The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters

As status-seeking managers multiply, they pervert the university's core mission, Alan Ryan laments

Benjamin Ginsberg is a very angry man, and with good reason. The university that he joined in the early 1970s, which was a place where decisions were largely made by academics in the interests of teaching and research, has become a place where decisions are made by administrators. And on his account of things, those decisions are largely made with a view to enhancing the pay, prestige and numbers of administrators. Ginsberg is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and is uninhibited in his criticism of his own institution, but the phenomenon he describes is system-wide, both in the US and in the UK.

The figures tell the story. In the two decades from 1985 to 2005, student enrolment in the US rose by 56 per cent, faculty numbers increased by 50 per cent, degree-granting institutions expanded by 50 per cent, degrees granted grew by 47 per cent, administrators rocketed by 85 per cent and their attendant staff by a whopping 240 per cent. The obvious question is - why? Have students become so needy that a university needs not only a "dean of student life" but several associate deans, assistant deans and a plethora of deanlets - Ginsberg's coinage of the term "deanlet" is wonderfully offensive - to cater to their whims and shield them from the temptations of booze, drugs and illicit sex? Have we become so trapped by information technology that we need an IT officer apiece in order to function?

A common explanation of the growth in administrative numbers, both in the US and the UK, is that government demands for information and an increasingly complicated regulatory environment make it impossible to manage with fewer administrative staff than institutions actually employ. Ginsberg doesn't deny that some growth in numbers could be accounted for in this way, but he argues, I think rightly, that most cannot.

Because the US has a genuinely private and a genuinely public higher education sphere, it's possible to compare administrative growth across the sectors; and because public universities and colleges are vastly more tightly regulated than private universities and colleges, it ought to be the case that they have added far more administrators. In the 30 years from 1975 to 2005, the reverse was true. Administrative and managerial staff grew by 66 per cent in the state sector against 135 per cent in the private sector.

Ginsberg's view is Malthusian. Administrators breed unless checked. The process is familiar, and both Peter Oppenheimer at the University of Oxford and Iain Pears at King's College London have had something to say on the subject in a British context. Academic prestige comes from publishing, winning awards for excellent teaching, getting research grants and doing interesting research. Administrative prestige is measured by the number of "reports" an administrator has, which is to say, how many people report to them. Deans need associate deans, assistant deans, deanlets and a bevy of secretarial staff, less to achieve anything truly useful than to enhance their prestige - and their salaries, because one's pay goes up in proportion to the number of staff one directs.

It would be bad enough if the administrators were simply unproductive. As Ginsberg says, given the high cost of tuition and board and lodging in US universities, wasting money is a sin against students and their parents who foot the bills. But The Fall of the Faculty regards many presidents, provosts, deans and their underlings as positively dangerous to the academic enterprise of teaching and research. Because he has had a very good time digging for dirt, he doesn't perhaps distinguish as carefully as he might between what goes wrong when administrators engage in criminal behaviour and what goes wrong when they behave impeccably. So far as the first goes, lying on a resume is the most common offence, followed by misappropriating funds and buying real estate on the university's penny. Assorted sexual peccadilloes have been in the news lately, but Ginsberg doesn't stray into News of the World territory. He hardly needs to, as there are plenty of non-prurient but jaw-droppingly awful tales to tell.

The real unhappiness of The Fall of the Faculty is over what the "administrative university" will look like. What administrators hanker after is a university run like any other business. That leads them to view the rambunctiousness of faculty with deep suspicion: a Ford worker who bad-mouthed his boss would be sacked, so why should faculty be able to criticise their department chair's views on the curriculum, the dean of the faculty's views on hiring, or anything else? There goes academic freedom. Since academic freedom is essential for innovation in research or teaching, there goes the core mission of the university. Lip service will be paid to academic freedom, but deanlets and deanlings are everywhere drawing up codes of civility and respect so that administrators can squash any real resistance to their decisions.

The difficulty is not that resistance is futile, but that the real remedy is for universities and colleges to be self-governing communities where academics themselves do most of the administrative chores. And anyone who has had to twist his colleagues' arms to help with such things knows that our own unwillingness to take back the institutions that employ us is one of the major reasons for the deanlets' population explosion.

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters

By Benjamin Ginsberg

Oxford University Press

288pp, £18.99

ISBN 9780199782444

Published 25 August 2011

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