Scholar points finger at administrators in a case of deadly bloat

Swelling ranks of non-academic staff decried by US political scientist. David Matthews reports

August 18, 2011

Credit: Kobal
Too much of a good thing? Administrators are like chocolate bars: one may be good, but thousands could cause you grief

A US academic has launched a blistering attack on university administrators, claiming that scholars have lost control of institutions to a "self-perpetuating bureaucracy".

Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor in the department of political science at Johns Hopkins University, argues in a new book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, that the growth in the number of administrators has vastly outstripped that of academic staff over the past four decades.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Ginsberg said that when he began his academic career 40 years ago, "university presidents and their provosts were very dependent on the faculty because most administration tasks were in their hands".

Between 1975 and 2005, he said, the number of academic staff at US universities grew by 51 per cent.

But this increase was left in the shade by the expansion among administrators (81 per cent) and associated professional staff (240 per cent).

"This allows the president to circumvent the faculty and do what he wants," Professor Ginsberg said.

The administrative expansion had also led to the "means becoming the ends", he claimed: "From the faculty's point of view (the university's mission) is to promote scholarship and teaching; for administrators the objective is the well-being of the institution."

Drawing on anecdotal evidence from colleagues, Professor Ginsberg said the situation may be worse in the UK, where academics "became inured to it a long time ago".

He admitted that administrators were necessary, but he likened them to chocolate bars: "One is good, a couple are good, but hundreds will make you fat and thousands will give you high blood pressure."

A fan of murder mysteries, Professor Ginsberg said he had examined the "motive, means and opportunity" of the administrators who had swollen their own numbers.

"Motive - Ambition. Some administrators are eager to expand their power, and so they look for ways to aggrandise their position," he said.

"Means - A self-perpetuating bureaucracy in place will grow. Bureaucracies expand both the scope of their activities and themselves.

"Opportunity - The rise of professional fundraising in the US," Professor Ginsberg argued, although he acknowledged that he did not know what factors had had the greatest influence on similar shifts in the UK.

Despite their numbers, administrators were inefficient, he claimed. They have "very low levels of productivity", and "they hold lots of meetings, go on retreats, but no one knows what they do".

Professor Ginsberg said he had analysed the publicly available minutes of administrator meetings and found that in 70 per cent of them the main agenda item was about previous or future meetings. "It's meetings about meetings about meetings."

He recounted how a colleague had, by avoiding administrative meetings for an entire year, saved enough time to write a book on the history of US presidents.

Admitting that "snobbishness" was a factor in academics' resentment of administrators, Professor Ginsberg insisted that it was "not the only or the main factor".

Last year, the Goldwater Institute, a conservative US thinktank, published a report criticising "administrative bloat". Administrative Bloat at American Universities found that between 1993 and 2007, spending on administration per student had increased by 61.2 per cent, yet spending on instruction had risen by just 39.3 per cent.

As one way of highlighting the issue and pressing for change, Professor Ginsberg suggested publicly comparing the ratio of academic faculty to administration staff in individual institutions against a national average, thereby putting pressure on institutions with outsized bureaucracies.

He also recommended having more academics on universities' boards of trustees.

"The civil war may have been brewing for a while, but it has now become apparent to academics that they have been in a war," he said.

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