Faculty members feeling besieged by, well, take your pick – increased scrutiny of their productivity and the relevance of their research, broadsides against tenure, attacks on their expertise and ability to collectively bargain, or their shrinking role in the affairs of their institutions – will no doubt find succour in a new book to be released next month.
In his polemic, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (2011), Benjamin Ginsberg, David Bernstein professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, takes stock of what ails higher education and finds a single, unifying cause: the growth of administration.
Ginsberg bemoans the expansion over the past 30 years of what he calls “administrative blight”, as personified by what he characterises as an army of “deanlets” and “deanlings”. By virtue of their sheer number and their managerial rather than academic orientation, Ginsberg argues, these administrators have served to marginalise the faculty in carrying out tasks related to personnel and curriculum that once sat squarely in their domain.
In prose that is by turns piquant, sarcastic and largely dismissive of many administrators, Ginsberg marshals anecdotes from his 40 years of experience at Johns Hopkins and Cornell University, as well as from accounts from other campuses. He juxtaposes these with historical analysis and data showing that the growth in the ranks of administrators (85 per cent) and associated professional staff (240 per cent) has far outstripped the increase in faculty (51 per cent) between 1975 and 2005. “Generally speaking,” he writes, “a million-dollar president could be kidnapped by space aliens and it would be weeks or even months before his or her absence from campus was noticed.”
Ginsberg lays at administrators’ feet a host of perceived ills: the increased curricular focus on vocational education instead of one grounded in the liberal arts, an emphasis on learning outside the classroom in lieu of core academic disciplines, the transformation of research from an instrument of social good and contributor to human knowledge to an institutional revenue stream, and the limiting of tenure and academic freedom.
The larger result, he argues, is that universities have shifted their resources and attention away from teaching and research in order to feed a cadre of administrators who, he says, do little to advance the central mission of universities and serve chiefly to inflate their own sense of importance by increasing the number of people who report to them. “Armies of staffers pose a threat by their very existence,” he writes. “They may seem harmless enough at their tiresome meetings but if they fall into the wrong hands, deanlets can become instruments of administrative imperialism and academic destruction.”
Carl O. Moses, the provost, dean of faculty and a professor of Earth and environmental sciences at Susquehanna University, as well as chair of the American Conference of Academic Deans, said that, while he shared Ginsberg’s concern that the growth in non-teaching employees had pushed up the cost of college, he saw this growth as necessary to deal with a changing student body. “Our population of learners is much more diverse on dimensions almost too numerous to list,” Moses said in an email, while stating upfront that he had not yet read the book and wanted to step carefully in critiquing it. “The needs of those students are correspondingly more diverse, and a dean of students, a conduct officer, a housing coordinator, and a chaplain just are not enough any more.”
Not only does Ginsberg reject the idea that student needs are served by administrative growth, he dismisses the argument that this increase has been a necessary response to mounting demands from government and accreditors. He points out that the ratios of students to administrators vary widely from one institution to the next – and even between public and private institutions (the rate of administrative growth at private colleges has, in fact, been double that at public colleges).
Moses disputed the idea that these different ratios offered enough evidence to reject the argument that increased regulatory burdens have led to staff growth. Different institutions, whether public or private, make different decisions about hiring their own professional staff as opposed to outsourcing those functions, Moses said. “The evidence is incontrovertible, in my view, that regulatory burdens have increased, and institutions have no choice but to respond,” he said. “A university general counsel once told me that, of some 60 federal agencies, all but one have some regulatory authority over institutions of higher education.”
Ginsberg ends his book by offering a few remedies, while acknowledging that they may serve only to slow administrative growth rather than reverse it. Faculty members and trustees should and can be natural allies, he writes, and peer-elected faculty representatives should serve on their institutions’ governing boards. Parents and students, alumni, faculty and the media can take a hard look at where the money on campus goes and what purposes it serves, he adds. Talented and hardworking administrators (of whom he concedes there are some) can root out the bad ones, and thin out their own ranks when necessary.
Inside Higher Ed caught up with Ginsberg to ask him about his book and the impact he hopes it will have.
Q: Most of your scholarship has been about political science. What made you want to write about higher education?
A: I’ve been in the university for 40 years – 20 years at Hopkins and 20 years at Cornell – and I’ve observed the university changing quite dramatically. As a political scientist I was very sensitive to issues of politics and struggle. And I’ve increasingly seen the same tactics at work in universities that we see here in Washington.
Q: In your book, you refer frequently to “deanlets and deanlings”. Can you please tell me a little more about what you mean?
A: I wanted to emphasise a major shift that’s been under way for several decades. Deans have an academic background. Years ago, they were part-time and always part of the faculty. This is extremely important because, like the faculty, they saw the university as an instrument of teaching and scholarship. Today, we have a cadre of professional administrators. I called them deanlets to give emphasis to the difference. They either have no faculty background or they decided early in their careers that their talents lay elsewhere. To them, what used to be the means is now the end. Instead of an institution serving teaching and scholarship, teaching and scholarship serve the institution.
Q: Many administrators do, in fact, come from an academic background, including some presidents who have been locked in bitter disputes with faculty. And if these academics-turned-administrators change, some might say it’s because they are confronted with decisions that they didn’t necessarily face as faculty members. In your view, what’s the dynamic? Is it a case of the wrong people going into these positions, or is the system itself bad?
A: It’s both. Years ago, administrators tended to be a bit older. The typical administrator was someone who had been an academic for a number of years and saw administration as an honourable way to close out a career. The administrators today tend to go into administration at a much younger age – often they are in their 30s either who have not had an academic career or whose academic career was unsuccessful and they now see an alternative career path. The first set often accomplished a lot in their lives. The second set have often never done anything. It’s not their orientation; they’re bureaucrats. That’s not all of them; some of them are quite good. Even those who are good are often reshaped by the system. This would probably happen to me. We are all easily led astray. Even someone with the best of intentions, if they commanded a legion of deanlets, would find themselves pursuing bad ideas.
Q: You describe administration as, like many bureaucracies, a kind of self-perpetuating entity that seeks to expand as a way of justifying its own existence. What are the most egregious examples?
A: In the book, I provide a number of examples. I tell the story from my own experience of our summer programme, which had one administrator and 400 students. It was given over to a professional deanlet. It soon had 400 professional staff members and one student. And no one seemed to care.
Q: What factors led to this state of affairs?
A: It’s like a rerun of Law and Order: you have to look for motive, means and opportunity to solve the crime. The motive is that you have some ambitious university presidents and provosts who sought ways of enhancing their own power. We see that all the time in every bureaucracy. The opportunity was given to them by two factors: one is that faculty would prefer to work in labs and classrooms, so they’re easily circumvented; two is the rise of professional fundraising. To my mind, professional fundraising is the worst thing that ever happened to the university. If the university is dependent on revenues from federal grants and tuition – revenues from doing things – then it has to rely on faculty. The revenue base is under the control of the faculty. But professional fundraisers allow them to circumvent that.
Q: You are highly critical of strategic plans, administrative retreats and workshops and committees attended by administrators. You point mockingly at such examples as the Administrative and Professional Staff Advisory Committee or the Process Management Steering Committee. Of course, the same tactic is also deployed by faculty critics who list the names of courses that sound ridiculous to outside ears. What makes this critique valid when levelled against administrators?
A: If you look around the typical university, 1 to 2 per cent of the courses are silly, but it’s a small number. In my 40 years in academia, the number of truly silly courses is very small. But when I look at administrators, I’d argue that the bulk of activities is quite silly, such as the war zones task force that met and concluded that students should be discouraged from entering war zones. More generally, I look at strategic planning that takes enormous energy for no reason. Many of these could just be copied; the end result would be the same. The process of putting these plans together is designed rather like elections in the Soviet Union: to give people the impression that people care what they think. I also looked at the minutes and agendas of administrative meetings. When administrators and staff get together, they mostly talk about prior meetings and plans for future meetings.
Q: You recite a litany of administrators who lined their pockets or burnished their own images at the expense of their institutions. Why do you see these examples as reflective of a systemic problem rather than a case of a few bad actors?
A: There are very few controls in place to prevent it. Virtually no university has systems in place to monitor and check the behaviour of senior administrators. If some poor student is accused of plagiarism, that’s a federal case. There are all sorts of systems in place. If a faculty or staff member is accused of sexual harassment, there are normal systems in place. If an administrator cheats and steals or presents phoney credentials, there’s nothing in place to stop it.
Q: What impact do you hope this book will have?
A: I hope to wake up the faculty. We’re like the residents of a Japanese city living next to the ocean and thinking the tsunami won’t affect us. I also hope to alert university boards. When they read the administration’s propaganda organs, I want them to understand that the institution they love needs their help. They didn’t come to Hopkins or Georgetown or Princeton to work with our deanlets. They came to work with our faculty.