In which Bwog instills heart-thumping excitement in you and all of your friends; this piece will appear in the November issue of the Blue and White. Here, Lenora Babb discusses the wacky world of “Department Administrators and the University That Needs Them.”
Professors like to think they’re the stars of the university, but in every department there is someone else: someone who counsels students, organizes special functions, serves on committees, and handles confidential information like professors’ grant spending, salary, and tenure applications. You might not know these people, mundanely titled department administrators, but without them Columbia could not function.
To call Joy Hayton the matriarch of a swollen, motley family of over-educated adults only begins to describe her job. For 26 years, Hayton has served as the
departmental administrator (DA) for English and Comparative Literature , watching the comings and goings of professors, students, and four university presidents. Things have changed a lot since she arrived. “It’s an astonishing thing if you think about it,” she said, “and I try not to think about it.”
Hayton arrived in 1980 as a “secretary,” but her position has grown beyond that. She is the caring human being behind the scenes of an intimidating bureaucracy, helping students get their bearings. Her office on the sixth floor of Hamilton is strewn with photographic glimpses of her life—here she is, slightly younger, a bright green parrot perched on her shoulder; now smiling on a gray beach next to bulging brown lumps of sea lions; and again, arm in arm with a blue-robed student on the steps of Low.
“Joy?” says Professor Michael Seidel when I ask him about Hayton. “She’s the lifeblood. I go to her if something goes right, if something goes wrong … I just figure she’s the source in this department.”
On Hayton’s wall hangs a certificate she earned at a leadership conference in 1991, where she and other DAs formed an informal group that met regularly. Though academic disciplines have become more and more alienated from one another, that group has stayed close. The three remaining members of the old guard still get lunch together to socialize and let off steam.
All current DAs also meet officially once a month. These include Bill Dellinger, the cheery anchorman of the Department of Germanic Languages and self-described “jack of all trades.” Hundreds of tiny figurines, toys, and souvenirs cover his desktop, a whimsical army of kitsch commanded by a giant silver squirrel. The squirrel, a Mexican sombrero roped to its shiny neck in a display of rodent machismo, is the only piece he bought himself; the others are gifts from friends, ranging from a miniature Punxatawney Phil to a marzipan elephant in a plastic cube.
Eccentricity is the rule among Columbia’s DAs, and none seems to have the staid background of a career bureaucrat. Physics administrator Lalla Grimes graduated magna cum laude with a degree in art history from Mount Holyoke, received a Fulbright to study Venetian Renaissance landscape painting in Italy, and ended up administrating the physics department in 1998, by way of Casa Italiana. Of her own role, Grimes says, “Department administrators have been called the synapses of the university.”
Others came to Columbia as students and never left. Dellinger first came as a graduate student in ancient philosophy. Gerry Visco, of the Classics department, has received degrees in Italian, writing, and journalism from Columbia.
Dropping by the Classics department office on Halloween, I find a tall blonde nurse-cum-dominatrix in white vinyl. It’s Visco. As we sit down in her office, she launches into a flurry of stream-of-consciousness reflections on the department, academia, and her side jobs. “This is basically a day job for me,” she explains, “not the end of the world, not my whole life.” Quick to distinguish herself from career bureaucrats and stuffy professors, Visco claims that she likes undergraduates best because they are happy. Professors, she tells me, are a special group to work with, burnt out from clawing their way to tenure, immersed in esoteric research. “You have to get used to working with them, let’s just put it that way.”
Visco is currently studying to be a yoga teacher and writing sex and restaurant reviews for the NY Press. Before she came to the university, she was an actress, claiming an appearance in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. “I have a very festive attitude,” says Visco, and looking at her photos on Facebook, when she friends me, post-meeting, I come to see that the nurse outfit does not deviate too much from her typical attire. Visco feels that many people at Columbia are “kind of dweeby.”
“I call them gender-neutral,” she says of the academics she works with. “The men are like women and the women are like men.”
It’s easy for DAs like Visco and Dellinger, in small departments, to make their jobs personal. It’s harder for people like Louise Peterson, administrator of the biology department—one of the largest, most highly funded departments in Arts & Sciences. Her office is bare of ornamentation, save one framed picture, and a beautiful view of the back of Low Library. Her biggest lament is people who don’t appreciate deadlines, and she presides over a large team of department staff.
Sometimes department politics get touchy. Jessica Rechtschaffer, DA of the Middle East Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) Department, eyes me suspiciously as I appear in the doorway of her office, until I assure that I want to talk about her and not about that. The conversation turns to the skis she keeps in the corner of her office, which she uses in Riverside Park, and she heartily urges me to try it. Like many of her colleagues she began in a different field, in her case medieval studies.
The DAs are often overlooked or misunderstood, but their daily struggles and triumphs shape everything that happens in our academic world. At the end of my meeting with Grimes, Professor Aron Pinczuk burst breathlessly into the office: “I’m meeting with the committee and they have questions only you can answer!” Grimes gently smiled and promised to be in momentarily.
– Lenora Babb
Tags: administration, bureaucracy, paperwork, teasers