Assembly Line Counseling at the University: Capitalism’s Bizantine Influence in Higher Education


I received my masters degree in career development from a from a private, upper-middle class college. This school was preparing most of the students in the program to work either in private practice or with an ‘out-placement’ firm. Without realizing it we were also being trained to imagine what counseling would be like in these settings. The scene included working in “50-minute hour” appointments, in a private, soundproofed room, with a schedule we set for themselves, with time to chat with the client for 5 minutes or so as we escorted them to the door. In the case of working in an out-placement firm, there might be other counselors to talk to between sessions. I thought I could make a decent, middle class income while doing rewarding work. Well – hold on to your hats – because that ain’t the reality if you work on the assembly line for a large, public university as a counselor!

Aww….that’s too bad, now hurry up!

The bell rang, interrupting the conversation I was having with a student about what she could do to change her curriculum and, hopefully improve her failing grades so she could remain in good standing at the university. The student was crying into the tissues I always kept handy on my desk for these difficult sessions. I knew I had to say something comforting and hopeful to the student, all the while entering the notes I was writing into the complicated electronic records system and showing the student how she could access the notes if she couldn’t remember the steps I had told her to take. Then……DING!! The bell was my unwelcome reminder that I had 5 minutes in which to do all this before my next student was escorted to my cubicle. I realized I needed to go to the bathroom and silently chided myself for drinking water during the previous 4 counseling sessions. So I simply crossed my legs as I sat down to work with the next student and waited ½ hour till the end of that session.

On a treadmill

My formal training as a counselor did not prepare me for this. Professional counseling was framed around a 50-minute hour. You were supposed to ask how the person felt generally and inquire briefly into how they were doing in other areas of their life so you had a picture of the whole, before getting down to the particular problem with either navigating the university or with a future career. We were also led to believe that in between the sessions, if you worked in an office setting, you could rely on other counselors for emotional support after dealing with a particularly difficult situation or if you needed resources.

Marx talks about two forms of exploitation in the factory. The first is making workers work longer on the job. That is – extending the working day. The other form was intensifying the work while on the job. I experienced both.

In my years as a career and academic counselor at a university, I was amazed to find the many similarities between that job and working on an assembly line. We had to follow a strict ½ hour appointment policy, with appointments being booked back to back.

A bell sounded every half hour. Note that it was a bell, not a buzzer. A buzzer would sound too much like a factory, and as middle class professionals we are taught that we are above such working class settings. The bell was not loud, and was supposed to sound more like a chime. Here in the Bay Area, a chime might remind the counselor of a meditation practice, which would soften the blow that we were really “on the clock”. It would also mask its real meaning so the student wouldn’t feel pressured.

Perils of academic advising: The “multi-tasking” ideology

During that ½ hour period, if the student was there for academic advising, we had to master a very complex, constantly changing and not-user-friendly system of academic records. We had to do the following minimum counseling:

  • We had to look up their records and assess where they were in their program, including whether transfer classes, from multiple other schools, had been correctly credited.
  • We had to be able to look up and tell them what areas of general education were missing and show them the list of classes they had to choose from, being careful to calculate the number of units for each class to make sure they would meet the requirements.
  • We had to know how to translate semester transfer units into quarter units. We had to explain all of this to the student in a way the student could understand and answer any questions they had.
  • Finally, we had to translate all of that into what I called “academese” and enter it into the system notes – available for faculty and students to see.

If this student had any issues that were outside of the ordinary, like being on probation, we had to resolve those, also. It was also important that I got all the information crammed into our precious 25 minutes, in part because counseling appointments for students were always competitive, so it might be hard for the student to book another appointment with us soon.

This situation made it very difficult not to extend our working day into our “free time. Naturally, that led to responding to phone calls and emails from the students asking for clarification. We were expected to keep up with those on a daily basis, even though the time used to do this wasn’t visible on our calendars. This got translated as “working late”, skipping lunch and breaks, all of which are expected of middle class professionals even though we were treated as proletarians. Work also extended to answering emails in the evening and on the weekend, which was also expected of anyone on salary.

Perils of career counseling: other types of “multi-tasking”

If the student was there for career counseling, the needs were entirely different but the pace and complexity of tasks facing us was the same as academic advising. Here are just some of the things we were required to have mastered:

  • The student may have taken any one of a number of career assessments. As counselors, we had to be able to verify the results and explain them to the student.
  • We then had to show students online resources they would be using to do research on the careers that matched their assessment results.
  • We needed to work with the student to show them how to make sense of the careers they were researching and compare them to each other as part of their decision making process.
  • Of course, the students usually had many questions and sometimes felt overwhelmed. I always provided pens and paper so they could make notes.
  • At the end of the ½ hour session, I had to put the requisite notes in yet ANOTHER complex, constantly changing, user-unfriendly system before the dreaded…..DING! Then on to the next student.

Inevitably these appointments also resulted in follow-up phone calls and emails from the student, which we were not paid for as they were during our off time.

The life of a professional, I was told was not simply doing your job. It was reflecting on the process in order to do your job better. In my counseling at the university I longed to have some creative time to develop good workshops and tools to help the students. I managed to do some, but was always out of breath at the end, having squeezed them in. Or, most of the time, I worked on them at home. In my graduate program I developed a workbook called “Occupational Roadmap”, a workbook to take people through all of the necessary steps in finding a career and a job. My husband encouraged me to use my seven years at the university to further develop the book and try to get it published because now I had so much more experience. He didn’t understand that on the assembly line of counseling, there was no time for writing books!

Whose schedule is this?

As part of my formal training we were taught that, as professionals, we control our own schedules. This allows us to build time in for things like bathroom breaks, getting a snack, and down time between sessions, which was nobody’s business but ours. In this academic factory, we didn’t control our own schedules – appointments were booked through the front desk.

Collective resistance to scheduling micromanaging

Of course, like any good assembly line or blue-collar worker, we found ways around the system. They included techniques like befriending the staff who did the scheduling to get them to give us a free half hour between appointments. We learned how to block out time on our calendar, making it impossible to fill with student appointments. We would book things for ourselves like preparing for workshops, meetings with other departments or people or phone counseling appointments – even when we didn’t really have them. This was not easy to do, as our calendars were visible to the front office staff, as well as the director of the department. Still, with the help of this same staff we had bribed with coffee, candy, cookies and praise, we made it work.

Cubicles and surveillance

As part of my training, we were expected to work in private rooms so that our interventions with people were not heard by others. That protected us as professionals. Maybe more importantly, our clients would be reassured that their private problems were not on public display. But here at the university all counseling appointments – academic and career – were conducted in a cubicle. That means that everything I said and my students said could potentially be listened to by anyone passing by: janitors, secretaries, IT people, our supervisors or directors. The effect of this was our conversations had to be crafted so they anticipated that others might be listening. How does this affect the quality of my work with my student? I think you know. Never the less, discussing private, often emotionally charged issues with a student in a cubicle made for a difficult, unsafe-feeling environment for the student.

Chaotic management

During my years in private industry, I was never formally trained to be a middle manager, but I found myself in that position for many years before going to graduate school and changing careers. I had many ups and downs as a manager, but mostly the downs were because I didn’t care about the product or service I was representing. However, I did learn that in managing a staff, it’s vitally important to have regular staff meetings so that they can discuss their issues and problems on the job. When I came to the field of education I naively thought, as an “enlightened” institution, there would be managerial stability and even better staff meetings. Boy, was I wrong.

During those 7 years I cycled through 3 direct supervisors at my branch campus location, 4 at the “home campus” and 3 department directors between the 2 campuses. As you can imagine, the work environment changed with each new “leader”, creating confusion and unrest for all of us lowly staff. The number 2 director at the main campus was the one who instituted the assembly line bells and was an extreme micro-manager. Other managers who were strictly hands-off and barely seen followed in his wake. Staff meetings with the number 3 department director consisted of 2 or 3 hours of trying to stay awake while an extremely neurotic ‘royalty in residence’, arranging and rearranging her papers on the conference table, droned on about whatever she thought was important with little to no input from the rest of us.

Pay scale

As part of our training as counselors we expected, as professionals, to make a middle-class or upper middle class income: at minimum maybe 70,000 per year. At the university I worked at I made at least $20,000 less as a counselor with a master’s degree than I did working in middle management in private industry with a bachelor’s degree. Fortunately, my husband taught at a university, which provided a waiver for members of the faculty who had family who wanted to go to school. Otherwise, I could have never paid back my student loans on the salary I made after getting a higher degree!

The invisible hand of capitalism meets the clenched fist of the university

All of us were shocked when, in 2009, the entire staff and faculty were called to an impromptu meeting. None of us had been told the reason for either the meeting or who would be attending. As we walked across campus we became more and more uneasy, watching what appeared to be every single staff and faculty member walking in the same direction, towards one of two large auditoriums. We also noticed an unusually large police presence around us. Most of these police officers were not the friendly, benign campus police, but city police complete with guns, and they sure didn’t look very friendly.

At that meeting we learned that all of us would be “furloughed” and a number of people would be laid off. We would have to wait for private appointments after the meeting to learn whether or not we were laid off. For those of us being furloughed, it meant we would be working 4 days a week instead of 5, and paid accordingly. We were told all the usual things; “The economic hardship being faced by the whole country, including the state of CA was requiring us to tighten our belts, buckle down, look for savings, blah blah blah”. We were told how ‘painful’ this was for the executives and the administration and what a ‘difficult decision’ it had been. We were told they were going to do everything they could for us – and for the students. Finally, we were told that “we weren’t going to try to do more with less – but instead we would do less with less”. We were told that if the students had to suffer because of fewer classes and longer waits for support services, that’s just how it was. Even the administration knew that was bullshit as, by nature, most of us who work with students will do all we can to help those students. If that means working after hours, seeing too many students in a row, seeing more than our quota of students, we would do it. Yes, it was true that all of us would have to suffer – but some of us would have to suffer more than others. We came reeling out of the meeting, quiet, in shock, looking at our colleagues and wondering who among us would be axed. We also wondered how we were going to stretch our diminished incomes to meet our expenses.

While the hiring of faculty and staff was at 0% growth leading up to the furloughs, the hiring and raises of administrators continued going up. The “Enough is Enough One Day Strike” two years later reflected anger at the chancellor and university executives who gave themselves significant bonuses, equity increases and raises rather than support courses for students and the faculty who teach them as well as the staff who counsel them. Our wages remained stagnant or were diminished, but the aristocracy was quite comfortable.

The university as a capitalist institution

As the years went by, we started to hear more frequently that colleges should be run like a business. The term “the business of college” became commonly accepted. We watched as the focus started to turn towards cutting costs and bringing in more revenue. This was done through many means, including establishing more online classes and actively recruiting international students, since their tuition is much higher. None of this was any surprise for those of us working on the assembly line. We had been feeling the results of the push for more productivity and stagnant or lower wages for a long time.

I honestly loved my time counseling at the university. My rewards came from watching that look of dawning understanding on a student’s face when they finally could understand the whole transfer system and the way their grades and courses were calculated. They came to life when they were given clear guidelines of the choices of GE courses they needed to take. As they gained greater knowledge of their skills, interests and values, my career counseling students were excited to learn what careers were likely to be the best fit for them. I enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow staff members – but not the faculty members. They were the “royalty” of academia. We were just the “workers”. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But I’ll never stop being amazed and disheartened by the comparisons I discovered to working in a factory. This is life as a counselor at a huge, public university. Not what I expected.

Barbara MacLean has worked as an academic and career counselor at California State University, East Bay, and as a career counselor and manager of the downtown Oakland One Stop Career Center, a public career and jobs center in partnership with EDD. She is a socialist feminist. She is a founder and organizer for Planning Beyond Capitalism. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter Email her at

About Barbara MacLean

Barbara MacLean has worked as an academic and career counselor at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB), Merritt and West Valley Colleges and as a career counselor and manager of the Oakland One Stop Career Center, a public career and jobs center in partnership with EDD. She is a co-founder and editor of Planning Beyond Capitalism.

View all posts by Barbara MacLean →

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