The stacks of student papers, clippings, and research had reached epic proportions in Prof. Ronald Andersen's office, teetering on his desk, filing cabinet, and office chairs, threatening to topple at any moment.
Even getting around the desk without knocking anything over was getting tricky. Colleagues were beginning to notice.
There was only one thing to do: Call Dorothy.
Within higher education, Dorothy Breininger is winning a squeaky-clean reputation as a clutter-buster without equal. A five-foot-tall former gymnast and former executive assistant to deans at Northeastern University in Boston and the University of California at Los Angeles, Ms. Breininger has morphed herself into a compact white tornado.
Since 1996, she has used her organizational skills to help hopelessly swamped professors, entire academic departments, deans' offices, and recently an entire college to slay their paper dragons.
It's clearly a service that academia wants. Her Los Angeles-based company, the Center for Organization and Goal Planning, has been growing at 300 percent a year. A big part of that growth came from helping higher education conquer its tidal wave of incoming paper, she says.
But the stereotype of the messy professor just isn't fair, she says. She cites a phenomenon in which budget cuts eliminate professors' assistants and even their interns. And the result is clutter that rests squarely atop what she calls: the "self-sufficiency fallacy."
Computers with calendars and hand-held digital assistants don't take the place of someone to help with filing and administration and they help produce a lot of paper, too, she argues. Also, filing is not a priority for many professors who put other things ahead of it. The result is loss of productivity and self-esteem when professors become overwhelmed.
"We're asking professors to teach, advise, research, and maybe serve on a few campus committees," she says. "Now, with budget cuts, they also have to raise their own funds for research. We're asking them to do all this, yet be their own administrative assistant. It's just not fair."
That was pretty much the situation facing Dr. Andersen, who, when Ms. Breininger met him four years ago, was a Ph.D. adviser to a half-dozen graduate students and chairman of his department. He also taught several classes, wrote articles, raised funds, and did research.
"He's doing all that and he's checking e-mail, voice mail, opening letters, grading papers, creating Power Point presentations for class, talking with faculty and students, and trying to have a life at home," she says. "It's too much."
To whittle down the stacks of paper that stood three and four feet high on every open surface, Breininger brought in two assistants. Andersen left for his class and returned three hours later. The office was immaculate. The 27 boxes of material removed from the office remained hidden from Andersen until he had time to go through each one with her to decide what to toss and what he really needed.
Pulitzer-prize winner Jared Diamond, a UCLA professor of physiology honored for his book "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," is one of Breininger's more recent converts.
A prolific researcher, Dr. Diamond called Breininger to organize 65 file drawers of material that had been hastily filed. Over three days, Breininger and her staff of three took everything out of the file drawers and off the desk and shelves until it was "a blank office," she says. "We filled the corridors outside his office."
The materials were sorted and reorganized, files were labeled, and a computerized list produced detailing where everything was located, making Diamond ecstatic.
"I found that a few hours of Dorothy's time is saving me hundreds of hours of my own time, while bringing me greatly increased efficiency and peace of mind," Diamond says.
It seems that this sort of organizing help is catching on. Scripps College, a women's liberal arts college, has recently hired Breininger to "organize their entire college," she says. But there is one hurdle that could be tough: fear of losing face.
While organizing services have been growing fast, and the National Association of Professional Organizers has grown from a few to more than 1,700 members in the past decade, it's not clear whether the cleaning trend will catch on in higher education.
At one prestigious university, it looks as if a fair amount of ego is also vested in all that paper with some profs fearing the consequences if colleagues were to discover they just can't handle the mess.
"I prefer not to be in the article," a Harvard University professor tells a reporter tersely in a brief phone interview, startled that word had gotten out that he had hired an organizational consultant for his office.
Still others apparently just can't let go, or even allow to be put in coherent order, all the stuff they've accumulated.
Judie Yellin, the owner of Managing Partner Organizing Services, based in Newton, Mass., gets few calls from professors, even though, from observations during her college days, she knows they could use the help.
"I did try to help this one professor at Harvard Medical School," she says. "He was a lovely person with good intentions, but his office was a darn mess." But when Ms. Yellin tried delicately to sort and dispose of a few things, he was "just not inclined to do that at all," she recalls.
"Every book on the shelf had something he had contributed ... and all the papers on horizontal stacks all related to courses he taught," she says. "He was surrounded by his life, he needed that comfort. All we could do was try to make it a little more beautiful. That was it."
But there's another side, too. Clarissa Rodriguez, owner of "A New Beginning Now" recalls helping a professor at a "prestigious Boston university" who called her last fall in desperation.
"Her office was extremely cluttered I could hardly get the drawers to her desk opened," Ms. Rodriguez says. Two Friday afternoons and eight hours later, the office was cleared and organized.
"She gave me this big hug," she says. "I was really surprised, but it really meant a lot to her."