For better education, let’s cut bloated administrations and class sizes

Faculty need to find ways of seizing back the control that’s been wrested from them in the past few decades, says Gayle Greene

December 6, 2022
Source: Alamy

Higher education is in need of “transformation”. Or so say the change agents – tech moguls, politicians, pundits, CEOs, thinktanks – who have quick fixes for remaking it, though no experience of how education actually works.

Anyone who’s spent time in the classroom can tell you what works: small classes with engaged teachers left alone to do their jobs. Even Bill Gates, who of all educational disrupters is the most interventionist, knows this. Look where he sent his kids: Lakeside, the Seattle private school he himself attended.

“Classes were small,” he said in a 2005 speech. “You got to know the teachers. They got to know you. And the relationships that come from that really make a difference. If you like and respect your teacher, you’re going to work harder.” Yet for K-12, Gates’ philanthropic foundation devises standardised, test-driven, tech-heavy programmes. And in a recent report, Equitable Value, the Gates Foundation lobbying group, the Postsecondary Value Commission, recommends that funding for higher education be based on “performance metrics”: graduation rates, graduate salaries and social mobility.

Education is about developing human beings with the versatility to adapt to a rapidly changing world. It is about exposing students to a range of subjects in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, teaching even science majors about the past and the creations of our kind. Higher education in the US has been unique in providing this kind of education, feeding the stream of originality and creativity that has generated both the fundamental scientific breakthroughs and technological and industrial innovations that have generated this country’s power. The method is tried and true.

But to work well, it needs classes where professors get to know our students – and they get to know us. Relationships matter more than the technology being sold to schools and colleges in the name of “innovation”. Small classes encourage students to ask questions and make meaningful connections with the material and their fellow students.

Such opportunities matter especially to first-generation students and students of colour – and particularly now, when students are becoming dangerously disengaged. Young people who have lost the ability to concentrate, converse and interact because they’ve been glued to screens all their lives are not well served by lecture classes of 500, or by online courses. Nor are they served by preparation for jobs that may not exist in a decade.

My experience as a professor for 40 years at Scripps College, a liberal arts college in Claremont, California, and as a student at Berkeley and Columbia, has convinced me that small liberal arts colleges work best. We have higher and faster graduation rates than other types of colleges, and we send disproportionate numbers on to advanced degrees. Our graduates express greater satisfaction with their lives and work and tend to be more civically engaged.

But liberal arts colleges are not the only option. Relationship-rich education need not cost the earth, as liberal arts colleges often do. It can happen wherever faculty find ways of interacting with students, generating conversation, engagement, exchange. There are regional colleges, community colleges, historically black colleges and universities that spend a fraction of what the Ivy League and brand-name schools spend per student yet manage to do the real work of education (as their alumni tell us). The problem is that these kinds of colleges are reeling, starved of the state funding they could count on a few decades ago. Many are closing, while the brand-name schools have more money and applications than they know what to do with.

Several major universities have caught on to the importance of human-scale education and designed undergraduate colleges that provide a small-college experience. Examples include the University of California, Los Angeles and the universities of Washington, Michigan, Mississippi, Texas at Austin and Arizona State. But the general trend has been to cut into the core educational mission. Administrators use crises – recession, pandemic – as opportunities to fire faculty, close tenure lines and freeze faculty salaries (which have never been the problem). Classes get larger, and teaching is tossed to part-timers, who are often badly exploited.

Meanwhile, administration grows. Offices and functionaries proliferate, enmeshing faculty in a web of mandates and procedures that cuts into their time for teaching and research. Accountability measures, such as the demand that faculty produce measurable “student learning outcomes”, are a deadly time sink; so is a lot of the brouhaha about “microaggressions”, such as compulsory “sensitivity training”, much of which comes from minor administrative functionaries.

Faculty need to find ways of seizing back the control that’s been wrested from them in the past few decades. Some administrators are necessary, of course – and those who’ve risen through the faculty understand the enterprise much better than professional managers brought in from outside. But this top-heavy bureaucracy must be cut back to what is essential to our core educational mission. Let’s junk the assessment office and the “consultants” barnacled to it. Let’s cap athletic spending. And let’s beware of technofixes and outsourcing that generate private profits.

The crises the future holds – climate change, authoritarianism, rampant inequality, recurrent pandemics – are going to need all the wisdom and creativity that human beings can muster. Do we really think that graduates moulded to workforce needs, who know nothing about their fellow humans, their world or their past, will be up to these challenges?

Gayle Greene is professor emerita at Scripps College and author of Immeasurable Outcomes: Teaching Shakespeare in the Age of the Algorithm, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.


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Reader's comments (4)

This article is spot on students are up X% administrators up 3 times x% and academics up 0.5 times X%. So all the money has gone is wasted bureaucracy. Administrators control the money and breed like rabbits and do not have the skill-set required to manage higher education, while the academics do all the teaching and research and get treated like slaves. The lawyers make sure they run their law firms and employ admin support as and when required. Fees for students would be lower and pay for academics much better if we put the academics back in control. This means sacking a large amount of overpaid and under-performing senior admin types and most of their associates. Simples.
Unless the problem is with poor academics, stuck in the past with a naive blinkered vision of how things should work in a digital era. Without administrators fees couldn't be collected andyou wouldn't actually get paid !
Why do we keep hearing comments like this "Administrators control the money and breed like rabbits and do not have the skill-set required to manage higher education" ? University administrators are essential to the smooth running of all universities. Without them no students would be recruited and enrolled on to the courses taught by academics, no fees would be collected, equipment and teaching and learning materials would not be purchased, the campuses would not be kept safe, the list goes on and on. It takes a whole team to make a university to work that includes, academics, administrators and other support services. It is offensive to all hardworking administrators to keep seeing the work they do belittled by comments such as these.
A helpful article, but it would be better to pick on managers rather than administrators. The latter make the system work, the former take up too much space, cost too much and justify their existence by giving academics meaningless tasks. Rid ourselves of the manager class and academic standards will improve. Then there are class sizes. A simple solution. Far too many people are going to university. Rid ourselves of thosr who don't want to be there and those who are not bright enough to be there and academic standards will increase.