Bullshit jobs; managerialism; information technology; higher education; administrative
bloat
JETCODES 85;J5;13;M5
lntroduction
ln 1918, Thorstein Veblen described American universities as 'corporations of
learning' that embrace the model of a well-conducted business organization,
tempered only by humanity's proclivity to idle curiosity and habits of thought
favoring matter-of-fact knowledge (p. 152). The principles of competitive
expenditure and competitive gain insist, Veblen argued, 'on business capacity
in the executive heads of the universities, and hence also the extensive range
of businesslike duties and powers that devolve on them' (1918, p. 62), And
beneath these'captains of erudition'sat the executive staff, managers selected
CONTACT Michael Delucchi @ delucchlOhawaii.edu
o 2021 The Association for Social Economics
2 @ M,DELUCCHIETAL,
for their 'administrative facility, plausibility, proficiency as public speakers and
parliarnentarians, ready versatility of convictions, and staunch loyalty' (1918,
p. es).
ln taking stock of these administrative cohorts, Veblen was characteristically
unreserved:
They are needless, ex.ept to take care of needs and emergencies to which their
own presence gratuitously gives rise. ln so far as these needs and difficulties that
require executive surveillance are not simply and flagrantly factitious, - as, e.g.
the onerous duties of publicity - they are altogether such needs as arise out of
an excessive size and a gratuitously complex administrative organization; both
of which characteristics of the American university are created by the governing
boards and their executive officers, for no better purpose than a vainglorious self-
complacency ... . (i 918, p.277)
Nearly a century after the publication of this appraisal, Ginsberg (2011)
described universities'bureaucracies as occupied with an extraordinary num-
ber of vice presidents, provosts, vice provosts, associate provosts, deans, vice
deans, associate deans, and assistant deans, along with armies of 'other pro-
fessionals' (Waugh, 2003) serving as the administration's 'arms, legs, eyes, ears,
and mouthpieces' (Ginsberg, 2011, p. 25).
What do college administrators and professional staffers do? Most days they
attend several meetings, usually with other senior academic managers.-fhey
also spend time planning professional conferences and staff retreats, engag-
ing in strategic planning processes, and fund-raising. While time consuming,
the contribution of these activities to the mission of the institution is debatable.
According to Ginsberg (2011, p.41), 'little would be lost if all pending admin-
istrative retreats and conferences, as well as four of every five staff meetings,
were canceled,'
The same sentiment can be found in David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs:ATheory
(201 8). That volume collects a number of testimonials as well as Graeber's own
experiences as a professor to describe the extent, nature, and causes of jobs
'so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee
cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employ-
ment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case' (2018,
p. 19). Though Graeber's research is not limited to lrigher education, the work
of non-academic college and university employees features prominently.
It would seem, then, that the social contribution of these administrative
and professional hierarchies in higher education cannot be taken for granted.
lndeed, if Veblen, Ginsberg, and Graeber are correct, many of these employ-
ments may represent a significant, long-standing and ever-growing ineffi-
ciency in an important part of the community's social, civic, economic, and
moral infrastructure. To explore this further, the present paper inquires into the
nature and causes of the growth of administrative and professional hierarchies
in United States institutions of higher education. We argue that (1 ) the rapid rise
REVTEW OF SOCTAL ECONOMY @ 3
of these employments over the past several decades is chiefly a consequence
of internally generated dynamics, yet reflective of broader social norms and
trends; (2) the assessment ncted above, buttressed by the arguments of other
socialscientists, remain relevant;and (3)these conclusions are empirically sup-
ported by the self-reporting of individuals working in 2- and 4-year colleges
and universities.
The remainder of this paper is orqanized as follows. First, we document
the growth of higher education administration and professional staff since the
1970s and review common explanations and their inadequacy. Second, we
synthesize the work of Graeber (2018), Ginsberg (2011), Michels (1915 iPaul
and Paul 20011) and Veblen (1918) to construct an alternative explanation that
focuses on the bureaucratic tendencies of large organizations and the busi-
ness principles that have underwritten college and university management
since Veblen's time. Third, we use the interdisciplinary lens constructed in the
previous section and Graeber's (2018) typology of bullshit jobs to develop
empirically testable hypotheses concerning the nature of these non-academic
employments in higher education. Fourth, we describe our data, how we mea-
sure bullshit jobs in higher education, and report the results of our analyses.
Fifth, we provide a discussion of the results, and finally, we conclude.
The growth of higher educotion administration and bullshit iobs
lnterest in administrative staffing, raised byVeblen (1918) a century ago, has
carried through to today, in part due to the rapid growth in non-academic
employment in higher education. As seen in Table 1, between 1976 and2018,
the number of full-time faculty employed at colleges and universities in the
Table 1. Changes in full-time staff size and student enrollmenl, 1976-2U1 and
1976-2018.4
% change
1976-20111976 201 1
% change
2018 1976-2018
Faculty
ExecutivelAdmi nistrative
Other Professionals
Nonprofessional Staff
5tudent Enrollment
434,000
97,043
150,3'.19
630,5',r'l
11,012,137
762,114
231,602
699,867
742,445
2',1,010,590
+760/0
+139%
+366%
+18%
l91Vo
832,119 *92a/o
255,881 *1640/o
830,189 *4520/o
631,675 *0.19o/o
19,645,918 *780/o
Source: National Center for Education Statistics.
aCalculations relied on various issues (i.e.201 1,2013, and 2019) of the Digest of Education Statistics
('Digest') issued by the National Center for Education Statistics. Specifically, we relied on the informa-
tion presented in Table 258 (20i 'l Digest), Table 314.30 (20 1 3 Digest). and Table 303.25 and Table 31 5.30
(2019 Digest). Additionally, Other Professionals and Nonprofessional Staff occupations were reclassified
(i.e. disaggregated) as of fall 2013. Therefore, only the facufty, administrator, and student enrollment
categories are comparable with data {rom 1976 and 201 1 . To approximate the Other Professionals and
Nonprofessional Staff classifications from earlier years, multiple categories from 2018 were combined to
approximate the 1976 and 201 1 classifications as follows: Other Professionals (librarians, curators, and
archivists; student and academic affairs and other education services) and Nonprofessional Staff (service
occupations; sales and related occupations; office and administrative support).
4 O M.DELUCCHTETAT.
US increased by 92o/a, during which time total student enrollment increased
by 78olo. During this same period, however, full-time administrators and other
professionals employed by those institutions increased by 164o/a and 452o/o,
respectively. Meanwhile, due in part to the proliferation of part-time and
adjunct faculty, the percentage of full-time faculty decreased from 67a/o ta
54%o, whereas the percentage of administrators who were full-time increased
from 960/oto 97o/a (National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education
Statistics 201 1 and 2019; see also Champlin & Knoedler, 201 7 , p.237).
Explanations forthis growth in managerial and professional staff often focus
on demands put upon colleges and universities from some group other than
the administrators themselves. Greater numbers of students, with expanding
extracurricular demands; larger, more complex institutions, with new techno-
logical capabilities; and the like, for instance, require proportionately greater
numbers of non-acadenric staff. Ginsberg (201 1, pp.27-29), however, finds this
argument unconvincing, noting that new fields of teaching and research have
also proliferated, without concomitant growth in faculty numbers.
Alternatively, it is commonly argued that external mandates - Title lX, Affir-
mative Action reporting, and so on - lie at the heart of this 'administrative
bloat.' However, this argument is belied by the fact that private colleges and
universities have seen substantially greater increases in non-academic staffing
tha n thei r pu blic cou nterparts (G i nsber g, 201 1, pp. 29-32).
Relatedly, some have attributed these trends in higher education employ-
ment to the inefficiencies of public sector or nonprofit institutions in general.
Zywicki and Koopman (201 7),f or instance, argue that, despite efforts to ensure
thatthe heads of colleges and universities act like CEOs, they have nevertheless
been forced to behave like government bureaucrats for want of the'profit and
loss feedback signals that guide management conduct in a for-profit business
setting'(p.30).
While it is a common misconception that private for-profit enterprises are
less prone to bureaucratic distension, it is a misconception nonetheless (see
Dean et al., in press; Gordon, 1996)..Just the same, there is some limited evi-
dence to suEgest for-profit models are somewhat 'leaner' in higher education.
Among postsecondary institutions participating in Title lV aid programs, pri-
vate for-profit colleges and universities have the highest ratio of full-time
equivalent faculty to all staff: 45.0o/o, compared to 35.1% and 35.7o/o for pub-
lic and private nonprofit institutions, respectively" However, this higher faculty
ratio is effected through higher numbers of students per faculty - 22.0oiofor
private for-profits versus 15.3o/o and 1A.2o/o for public and private nonprofits
- and drastically lower ratios of full-time faculty to all employees - '18.0% for
private for-profit A-year institutions versus 65.9o/o for their public counterparts
(National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2019).
Advocates for an even closer resemblance of colleges and universities to
the private enterprise must be careful what they wish for. Modestly lower
REVTEW OF SOCTAL ECONOMY c s
administrative ratios in for-profit colleges do not appear to reflect rnore
resources to teaching and research, but rather hiEher payouts to executives
and, of course, stockholders, as well as greater spending on marketing. That
marketing, in turn, often targets vulnerable populations, not as a means to offer
a hand up, but because they represent a largely untapped source of federal
financial aid money (Schade, 2014; Watkins & Seidelman, 2017).lndeed, these
institutions are the subjects of nearly all fraud claims from former students
(98% in 2018; Flannery, 2018).
Hence, while the explanations above for the growth in non-academic
employment in higher education may not be entirely without merit, they are
weak enough to suggest a look to other sources. ln the following section, we
argue that bureaucratic growth in U5 colleges and universities does indeed
reflect the normal dynamics of bureaucracies; but, importantly, also that this
growth has occurred not for lack of trusiness-like thinking and processes, but
because of them.
On the nature ond couses of the growth of non-academic employments
Graeber's (2018, pp. 1 17-119) analysis describes the external forces pressing
upon contemporary institutions, in general, as well as on colleges and univer-
sities, in particular.The proliferation of bullshit jobs isviewed as a consequence
of structural changes in the economy, including the rise of finance capitalism,
aggressive application of market principles, and growth in information indus-
tries. At the same time, cultural dynamics emphasizing the social value of work,
together with political processes promoting the ideal of full employment have
produced pointless, even pernicious, positions - i.e. bullshit jobs - in both
corporate and noncorporate bureaucracies (Graeber, 20'l B).
These systemic processes are significant and necessary to understanding
the historical context for the proliferation of bullshit jobs, but such structural
dynamics are not the same as the bureaucratic features that determine an
organization's hiring, firing, and job creation. Adrninistrative growth in corpo-
rations and in higher education also result from the internal bureaucracies that
characterize these large organizations. Therefore, we suggest that unnecessary
administrative and staff positions in higher education result from economic,
cultural, and politicalforces overlaid on a highly bureaucratic and hierarchical
organizational form. The following analysis of this intersection between struc-
tural dynamics and managerial hierarchy is informed by the work of l\4ichels
(1915/2001), Veblen (1918), and Ginsberg (201 'l).
An evolutionary explanation for the rise of bullshit jobs in colleges and uni-
versities can be usefully traced to the enrollment growth of the late nineteenth
century" As Ginsberg (201 1, pp. 1 48-149) describes, the boom in new students
led to an increase in the size, more so than the number, of these institutions,
and, coupled with the dominant business principles of the culture, brought
6 C M.DELUCCHTETAL.
the captains of erudition into ascendancy^ Hence, by the early twentieth cen-
tury, colleges and universities were increasingly guided by the principles of
competitive advantage and growth - in prestige, furrdraising, enrollments, and
so on.
As Michels (1915/2OO1) theorized, all complex organizations, regardless of
how democratic when founded, eventually develop into oligarchies. Rule by
an elite, or oligarchy, is inevitable as an 'iron law' as a consequence of the
'tactical and technical necessities' of bureaucracy. Since no sufficiently large
organization can function purely as a direct democracy, power is delegated
to individuals within that group of oligarchs, elected or otherwise. Since they
control channels of communication, administrators can manipulate the flow
of information to support their decisions (Hyland, 1995; Michels, 1915/2001).
A consequence of the impersonal authority of a hierarchy that operates within
the managerial bureaucracy of higher education is that deans, provosts, chan-
cellors, and the like are often selected from and appointed by a small group of
familiar adm inistrators (Michels, 1 91 5/200i ).
Once these administrators come to occupy a strong position in the man-
agerial hierarchy, they begin to displace organizational goals with their own
objectives. For Veblen, this manifests as an irreconcilable conflict between
competitive habits of thought and learning, to which 'competition in any guise
or bearing ... is detrimental' (1 918, p. 174). Businesslike management of insti-
tutions of higher education is bound to focus on publicity, for the institutions
as well as their most prominent leadership, and the imposition of a 'persistent
and detailed surveillance and direction of the work and manner of life of the
academic staff'(1918, p.223). These, in turn, inevitably stifle free inquiry and
effective teaching.
Ginsberg (2011) would agree. ln explaining the expansion of college and
university managerial ranks he points directly to efforts by administrators to
aggrandize their roles in the academy and to grab, maintain, and expand their
decision-making authority. This view is consistent with the arguments of insti-
tutional economist Melman (1983) and could be productively extended to
Veblen's notion of conspicuous waste (see Dean et al., in press). Consequently,
administrators'have a strong incentive to maximize the power and prestige of
whatever office they hold by working to increase their staff and budget. As a
means of justification, they often invent new functions to perform or seek to
capture functions performed by others' (Ginsberg, 201 1, pp. 32-33).
On the academic staff, the impact is clear. Over a century ago, Veblen saw
faculty becoming 'a body of graded subalterns, who share confidence of the
chief in varying degrees, but no decisive voice in the policy or the conduct
of affairs of the concern in whose pay they are held' (1918, p. 92).Ginsberg
confirms these observations, which must certainly be truer today. lndeed,
having little use for faculty in carrying out administrative necessities - which
can be tended to by the armies of 'other professionals' - and no shortage of
REVTEW OF SOCTAL ECONOMY c 7
freshly minted PhDs with which to replace retiring or recalcitrant professors
t2A11, pp. 16'l-165), it would seem the consolidation of power by college and
university administrators is nearing completion.
lnvestigating the incidence of bullshit jobs - development of hypotheses
When alternative explanations fclr observed phenomena exist, it falls on empir-
ical investigation to sort the stronger from the weaker of them. This begs
the question of how one would ultimately determine the nature of the posi-
tions in question. While myriad approaches could be conceived toward these
ends, Graeber's (2018) has a charming, exotic even, simplicity: ask the peo-
ple in those jobs. Specifically, Graeber created an email account, doihaveab-
sjoborwhat@gmail.com, and encouraged people to send in testimonials (p.33).
From the resulting information and previous online discussion, Graeber devel-
oped a definition of bullshit jobs as unnecessary to the point that employees
themselves cannot defend its existence despite a felt obligation to pretend
otherwise 1p. 19).
ln the next section, we will use Graeber's framework to test the extent to
which the administrative and non-academic professional jobs that continue
to inflate the bureaucracies of higher education are in fact bullshit. Before
doing so, however, it is worth reviewing the typology of bullshit jobs that
Graeber (2018, pp. 27-65) developed, and connecting them more explicitly
to higher education. Four of these categories - namely, flunkies, goons, duct
tapers, and box tickers - can reasonably be taken to cover the largest source of
administrative bloat, the 'other professionals.'The Iast, taskmasters, covers the
admin istrators themselves.
Taskmasters, according to Graeber (2018, p"49), include both unnecessary
superiors, for staff that would be doing the work anyway, and those who
'create bullshit tasks for others to do, ... supervise bullshit, or even ... cre-
ate entirely new bullshit jobs.'The former brings to mind Ginsberg's (2011,
p.164) hypothetical university president who, despite a seven-figure salary,
'could be kidnapped by space aliens and it would be weeks or even months
before his or her absence from campus was noticed.'The latter would include
what Ginsberg (2011, p.2) refers to as 'deanlets' and 'deanlings', and might
best be represented by Chloe (a pseudonym) whose lack of actual decision-
making authority as a 'Strategic Dean' led her to ultimately conclude that she,
and her many subordinates, had bullshit jobs (Graeber, 2018, p.50). (Chloe
would later realize that, were she given more authority as an administrator
she may have in fact been forced to do actual harm, rather than simply useless
work (p. 51).)
As we have seen, however, the decision-makers do not make up the great-
est part of the growth of non-academic staff in colleges and universities. That
honor goes to the 'other professionals.' lnsofar as these might in fact be bullshit
8 C M.DELUCCHIETAL.
jobs, the most obvious type would be flunkies, serving chiefly to make their
superiors appear or feel irnportant. These would include administrative assis-
tants and other office staff, hired and retained even if they are doing little work,
lest the executive's prestige suffer (6raeber, 2018). The existence of such jobs
is neither obscure nor particularly new:Veblen (1918, p.93) observed even in
his time that the captains of erudition 'will gather a corps of trusted advisors,
whose qualifications for their peculiar work is intelligent sympathy with their
chief's ideals and methods and an unreserved subservience.'
Perhaps less obvious, but just as important, are the goons and the duct
tapers. The former exist at any given organization simply because they exist at
competing organizations (Graeber,2A18, p.39).In higher education, these are
the employees whose work relates to 'one of the unwritten ... commonplaces
lying at the root of modern academic policy that the various universities are
competitors for the traffic in merchantable instruction, in much the same fash-
ion as rival establishments compete in the retail trade for custorn' (Veblen,
1918, p. B9). Graeber developed the latter category, duct tapers, principally
from the software industry. These are employees 'whose jobs exist only
because of a glitch or fault in the organization;who are there to solve a problem
that ought not exist' (201 8, p. 40). We take the category to cover more broadly
those employments which exist because competitive exigencies and manage-
rial dispositions supersede the essentially cooperative goals of teaching and
inquiry.
And finally, some portion of the 'other professionals' at colleges and uni-
versities are surely box tickers, existing'to allow an organization to be able
to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing' (Graeber, 2018,
p. a5). Box-ticking tasks range from filling out forms which, although ultimately
meaningless, the bureaucracy considers more important than the actualfunc-
tioning of the organization itself, to creating slick PowerPoint presentations:
'lf the ongoing importance of a manager is measured by how many peo-
ple he has working under him, the immediate material manifestation of that
manager's power and prestige is the visual quality of his presentations and
reports'(Graeber,201B, p.47). Hence, box tickers might characterize some
workers in occupations such as personnel, training, and labor relations special-
ists; accountants, auditors, and actuaries; counselors; as well as administrative
assista nts.
With these categories in mind, our aim is to test for the existence of bull-
shit jobs in higher education that the theory and history presented in the
previous section leads us to expect. To the best of our understanding, there
has been little to no attempt at empirically investigating the incidence of
bullshit jobs in higher education from an interdisciplinary perspective that
leverages insights from anthropology (Graeber, 2018), institutional economics
(Veblen, 1918), political science (Ginsberg, 2011), and sociology (Michels,
1915/2001).
REVTEW OF SOCTAL ECONOMY o s
The limited scholarship published on the existence and nature of bullshit
jobs (and similar conceptualizations) is reviewed in Dean et al. (in press). Of
the literature reviewed therein, only one article stands out as speaking specif-
ically to higher education: Wrzesniewski et al" (1997) report the results of a
survey of full-time employees at a public university's student health services
and non-faculty employees of a srnall private liberal arts college. Notably,
38a/o of those respondents answered 'false'to the statement'my work makes
the world a better place,' and only 250/o indicated that they would continue
their work unpaid if they were otherwise financially secure. Given that the
occupations of the respondents ranged frorn physicians and administrators
to computer programmers and adrninistrative assistants, these results indicate
we are on the right track in looking for the existence of bullshit jobs in these
employments.
Hypotheses
Our analysis is concerned with the underlying characteristics that differen-
tiate bullshit jobs from one another and from academic staff (e.9. faculty,
researchers, and graduate students). To that end, and based on the previous
discussion, we develop two hypotheses that concern the occupational cate-
gories of non-academic staff and bullshit jobs - specificaily other professionals
(i.e. duct tapers, flunkies, box tickers, and goons) and taskmasters (manage-
rial hierarchy). Both hypotheses assume controls for individual characteristics
of the respondents (e.g. age, ethnicity, gender, salary, etc.) and for the institu-
tional/organizationalfeatures of the colleges or universities that employed the
respondents (e.9. size of employer, public/private organization, etc.).
Hypothesis 1: other professionals (flunkies, goon, duct topers, and box
tickers)
Other Professionals will have the lowest levels of perceived social contribution
cornpared to all other higher education professional staff and administrators.
That is, respondents in this category are more likely to believe their jobs are
bullshit.
These positions, representing far and away the greatest source of bloat
in higher educational bureaucracies (see Table 1), are central to understand-
ing the nature and causes of that bloat. Many or most of these workers may
in fact serve chiefly, as Ginsberg (2011, pp. 24-25) argues, as'the bulwark
of administrative power in the contemporary university,' ensuring autonomy
from faculty (cf. Cottom & Tuchman, 2005), in which case their roles serve solrle
other purpose than the usualacademic goals of their institutions. Our hypoth-
esis suqgests this is the case, and that this can be observed empirically through
the reporting of the workers themselves.
'10 c M.DELUCCHTETAL.
Hypothesis 2: taskmosters and odministrative hubris
Management in institutions of higher education, from the captains of the eru-
dition (e.g. presidents, chancellors, and provosts) to those in the many levels of
administration below them (vice provosts, deans, and so on), will report higher
levels of perceived social contribution than other non-academic staff.
Understanding this hypothesis requires reflection on an important observa-
tion Graeber made in his broader study of occupations. Graeber (2018, p.57)
reports that, among the muititude of ernployments for which he received
responses, 'business owners, and anyone else in charge of hiring and firing'
were among the least likely to report their jobs were 'bullshit'; in fact, they
often expressed outright hostility to the very idea of bullshit jobs. We interpret
these findings as suggesting that the decision-making authority of a job, and
especially authority over others, adds an additional dimension to the likelihood
of an individual believing their job makes a contribution to society. Specifi-
cally, just as the 'captain of industry' is apt to see hinrself as 'a benefactor of
the community at large and an exemplar of the social virtues'(Veblen, 1914,
pp.2i 6-217), so too do the captains of erudition, ensconced in the institutional
principles of pecuniary rectitude and legitimate authority, see themselves as
champions of the general welfare. lf such were indeed the case, the fundamen-
tal driver of the growth of administrative positions in higher education, along
with their retinues of 'other professionals'covered in the first hypothesis above,
would be patent.
Measuring bullshit jobs in higher education * data and methods
Data
Our study uses the 2017 National Survey of College Graduates ('NSCG'). The
2017 survey is composed of individuals chosen from the four panel cohorts of
the American Community Survey between 2009 and 2015. A unique character-
istic of the NSCG is the inclusion of workers' self-reported satisfaction of their
job's contribution to society. Specifically, survey respondents were prompted
as follows:
When thinking about your principal lob held during the week of February 1,
please rate your satisfaction with that job's contribution to society.
lndividuals rated their satisfaction level on a Likert scale: very satisfied, some-
what satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, and very dissatisfied. We narrowed the
sample to individuals who met the following criteria: (1) were working for pay
or profit during the survey week; (2) had an annualized salary of greater than
zero dollars; (3) were employed at a 2- or -year academic institution; and {4)
the academic institution was either public or private. Furthermore, we col-
lapsed the respondents' satisfaction level into two categories: (1) very satisfied,
and (2) otherwise, similar to prior work by Nikolova and Cnossen (2020), and
Dean et al. (in press). These steps led to a sample containing 5323 observations.
REVTEW OF sOCrAr- ECONOMY e 1 i
The NSCG data have a major limitation. The survey includes individuals
with a variety of employment statuses across all industries. The survey was
not constrained to individuals employed in higher education only; thus, we
made inferences about individuals, their job status, and their likely presence
in the higher education industry. The inference is based on a respondent's job
category and employment in an academic institution. The job categories we
included were based on Graeber's (2018)and our understanding of the higher
education industry as members of that very industry.
The job categories our analysis focused on were: (1 ) faculty; (2) researchers;
(3) graduate students; (4) taskmasters; (5) goons; (6) duct tapers; (7) box tickers;
(B) flunkies; and (9) unclassified. Table 2 defines our variables and the individual
and institutional controls we used.
Prelimi n ary dat a a n a ly si s
Figure 1 shows the distribution of the 5323 respondents given the outcome
variable of one's satisfaction with the jobs' social contribution. Overall, 3379
out of 5323 (i.e.63.5%)were very satisfied with their jobs'societalcontribution.
The job category with the most observations and the most satisfaction with
their jobs' social contribution is Faculty (1920 out of 2701 or 71.1o/o). The job
category with the highest number of respondents who were not very satisfied
with their jobs'social contribution was Other Professionals: 304 out of 585 of
these respondents (or 520r0). Unclassified jobs were those principaljob activities
that did not easily align with Graeber's varieties of bullshit jobs or other job cat-
egories in higher education such as Faculty, They included jobs such as other
health occupations, other engineering technologist, and diagnosing/treating
practitioners.
Figure 2 shows the Pearson's correlation coefficients (in percentages), for
the variables examined in the logistic regression model. A negative percentage
in the correlogram indicates a negative correlation between the two variables,
and a positive percent in the correlogram indicates a positive correlation. The
deeper shading indicates a stronger correlation. To assess multicollinearity, we
also examined the variance inflation factors (VlFs) of the predictor variables.
The VlFs range from 1 .04to3.44 and confirm the independence of the variables
used in our estimation.
Empiricalmethod
Following the preliminary analysis of the data, we employ a logistic model that
takes the general form:
d'p
pi * Pr(yi: 1lx;) : CI +er,p)
12 @ M.DELUCCHTETAL
Table 2. Variables and definitions.
Variables Definitions
lndividual characteristics
Age Natural log ofa respondent's age in years
Wages Natural log of a respondent's wages per hour worked
Female 1 - respondent is female
0 - otherwise
White 1 - respondent is white
0 - otherwise
Married 1 - respondent is married with spouse present
0 - otherwise
Mastersa 1 - respondent's highest degree attained is a masters degree
0 - otherwise
PhD 1 - respondent's highest degree attained is a doctorate degree
0 * otherwise
Supervisor 1 - respondent has a supervisory role
0 - otherwise
lnstitutional characteristics:
Four-year 1 - respondent's employer is a four-year college or university
0 - respondent's employer is a two'year college or university
Private school 1 - respondent's employer is a privately owned academic institution
0 - respondent's employer is a publicly owned academic institution
A-499 'l - the number of employees at the respondent's employer is 499 or less
Employeesb 0 - otherwise
500-999 1 - the number of employees at the respondent's employer is between 500 and 999
Employees 0 - otherwise
|AOO-4999 1 - the number of employees at the respondent's employer is between 1000 and
Employees 4999
0 - otherwise
5OOO-24,999 I - the number of employees at the respondent's employer is between 5000 and
Employees 24,999
0 - otherwise
Job categories:
Taskmasters 1 - respondent's principaljob code is consistent with Graeber's taskmasters variety
of bullshit jobsc
0 - otherwise
Other 1 - respondent's principal job was consistent with Graeber's flunkies. goons, duct
Professionals tapers, and box tickersd
0 - otherwise
Faculty 1 - respondent's principal job code was post-secondary teaching, they were not
currently enrolled in school, and their primary work activity was teaching
0 - otherwise
Graduate 1 - respondent's principal job code was post-secondary teaching or research. they
Students were currently enrolled in a graduate program, and their primary work activity was
teaching or research
0 - otherwise
Researchers 1 - respondent's principal job code was basic or applied research, did not teach, and
were not enrolled in school
0 - otherwise
Unclassified 1 - respondent's principal job dld not satisfy any ofthe priorjob categories or did not
fit into Graeber's typology
0 - otherwise
a Reference category is bachelors and professional degree holders for Masters and PhD.
bReference category is employers with 25,000 or more employees.
cThese included the following principaljob codes including top-level managers (e.9. CE0, COO, CFO etc.),
education administrators (e.g. provost, registrar), mid-level managers (e.9. natural science managers) as
well as occupation codes that had managerial roles according to their reported primary and secondary
work activities.
dThese included principal joLr codes closely aligned with the varieties of bullshit jobs in Graeber (2018,
Chapter 2).
REVIEW OF SOCTAL ECONOMY e i 3
1 92C
Faculty'
G€duate studor{s -
Oli6r Prcheslrab -
Tskffistr$ -
Rffih6-
Urdasined -
1 000
Socialcontribution Allclher verisati:"rec
Figure 1, Perceived social contribution of a job by position category.
where yi : 1, is the probability that a respondent is very satisfied with their
job's social contribution; x' is a vector of right-hand variables including con-
trols for individual (i.e. age, wages, gender, race, marital status, educational
attainment, and job categories) and institutional characteristics (i.e. two- ver-
sus four-year colleges, private Versus public, and size of the employers), and
whether or not a respondent was engaged in supervisory work; and p are the
probabilities associated with the right-hand variables.
We generate odds ratios to interpret the likelihood of a respondent in our
data to be very satisfied (i.e.yi: 1) with their job's social contribution. The
odds ratio represents the increase (or decrease) in the odds of being very sat-
isfied with a job's social contribution when an independent variable increases
by a unit, all else constant. Consequently, an odds ratio of one implies equal
odds of being either very satisfied (y; : 1) or otherwise (y; : 0). An odds ratio
greater (or less than) one implies higher (lowed odds of a respondent being
very satisfied with their job's social contribution (Cameron & Trivedi, 2A10,
pp. as9-460).
Results
With respect to our first hypothesis regarding Other Professionals, control-
ling for individual and institutional characteristics, we find these employees
are less likely to be satisfied with their jobs' social contribution with an odds
ratia,O.4g4, considerably below one (see Table 3). Graeber's assertion and our
hypothesis are supported.
With respect to our second hypothesis, taskmasters and administrative
hul:ris, once we control for individual and institutional characteristics, we find
that Taskmasters compared to other bullshit jobs are likely to be very satisfied
7A1
518
448
281
304
259
211
187
90
B8
156
14 e M.DELUCCHTETAL.
SgcblcotltrtutBn
Wa9619
ltA
PhS
Four-Year_Co{cg€
BiYitr-Seiool
sir!-undcr_s0o
Size-so0-9gg
Sizc_!000-4999
Siee-5000.24S9
SuPal'{*or
Tlsl66slers
Faculy
Gr,durteSSrde{F
Ra$atrdreB
OtherProf€€€irnab
uoc533i6e{,
It
.1 '0.3
Figure 2. Correlogram.
with their jobs' social contribution (see Table 4). Moreover, responding in the
affirmative to the question'Did you supervise the work of others as part of
the principaljob' is also associated with an odds ratio greater than one. Grae-
ber's assertions and our hypothesis are supported: the captains of erudition, as
Veblen (1918) would put it, as well as the other administrators, see themselves
as benefactors to the community, and this is positively correlated with playing
a supervisory role over others.
Additionally, the other job categories, Faculty, Graduate Students, Resear-
chers, and Unclassified, all have odds ratios greater than one, indicating that,
all else constant, each of these job categories is likely to have a respondent who
perceives that their job contributes to society. The largest odds ratio pertains
to Faculty, who are 2.557 times more likely than Other Professionals to perceive
that their jobs contribute to society - an unsurprising finding.
13 37
5^7 4
t
<E
=e,
7 3 19 3
622 27 -v 11
5-14 .6 10 1-f, =
I
20 I
26
to6
o :r
6b
=E
E 5.H
329 25 13 3't8
11 1.22 .! -7 -o -17
20 0 0016 8 o -_'
1,4 744 3 11.2 30
13 6 0 213 2 24 12 fl8
,;o
?41-3 -2 1 1 I17 -12
.4 -3 12 0-1 .6 .2 .2 .10 13 -15 -12 16
518 I15 11 .B 10 62a1.2
114 7-t 24.6 .? 100z.2 ?7
16 24 48 16 21 14 42 =20 257111 7.30
.6 .2 -'t 5-24 16 -35 17 -3 j-5 010 -14
.o 1-$ -5 ,5 1-7 10 1't -1 -7 .3 162-8 .29 't4
1'1 'I .6 't0 34-20 0131-2 1310 ,36 ^18 -10
.2 -1 -2 .2 -1 3,B 3012II4.5 -18 -s -6
5
-59
-5? -51
REVTEW OF SOCTAL ECONOMY @ 1s
Table 3. Results - other professionals.
Odds ratio
0ther Professionals
I ndivid uol cha racteristi cs:
-0.705*"*
(0.093)
(0.093)
Age
Wages
Female
White
Married
Masters
PhD
I n st itutian ol ch aro cte r i sti cs:
0.51 3***
(0.106)
0.049
{0.048)
0.247***
(0.0se)
0.1 g7**
(0.065)
0.087
(0.064)
0.262"**
{a.074)
0.155
(0.082)
1.671
1.051
1.279
1.205
1.089
1.300
1.167
Four-Year
Private School
0-499 Employees
500-999 Employees
1000-4999 Employees
50Co-24,99 Employees
Constant
n
-0.481"**
(0.090)
0.078
(0.080)
-0.064
(0.102)
-0.071
(0.r 20)
-0.159
(0.120)
-0.178
(0.09s)
-1.459***
(0.38e)
5323
0.618
1.081
0.938
0.931
0.853
0.837
0.232
Notes: Standard errors in parentheses.
ii',ljfi,,
Discussion
ln discussing potential explanations for the proliferation of bullshit jobs, Grae-
ber (2018) proposes an intersection between the financialization of the econ-
omy (with aggressive application of market principles and technology), cul-
tural dynamics (emphasizing the social value of work), and political processes
(promoting full employment). Our own explanation, specific to higher educa-
tion, has emphasized the general bureaucratic tendencies of large organiza-
tions as well as the competitive, businesslike way in which these institutions
are run. The results for taskmasters and other professionals (i.e. box tickers,
duct tapers, flunkies, and goons) in the previous section, while consistent
16 @ M.DELUCCHTETAL.
Table 4. Results - taskmasters and administra-
tive hubris.
Variable B Odds ratio
Taskmasters 0,408** 1.504
(0.137)
Faculty 0.939*** 2.557
(0.106)
Graduate Students 0.696*** 2.005
(0.r13)
Researchers 0.385** 1.469
(0.137)
Unclassified 0.388* 1.474
(0.184)
I n divid u al ch a ra cteristi cs:
Age 0.383** 1.466
(0.1 17)
Wages 0.035 1.036
(0.0s0)
Female 0.244*** 1.277
(0.060)
white 0.147* 1.159
(0.066)
Married 0.062 1.0tr
(0.065)
Masters 0.247** 1.281
(0.07s)
PhD 0.030 1.031
(0.0e1)
Supervisor 0.314*** 1.369
(0.067)
I n stitutional ch a ra cteri stics:
Four-Year -0.417*** 0.659
(0.0e4)
Private School 0.061 1 .063
{0.082)
0-499 Employees -0.086 0.917
(0.i 03)
500-999 Employees -0.089 0.915
(0.121)
1000-4999 Employees -0,167 0.846
(0.0e6)
5000-24,999 Employees -0.155 0.856
{0.096)
Constant -1.739*"" 0.176
(0.448)
n 5323
Note: Standard errors in parentheses.
li',ifi',
with Graeber's (2018) and our arguments, warrant further discussion. Why do
taskmasters believe they contribute more to society than other bullshit jobs,
while other professionals report the lowest levels of social contribution?
REVTEW OF SOCTAL ECONOMY o 17
As Michels (1915/2001) argued, all large bureaucracies eventually corne to
be run by a 'leadership class', i.e. paid administrators and executives (taskmas-
ters). Far from being responsible to the organization's membership, this 'lead-
ership elite' rather than the rank-and*file, inevitably come to dominate the
bureaucracy's power structures. With power comes the ability to determine
what procedures the organization follows when making decisions.
By controlling access to information, those in leadership positions can cen-
tralize their power, often with little accountability, due to,the apathy, indiffer-
ence, and non-participation most rank-and-file members have vis-)-vis their
organization's decision-making processes (Michels, 1915/2001). ln this bureau-
cratic structure, the rank-and-file include other professionals (box-tlckers, duct
tapers, flunkies, and goons), whose jobs are created by administrators. Box-
ticker positions appear when paperwork requesting certain actions beccme
more important (to management) than the actions themselves. When admin-
istration finds it more difficult to fix a problem than to continue dealing
with its consequences, duct-taper jobs are created. Because those in positions
of power view subordinates as symbols of status, they will often surround
themselves with flunkies. ,And when rivals add new positions goon jobs are
developed to'keep up' with the competition (Graeber, 20iB). These'other
professionals' in higher education, then, find themselves in the unenviable
position of having to repeatedly perform tasks that they believe are unneces-
sary.Therefore, it should come as no surprise that employees in this category
report on average the lowest level of social contribution compared to all other
higher education professionals (e.g. faculty, researchers) and administration.
Our results for the taskmasters themselves require a more nuanced expla-
nation, and the limitations of our approach must be recognized. As indicated
above, the cultural norms that associate power, prestige, and pecuniary gain
with social beneficence are likely to extend to the captains of erudition, just
as they do the captains of industry and finance. lndeed, this is probably ampli-
fied in the former by the com mon perceptions of the value of higher education
itself. Consistent with Graeber's (2018) observations, we expected these sen-
timents would outweigh any felt dearth of social contribrution among the
upper-tier administrative employees in our sample.
The same habits of mind may extend down into the lower managerial ranks,
or the organizational culture itself may attenuate reports of bullshit work. As
described by Veblen (1 918, p.92), the university executive will employ a small
number of advisers who are in sympathy with leadership ambitions, and who
will 'form an unofficial council, or cabinet, or'Junta," to whom [the adminis-
tratorl can turn for informal, anonymous and irresponsible, advice and rnoral
support.'The u niversity executive staff s 'first duty is a loyal obedience; ... they
must utter no expression of criticism or unfavourable comment on policy,
actions or personal characteristics'(p.91). lt may therefore be due to the
18 e M.DELUCCHTETAL.
resulting organizational culture that lower level taskmasters, as well, have an
incentive to underreport their work as 'bullshit' (Graeber, 2018).
Finally, it must be noted that our taskmasters category has only limited
capability in distinguishing between those administrators with real decision-
making authority and those without. That employees whose jobs explicitly
involved supervising others' work carried a statistically significant odds ratio
greater than one supports our understanding that such authority will, on
average, lead to more sanguine beliefs about the social value of one's work.
However, administrators without, e.g" powers of the purse, such as Chloe, one
of the few managers identifying her job as bullshit in Graeber's (2018) research,
cannot be readily differentiated from the others. As such, distinctions between
the two may be lost in the average.
These arguments help to explain our finding that taskmasters, compared to
other bullshit jobs (i.e. other professionals) in higher education, believe they
contribute more to the social good. However, the data and our models have
limitations, and further research is in order. These will be discussed in more
detail in the concluding section.
Conclusion
The reasons individuals create or perform bullshit .iobs are not the same as
the historical factors that account for the growth of unnecessary employ-
ment in higher education. Structural forces that transform economic, political,
and cultural institutions are not the same as the organizations and people
that respond to these dynamics. By applying a multi-disciplinary explanatory
approach, our research brings new insight to the way the phenomenon of bull-
shit jobs in capitalist societies may emerge from multiple levels of analyses"
However, the present paper is not without its limitations, and more research is,
of course, needed.
The empirical analysis of the present study relies on self-reporting of social
contribution. This is both a strength and a limitation. As to the former, when
attempting to assess the nature and causes of work and organization it is
essential that social scientists look, in part, to the people actually engaged in
those activities. However, an individual's perceptions are inevitably influenced
by cultural norms, requiring interpretation of such self-reporting through an
understanding of the relevant norms and their personal history (see Dean et al.,
in press). One potential line of future research is the relationship between per-
ceptions of social contribution and the experiences and habits of thought that
shape those perceptions.
Moreover, it is possible to verify empirically whether the perception of a
job's social contribution is confirnned or contradicted by others within the
organization. For instance, Graeber notes that, while managers almost ubiq-
uitously see themselves as contributing a good deal, one survey found 'that
REVTEW OF SOCTAT ECONOMY e 1s
800/o of employees feel their managers are useless and that they could do their
job just as well without them' (201 8, p.49).Although such cross-assessments of
occupational usefulness are not availahrle in our dataset, future empirical work
along these lines would most certainly be interesting.
It should likewise be noted that our dataset only surveys college graduates.
Because nonprofessional staff have not been a significant part of the growth of
ernployment in higher education (see Table 1) and we assume that the remain-
ing occupations under scrutiny here generally require at least a Bachelor's
degree, this has not been a significant hurdle for our purposes. Nevertheless,
analyses that cover the full range of work done in colleges and universities
remain in order.
ln addition to the above-noted lines of future inquiry. we believe that time
series data analysis would also shed light on the evolution of bureaucratic
structures, intra-organizational power, and bullshit jobs. There remains as well
a great deal to explore in the intersection of race, gender, and a host of
other dimensions with occupation and social contribution in our institutions
of higher education. We hope that all of these and surely many other lines of
research will be pursued in the future.
We conclude by situating our study in the broader cultural context. ln his
time, Veblen indicated that the guidance of higher education under principles
of competitive business remained incomplete. However:
lf these business principles were quite free to work out their logical conse-
quences, untroubled by any disturbing factors of an unbusinesslike nature, the
outcome should be to put the pursuit of knowledge defrnitively in abeyance
within the university, and to substitute for that objective... a consummate
('sweat-shop') scheme... of low-cost perfunctory instruction, high-cost stage
properties and press-agents, public song and dance, expensive banquets,
speech-making and processions. (1918, pp. 170- 171)
Ginsberg (2011) might like to add administrative retreats and strategic plans,
but otherwise the list appears to cover well the various non-academic
concerns to which so much of college and university resources are now
directed.
Still, while it would be difficult to deny that a more complete business-
like management of the higher learning has developed since Veblen's time,
it would likewise be imprudent to miss the hold-outs, those who still look to
our institutions of higher education for opportunities to learn and to engage in
free inquiry. Certainly, this would include most faculty as well as students. But,
given the number of workers in the other professional category expressing dis-
satisfaction with their work's social contribution, it would be reasonable to con-
clude that many of these employees long for a less bureaucratic, Iess pecuniary,
less corporate higher education. lndeed, even the captains of erudition will
sometirnes hold a sincere, if vague, appreciation for the traditional academic
ideals (Veblen, 1918, p. 173) - perhaps a more common sentiment as one
2a e M.DELUCCHTETAT.
moves down the administrative hierarchy and henee closer to the actual points
of teaching and scholarship.
A number of forces and institutional dynamics push against these desires
to align institutions of higher education with their own missions. We have
argued for the importance of two in particular: the bureaucratic tendencies of
large organizations and the logic of rnanagement of colleges and universities
under the principles of competitive business. Yet, as a final word, it is worth
returning to Graeber, who suggests that at a very fundamental level contem-
porary culture maintains and proliferates bullshit jobs through a 'balance of
resentrnents':
The main political reaction to our awareness that half the time we are engaged
in utterly meaningless or even counterproductive activities - usually under the
orders of a person we dislike - is to rankle with resentment over the fact there
might be others out there who are not in the same trap. (2018, p. 13)
Those with actually useful - yet, more often than not, poorly compensated
- work begrudge those with job security, high incomes, and prestige - and
especially those who demand or indeed enjoy such perquisites in addition
to a putatively beneficent role in society at large. Meanwhile, the masses of
flunkies, et al., toiling away in bullshit work, resent those - for instance, pri-
mary and secondary school teachers - who have been afforded an opportunity
to truly contribute to society, even if it has meant sacrificrng material comfort
and leisure (Graeber, 20'l B, pp, 1 75- i B0).
Perhaps a similar balance of resentments is present in the halls of the
academy. Veblen (1 918, p. 1 73) noted that part of the abiding appreciation for
teaching and scholarship above all else among faculty was a 'touch of envy
[for] those among them who are so driven to follow their own scientific bent, to
the neglect of expedient gentility and publicity.'Champlin and Knoedler {2017,
p.2a$ likewise observe a counterpoise between contingent and traditional
(full-time, tenured or tenure-track) faculty. The former resent the latter for their
generous pay, benefits, and job security; while the latter resent the former for
the additional service work and so on required of themselves as colleges and
universities whittle down the number of traditional professors available to do
that work. Is it possible that, along the lirres described by Graeber (2018), fac-
ulty, in general, resent those in the bureaucratic behemoths that have usurped
their control over institutional governance, while at the same time the latter
resent the former for their direct and salient contributions to their institutions'
core missions?
lf there is a ny truth to th is 'mora I envy' hypothesis of Graeber's (201 B, p.17 6),
then we hope the research presented above makes a useful, if small, contribu-
tion to dismantling the balance of resentments that foster administrative bloat
and related issues of concern in higher education. While we have foregone
any policy recommendations in this paper, it would seem, at heart, that a
REVTEW OF SOCTAL ECONOMY @ 21
first step toward improving the organization and governance of our institu-
tions of higher education would require an honest and careful appraisal of
what the employees actually do, no matter how malodorous the inquiry might
ultimately prove to be.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Data availability statement
The data that supports the findings of this study are openly available in the
Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System at https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/data
download/. Additionally, the code used to generate the results presented in this paper
are available from the authors at rdadzie@spu.edu.
Notes on contributors
Michael Delucchi is an lndependent Researcher and retired Professor of Sociology. He
received his PhD from the University of California - Santa Barbara. His areas of research
and writing include sociology of higher education, organizational sociology, and the
scholarship of teaching and learning.
Richord B. Dadzie is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Seattle Pacific University.
He received his PhD from the University of Missouri - Kansas City. He is a heterodox
economist with interest in higher education, development economics, and interna-
tionaltax policy.
Erik Dean is an lnstructor of Economics at Portland Community College and researcher
at the Global lnstitute for Sustainable Prosperity. His core expertise is in heterodox pro-
duction theory, institutionalist methodology, and pedagogy in economics. His recent
research covers a range of topics, including the nature of the modern occupational
structure and the place of the corporation in money manager capitalism and the
ramifications thereof,
Xuan Pham is an independent researcher. She is interested in using microdata and
data science to study labor economics, economic sociology, and the social provisioning
process.
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