American pipe dream

March 6, 2008

You assert that "in America, administrators rather than faculty, appear to run the show" ("Waging a one-sided culture war", 21 February). How nice that would be for administrators if it were true. I was dean of graduate studies and research at the University of California for six years, and I would have been glad to experience some of the "enormous power, massive budgets, huge salaries and vast armies of personnel" of which you speak. I had little power, a tight budget, a modest salary increment over my professorial pay, and a staff that only just sufficed to keep the office running.

Yet US administrators "not only run the place but control admissions and have been known to dictate course content"? Academic senate power is extremely strong in major US universities; the academic side of graduate admissions is entirely under the control of departments, and undergraduate admissions policies are overseen by academics too (the running of the operation may be delegated, but not to a nationwide organisation). The thought of an administrative officer having any control over courses is fantasy.

As for the claim that administrators "have even made it to president", I am puzzled. The president or chancellor (in UK terms, principal or vice-chancellor) of an American university is the chief executive officer and thus an administrator by definition; but managerial staff without academic credentials do not attain presidencies at major universities. Professorial rank and a strong record in teaching and research is a precondition. That is why it is hard to find good presidents: so few professors have managerial talents. And that is part of the reason presidents are so often deposed, in effect, by academics. In my 25 years as a professor in America, I saw several chancellors forced out at University of California campuses; and then, in a visiting year at Harvard in 2005-2006, I saw the president brought down there too.

Geoff Pullum, Professor of general linguistics, University of Edinburgh.

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