When email first spread to campuses in the late 1970s, it simplified crucial tasks like communicating with distant collaborators, but as its ubiquity grew, it became a public portal through which the world beyond close colleagues could make increasing demands on a professor’s time and attention, making email into a kind of digital water torture for the scholar struggling to think without interruption.
Another factor driving the professoriate’s drift into middle management is a significant increase in administrative demands. In part, this is due to the growth of university bureaucracy, which, once established, inevitably consumes the time and attention of its subjects to justify its existence.
A subtler factor arose as an unexpected side effect of the introduction of “productivity-enhancing” networked personal computers to professional life. As the economist Peter G. Sassone observed in the early 1990s, personal computers made administrative tasks just easy enough to eliminate the need for dedicated support staff — you could now type your own memos using a word processor or file expenses directly through an intranet portal. In the short term, these changes seemed to save money. But as Sassone documents, shifting administrative tasks to high-skilled employees led to a decrease in their productivity, which reduced revenue — creating losses that often surpassed the amount of money saved by cuts to support staff. He describes this effect as a diminishment of “intellectual specialization,” and it’s a dynamic that’s not spared higher education, where professors spend an increasing amount of time dealing with the administrative substrate of their institutions through electronic interfaces.