Yang: A Humorous Poke … Into Some Serious Issues

Los Alamos

Today’s example helps illustrate “how to break the mold,” carefully selected to follow the “Weird Ideas” innovation series.

By now, you might have come across the story about how a group of four Canadian professors at the University of Alberta satirized the high salary of their outgoing university president, (read it here and here). And the group of four rapidly grew into new groups comprising 56 professors. (Quick, how many groups are there?)

In responding to the job opening for the president of the University of Alberta, Kathy Cawsey and three other professors decided to use the opportunity to poke some fun, while also highlighting the overpaid bloated university administration. The four professors submitted their joint application for the position of president, arguing that the university would get a “bargain” with “four real academics for the price of one job,” and they would even throw in as a bonus, sharing just one academic robe. The tongue-in-cheek application letter has spread like wildfire, and 52 of Cawsey’s friends decided to join the “crusade.” 

It is difficult to imagine that one university president would be working more hours than four professors’ hours added together. Yet, these days, many “university president” positions fetch a nice million-dollar salary package, including all the perks and benefits (example: CUNY chancellor’s free apartment worth $18,000/month). Indeed, the university president job must be stressful, what with all the fund raising, taking blame for university misadventures, and all that … I guess. Still, $1 million? Or, $6 million, in the case of the retirement package for the outdoing president of Ohio State University, who by the way, left in disgrace. By comparison, the outgoing UofA president’s salary is paltry at just under-half-of-a-million. 

The two lessons I draw from the UofA presidential application stunt are: 1. Cawsey and company must have good job security, and 2. we have collectively lost, or abandoned, the spirit of “service.”

The “job security” point is self-evident. By “spirit of service” I mean the sense of “serving” people. I don’t advocate cheap labor, and insist that we should all be properly compensated for our work and our hard-earned education, experience, and reputation. However, don’t people go into certain sectors because of some belief in “serving others?” like university presidents? Since when have we accepted that university presidents are CEOs and belong in the same ridiculous salary ranges? For that matter, hospital presidents? bishops? art museum directors? When I was an intern in the planning office of a major metropolitan hospital decades ago, the incoming hospital president wanted to redecorate his office. Sure, but to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars?! What was equally appalling was that my bosses did not see anything wrong with it.  

Yup, everything is done by corporate standards these days. Since when has private industry’s standard become the gold standard? How many disasters, cheating schemes, disgraceful and deceitful practices, or downright illegal activities in for-profit organizations must we suffer before we accept that there are just as much rotten fruit in the private basket, and maybe more, as in the not-for-profit basket? For goodness sake, these days the media pundits are even portraying ISIS (the brutal Sunni organization that’s currently leaving corpses all over Syria and Iraq) as possessing shrewd “business acumen,” (Click here). For instance, ISIS deliberately underpays their fighters so as to recruit those who are truly committed in the ideology. I guess they have indeed learned from the west’s corporate experience. 

Back to university presidents. Is it ironic that many of these over-bloated university administrators are from universities that have driven large tuition increases, created a substantial portfolio of student debt and a growing body of poorly-paid adjunct professors, and become loud advocates for austerity measures for others? Don’t get me wrong, there are legitimate administrative functions and roles. The helpful administration people are angels. I have been lucky to have met quite a few such. 

People will argue that we need to provide incentives to attract “talented” people for the top posts. What are these talents? In the case of UofA, the ad for the president includes the ability “…to interact effectively with the highest level of business, government and public bodies.” I’d be the first person to admit that cultivating relationships, especially at such “high” levels, is a very demanding and daunting task. However, if these institutions so value relationships, why don’t they also attend to the relationships with their customers and employees (actually, aren’t all CEOs and presidents employees too?), the relationships among all the employees, and the relationships of relationships? Kenwyn Smith defines organization this way: “Without a system of relations to draw the parts together into a whole, there is no organization, just free-floating parts. Hence, to talk about organization is to talk about relationship, relations among parts and relations among relations.”

I think these UofA professors’ idea and action were brilliant. It’s “outside the box” thinking; it’s non-confrontational while sending a clear and strong message, and it was done in the spirit of “service.” I hope more people with good job security will create similar outlets on behalf of those who cannot risk being heard. 

Do you have similar ideas or stories to share?

A birthday celebration trip is coming up for this household. I will resume in this space July 14. Safe travels and a wonderful holiday to all. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.


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