Thursday, May 29, 2014

OFP brings the Big Thirsty about the real power players In academia

Forget about Presidents, Provosts, Deans, Chairs, or tenured faculty.  Anyone who’s been in academia for a while knows the real powers-that-be are the administrative assistants.  Even way back when we used to call them “secretaries,” everyone knew that all business, the routine and the unusual, needed to go though the gatekeeper to the official, who prepared the daily folder of forms to be signed by said official.  If the administrative assistant (let’s call them “AA” for short) liked you, you were more than halfway home with your request for whatever: reimbursement, waiver of deadline, new lab toy, TA support, or schedule change.  If the AA hated you, you were screwed. Even if the dean or department chair favored your request, the signed approval form may never get sent. Jane Smiley had fun with the concept in her 1995 academic comedy fiction Moo, with longtime secretaries to key administrators in a conspiracy that really ran the university.

In my 45+ years as a student, TA, faculty, and department chair, I’ve seen all variety of AA, from saint to spawn of Satan, and everything in between.  For example, “Vera” was a motherly sort who handled all students and faculty issues with calm competence, and if a student had a financial or family crisis, they wound up at Vera’s house for dinner and comfort. “Eunice,” on the other hand, couldn’t care less about anyone: “You’ve confused me with someone who gives a shit,” was her inevitable response to any request that interrupted her romance novel.

I’ve worked with “Elaine,” a great AA who was so smart she became a CPA by taking courses part-time while running an entire department and being an uber-volunteer for community events.  I’ve been burdened with “Marcy,” an AA so dim that we were forced to limit her work to collation, photocopying, and managing office supplies.  Then there was “Clara,” who spent her entire workday managing her son’s hockey league and her daughter’s traveling soccer team.

So what about y’all? Any AA horror stories to share with us? Or an AA you want to beatify?  

Just don’t use real names except for proposed saints.

(And go read Moo, even if you already have done so.  It’s funnier the second time through.)

- Old Fart Prof


  1. I learned early, as an undergrad in a research lab, to always be nice to the AA's. Make nice even if you don't want to, since as Old Fart Prof stated, they can get stuff done.

    In my PhD institution there was a grumpy gal that many a student and prof were scared of approaching. We got along smashingly, as I was always respectful and I asked about her dogs. She did have quite the bark, but man she knew how to get things done on campus and if she couldn't figure it out she knew someone who did! I hated seeing her retire.

    The AA for my graduate program is still the greatest asset to the program. She handles students and professors well alike. She gets things done. During an external review of the program, us grad students, told them that this particular AA must be kept at all costs. She got forms signed and could find money throughout the University for lecture series and such.

    I have also had an AA that I was happy to see retire. For two years after department shuffling my letter of intent was always late (along with many grad students) and we often did not get paid for July until August! What an idiot! After she retired, my LOI was always on time.

    The AA's truly make the University run. I am sad that many of their positions have been cut to make room for more Adminflakes, because we all know how effective they are...

  2. I have had many interactions with the AA of our athletic dept and the AA for the Middle Aged Dean....I would give those AA's the real departmental positions any day. They should at least get paid what the football coach makes.

  3. I dealt with my share of secretaries and administrative assistants over the years both in industry and in academe.

    I remember one in the department where I did my Ph. D. She was kindly and a real sweetheart. She knew what went on and how things were done. If one wanted to know, for example, where certain office supplies were, she either had the answer or could find out who did. She was greatly missed after she retired.

    Her successor, however, left a lot to be desired. She was a young kid, somewhere between Gen Y and a millenial. One of first things I noticed about her was a snotty attitude, behaving as if she could boss me around, even though I had been associated with the department longer than she was. (Rather than being rude, she probably considered herself assertive and self-empowered.) I took an immediate disliking to her and avoided her whenever possible. She didn't last long in that position, though. Apparently, she eventually worked for an internal departmental section chief, though I heard a rumour that she eventually moved to another department. No great loss there.

    There was also an AA who had a similar better-than-thou attitude, though she was higher up in the pecking order. Even my supervisor detested her. One of her duties was taking care of financial matters such as expense reimbursements. However, she made the process as difficult as possible, behaving as if one was robbing her personally. She retired soon after I finished my degree.

    However, one AA I remember while I was teaching was a real harridan. I taught a number of service courses and, one day, I had to contact a certain department head about something. His office was in her area and, after I came through the door, I asked where he was. She immediately tore into me, yelling at me that it had nothing to do with her because she wasn't on his staff.

    I thought that maybe she had a bad day and I was willing to let it go at that. These things happen, sometimes, and I didn't make a big deal of it.

    Some time later, I had some business in that same office area and she happened to be there when I came in. Yup--after asking her about something, she repeated her performance, taking extreme umbrage that I should even think of asking her about something outside of her purview. I explained that I had no idea that a division of labour, of sorts, existed in that area, whereupon I was told: "Now you know!"

    Much later, I told our department secretary about her antics and she told me that the harridan had a reputation for that throughout the institution. How she managed to keep her job after behaving like that remains a mystery to me to this day.

  4. The AA when I arrived on campus was a grandmotherly type who could barely use a computer but knew the right person to call in order to get anything done. She retired and was replaced by the most incompetent AA I've ever met. She lost important files, left half an hour early each day and did nothing to help if it meant any inconvenience for her. Our current AA transferred from another department twice our size. She enjoys having less work to do and her old department replaced her with two people.

  5. I forgot to mention this gem. One of my favorite profs at my PhD institution (he was also a committee member) had mice in hir lab. Not the kind researchers would want, but the pesky kind that chew things and poop in inconvenient places. They asked the department AA for mouse traps and she said no. One day the prof caught a mouse and placed in a bag. He then put the bag on her desk, again asking for mouse traps. She was pissed, but the prof got some mouse traps. Holy crap that takes balls.