Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Amazon model: coming to a university near you?

The New York Times article "Inside Amazon"  led me to think up this little riddle:

Q: What's the difference between living in Westeros (Game of Thrones) and working for

A: In Westeros, you still fight 24-7 for survival, but they can only kill you once.

Here's a quiz to see if you would fit in at

1) You develop a serious illness, or give birth to a child, or have someone close to you die, so your productive work hours slip to 85 per week.  What can you expect from Amazon, the company whose initial answer to warehouse workers' keeling over in 100-degree heat wasn't air conditioning but having ambulances (and no doubt pink slips) waiting outside for the fallen?

a) Supplemental paid leave
b) Flex time for completing your work
c) You'll be fired or forced to quit.

2) You collaborate with others to make a better product or to ship something faster, but Amazon uses "stacked ranking" or "rank and yank" where everyone is ranked frequently and people are fired after every ranking. You

a) Defend your team and the product
b) Explain the long-term benefits to the company
c) Anonymously report the person you want fired on the company's special feedback software, helpfully included in the worker directory along with pre-written derogatory messages; you can also gang up with your fellow Targaryens to sink someone, since these are pasted verbatim into the victim's performance review.

3) If you get an email after 1 a.m. on a weekend, when should you answer it?

a) the next morning
b) Monday morning
c) within an hour, or else you'll start getting text messages on your phone--that you pay for yourself--asking you why you are so slow

4) Which of the following statements is false?

a) One worker reported seeing people crying at their desks as a common sight.
b) Some companies are reluctant to hire former Amazon employees because they're known as "Amholes" for their combative ways
c) Jeff Bezos is truly sorry for this culture and wants to build a kinder, gentler workplace.

Kidding!  Bezos is proud of the "purposeful Darwinism" that drives people to ulcers and to quit.

What does this corporate horror show have to do with the modern university?

I keep seeing in The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, and in statements from various administrators at various places things like the following:
  • Greater emphasis on numbers of publications and demands for "impact measures" to be reported, even though those scores that the scientists use aren't readily available to people in the humanities.
  • Greater emphasis on grant dollars brought in, even though--again--the minuscule number of grants available in the humanities, the extreme competition for them (NEH = same acceptance rate as getting into Harvard or  Stanford), and the dollar amounts they bring in pale in comparison to those in the sciences, against whom the humanities are increasingly being compared in a misguided bid for "accountability."
  • More and more kinds of performance assessments for students and for instructors.
  • More and more interest in automating courses, "optimizing" for scale as though students are widgets, etc.  
  • Misguided applications of MBA jargon designed to corporatize the university.
Maybe I'm being too alarmist; there's hope, after all, in the movement for decent salaries and benefits for non tenure-track employees. And the university is still a place that, as all the mission statements say, upholds humanistic principles.

But this gave me pause:
Soon the tool, or something close, may be found in many more offices. Workday, a human resources software company, makes a similar product called Collaborative Anytime Feedback that promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event.
This is the Judas software that allows workers to backstab one another anonymously "anytime," as the name promises. In the shiny widgets arms race that universities seem to have adopted, I'm hoping this is one product that will fly beneath their radar.

And kudos, by the way, to the NY Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld for such a good article, and to the brave Amazon and ex-Amazon workers who spoke out despite a Bezos gag order. 


Anonymous said...

I had the same thought reading the Amazon expose: that it all sounds terribly, terribly familiar. Higher ed is following in the tracks of corporations like Amazon, led by administrators who have attended one too many executive workshops and drunk the corporate koolaid. How long before we are being timed: number of hours speaking to students directly, number of minutes it takes us to get from one classroom to the other? It's coming.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Count me as another academic with the same reaction: this sounds all too familiar. It's also another reason (as if we needed one) to argue now for cutting the administrative class as much as possible (and by that, I *don't* mean librarians and IT support workers, I mean sub-deans). I'd also like to see as many administrators as possible required to teach as much as possible -- preferably at least 1/4 to 1/2 time -- and to return to the full-time teaching ranks on a regular rotation, since being subject to the policies you create is a pretty good prophylactic against bad policies.

I'm also thinking that I need to cut down on my Amazon habit, preferably while maintaining at least some of the convenience that has built that habit (i.e. I don't mind paying a bit more, but I'm not really interested in bricks-and-mortar shopping, period, let alone spending hours traveling to independent purveyors of various goods, and making sure *they* treat their employees decently. I suppose the other option is stronger wage/hour laws/OSHA regulations, so that Amazon et al. can't get away with such behavior.)