Microcosmographia Administrativa

October 8, 2009

F.M. Cornford published Microcosmographia Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician in 1908. This tongue-in-cheek guide to academic life, while a masculinist affair, describes the academy in utterly unflattering terms, a microcosm inhospitable to rationality in the Spinozist sense. Consider what follows as an appendix to Cornford's treatise, one that seeks to encapsulate, universalise, rationalise and reconsider 12 years spent as chair of three different departments at three different institutions in two different countries.

While Cornford's microcosmos sounds mainly universally applicable (although it is sometimes markedly British, for Cornford must have drawn partly on his experiences at the University of Cambridge), mine is likely to seem, in ways unanticipated, overly idiosyncratic, which may be inevitable as I describe my participation and culpability in a kind of idiocracy, a world not that different from the film of that name: one ruled by fear, greed, hype and a navigable irrationality that conforms roughly to several structural effects attendant to global capitalism - but explaining that last item is the stuff of a longer piece.

Cornford's Microcosmographia accepts a perpetual scenario that produces pathological academics, all immune to intervention by salubrious citizens, but susceptible to notions pawned by the latest group of carnival people (disguised as experts in assessment, management consultants and assistant vice-presidents of marketing), passing through town offering cotton candy, peanuts and door prizes. It is no accident that Disney has infiltrated the academic-management circuit.

As one generation of administrators perishes, another rises to take its place, parroting the newest catchphrases provided by those who long ago stopped caring about learning and education. The whole enterprise maintains an air of solidity and tradition, partly because its workers cannot envision how it could be toppled, and that lack of vision inhibits opposition locally and makes resistance at the global level seem daft. This reprise of Cornford is meant to encourage not interminable, inconsequential resistance, but emancipation from the idiocracy.


Cornford points us to a crucial feature of the administrative microcosm: its tendency to leave all important matters outside the realm of the written word. Generally, administrators learn quickly to place as little as possible of their actual views into an email message or memorandum. The world of administration fascinates in part due to its inaccessibility, its inherent unknownness and esotericism that inevitably warps the people who work for it. Cornford hints at such deformities with his example of meetings that devolve into activities such as "comma hunting".

Cornford's prolegomenon contained pity as an initial response, but that is an unsuitable reaction to administrators, who incite instantaneous and often justifiable loathing. The moment one accepts an administrative post, the dividing line is drawn; the agon that sustains the enterprise begins.

The administrator feels burdened by the lack of vision and initiative displayed by bosses and those in the lower ranks. Consequently, they nurse a twisted righteousness about any self-directed conspiracy or mini-putsch designed to mitigate the aforementioned burden. Each administrator fights for more Lebensraum, and will use the lower ranks (especially malleable faculty and staff members) as pawns in the struggle for resources, prestige, territory and CV building blocks, the fuel of careerism.

It behooves workers to be aware of the species of mercenaries on the battlefield. The list below is not exhaustive, and I recognise, to my chagrin, a bit of myself in all the categories.

The Adminizombie

As Cornford has it, academic life attracts the incompetent. This incompetence takes many forms, but in some cases compensatory skills initially (in rare cases, permanently) mask its depth. The administrator may be a talker or a glad-hander, making them suitable for success in fundraising and a tolerable companion at social events, a person whose conversational cornucopia shocks others by not dissipating once all angles of the weather have received commentary at the banquet table.

The administrator may have extraordinary talents for zombie-like behaviour, appearing to be emotionless, heartless, brain-dead - the perfect tool for a vice-chancellor or governing council; the kind of person who lands a job at East Cupcake University, and then at some point issues a memorandum that begins with a sentence about "the family that is East Cupcake", but by the end announces the sacking of one third of the university's employees.

The Adminizombie is one of the creatures in academe most likely to be misinterpreted to the Adminizombie's advantage. The absence of fundamental human characteristics causes the Adminizombie to seem inscrutable to many people lower down the bureaucratic scale, who then attach to this incomprehensibility a set of alternative interpretations that lend the Adminizombie a thaumaturgical air.

No degree of irrational, thoughtless, exploitative or monstrous behaviour will supplant in some people's minds the notion that the wretchedness they see perpetrated by the Adminizombie is a product of a brilliantly conceived Byzantine political scheme, the proof for which lies in the fact that it cannot be verified. That's how brilliantly Byzantine it is.

I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!

Administars can be spotted easily. They are the first ones to declare that their raison d'etre is the students, and that's when you should check to see whether your purse or wallet has been pinched.

Administrator-celebrities realised early on that they had made a mistake. The fantasy of academic life preened before and during graduate studies gradually was eroded by caustic realities, including the one indicating that the fantasist could not sustain the intellectual demands of being a faculty member, or could not find adequate applause levels in the classroom to nourish the small seed that was their enthusiasm for teaching. The self-imagined celebrity was too good for his colleagues and too smart for his students. An escape pod labelled "administration" beckoned.

Administars view themselves as having undergone an apotheosis that their co-workers failed to witness, a sort of reverse Pauline scenario, in which instead of Saul being blinded at the point of transformation, everyone in Saul's world became blind to his new status as a converted VIP.

Messiahs and saviours and Christs ... oh, my!

This category of administrator poses some of the greatest dangers to the academic enterprise, a la Dorothy's recognition that lions, tigers and bears might impact adversely on her strategic plan to return to Kansas. Some choose to enter the administrative microcosm in order to save the macrocosm. These administrators believe substantive changes can happen from within.

The believers frequently exhibit a kind of hyperactivity and energy, interpreted as charisma, attracting attention with speeches about world peace, academic harmony, equity, fairness, neat things to do in the classroom, women's rights, babies' rights, civil rights, animal rights and social justice, although they cannot say what other kinds of justice exist. On a bold day, they may even proclaim that part-time employees ought to be treated decently.

Without the buttressing of the Minister of Higher Education, the Adminimessiah cannot rescue the macrocosmos on their own, yet refuses to abandon the messiah persona, usually blaming other administrators for thwarting the heaven-that-could-be.

The Adminimessiah's desire to save face with underlings usually translates into expectations that they will make sacrifices to combat the forces of oppression bearing down on the saviour. Painful sacrifices become both the stigmata that identify the chosen ones, and also versions of burnt offerings to the Adminimessiah. Soon the workplace is indistinguishable from The Passion of the Christ.

The-Passion-of-the-Christ-style of administration delivers an endless world of suffering, with those suffering most labelled "model employees". Those who do unpaid work, overextend themselves on committees, wear themselves down on student-centred this-or-that, and announce at every meeting the extent of their exertions - all of them establish a purgatory for the entire organisation, an atmosphere much more conducive for a saviour, completing the circle and bringing the categories of administrator to a close.

The sigetics of administration

Friends and colleagues who read this could react with disdain: he has time to write an article, but for 12 years could not fit in correspondence, phone calls, postcards, email messages, family events? The cloistering effect of administration imposes itself almost immediately upon signing the Mephistophelian contract, since no one ever catches up with the work that academic bureaucrats, staff members, students and colleagues (who feel at one time or another neglected, misunderstood, underappreciated, burdened, privileged, entitled, confused, frustrated) want accomplished. Picture Sisyphus at the Augean stables.

The quiet moments occur in church-like settings of larger meetings. For two or more hours, one or more people read portions of their scriptures to you, often documents that have been provided as handouts or projected on to screens, as if the attendees are not only cloistered and uncommunicative, but also illiterate.

As in religious services, the vice-chancellor, department head or minister addresses the group in a monologic manner, never wanting or expecting a retort or a question from a group that consists, in part, of people who want to be vice-chancellor, department head or minister, people living with the certitude that they could do a better job than the speaker.

On rare occasions, someone may venture a question, although seasoned administrators have verbal strategies to repress and to parry inquiry.

For instance, one Adminimessiah I know had a favourite and telling tautology: "It is what it is." That sentence was part of a conscious method to pre-empt any questioning of what the Adminimessiah planned to do by implying he did not understand what he was doing, and had no Jeeves available to unscramble his brains.

The tautologies and distortions of language that take place in the administrative microcosm deserve study in the way that Victor Klemperer undertook an analysis of the everyday language used by the Third Reich. The world awaits a thorough deconstructive reading of Total Quality Management, the corporate Groupspeak that, like linguistic kudzu, began strangling academic discourse across the planet in the 1980s. We have relinquished education's future to Orwellian entities such as the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, and Quality Matters.

As universities resemble corporations more and more, the administrative game consists of feigning allegiance to democratic processes while continuing to operate in the most Nietzschean rank-order fashion imaginable.

The highest administrator tells everyone to adhere to the chain of command, meaning that one must know one's place before speaking. A nun has no right to talk to her bishop before she has addressed the matter with the parish priest, etc. A violation of the chain opens one to charges of witchcraft, or worse.

Farewell (to administration)

It is helpful for non-administrators to refrain from sympathetic statements to administrators. Non-administrators will not find adequate analogies to capture the wild, irrational, depressing, maddening, officious, deadening, soulless, Machiavellian, comedic, scurrilous microcosmos of administration.

I wonder whether any audience I could address would believe the death threats, the legal entanglements (to reinforce the status quo), the busywork, the heinous acts by people who hector others at meetings to carry out their professional duties, the financial abuses, the drug usage (students and colleagues), the staged petty dramas, the jealousies. C'est la vie administrative.

Take "farewell" as a hortative statement about saying goodbye to this microcosm in favour of a counter-movement suggested by Kojin Karatani at the conclusion of his Transcritique: On Kant and Marx (2003). We could easily adopt a co-operative university that involved the democratic placement of administrators by employing both elections and lotteries.

To begin the new day, I encourage you at the next public meeting on campus attended by your department head, vice-chancellor or governing council to suggest that future administrative appointments take place only via election and lottery, and that the results be binding, impossible for those of higher rank to overrule. That should generate a sparky and productive discussion, at least for a few minutes before one of the administrators finds the discussion threatening and declares it out of order.

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