The Fall of the Faculty

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It MattersThe Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters by Benjamin Ginsberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s something wrong with American higher education today, and Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor who has worked at multiple prestigious U.S. universities, is convinced he’s identified the primary component of the problem: college administrators. His work, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters, is a polemic against the spread of what he refers to as the “administrative blight” that has proliferated throughout higher education in the past several years. Administrators and faculty are engaged in a war for control of the fate of the university, Ginsberg argues, and he makes it abundantly clear which side he believes actually has the best interests of the university at heart.

It’s a stance that will likely seem reasonable to most faculty. Indeed, Ginsberg’s unwavering sarcasm and biting criticism against the armies of what he calls “deans, deanlings, and deanlets,” their self-aggrandizing campaigns and their academically watered-down programs, makes the book quite entertaining to read. And it would have been more entertaining, if one could escape the suspicion that he’s partially right. His primary argument is that administrators exist primarily to promote their own agendas and expand their own influence, and that this often has very little to do with the primary job of the university, which is teaching and research.

The work will resonate (either positively or negatively) with anyone in higher education, though Ginsberg’s vindictive tone (comparing administrators in various places throughout the work to blight, disease, cancer, and even stronger metaphors) eventually wears a bit thin and is in places unfair. But hang around with any group of faculty for long, and much of what he says will start to sound familiar.

Though I don’t go so far as Ginsberg, my own institution has seen a recent proliferation of administrative levels, and we can all name administrators for whom we don’t have a very clear idea of what it is they actually do. The bureaucratic fuzz-speak on efficiencies, best practices, missions statements, and outcomes that is easy target for ridicule in business settings has become more and more a part of university life in my (very short) experience. Things are changing, outside forces seem to be trying to reshape and restructure what happens on university campuses, and people like Ginsberg are taking note (and getting angry).

For Ginsberg though, any new administrative program is an attempt by administrators– career professionals, in Ginsberg’s evaluation, with little research or teaching experience– to expand their realms of influence and undermine the power and influence of the faculty. It’s a conflict between administrators who wish to run the campus like a business (primarily to their own benefit, Ginsberg claims) and the faculty who are actually responsible for the teaching and research that is the university’s true purpose. Get rid of most administrators, Ginsberg argues, and not many folks on campus would actually notice. But get rid of the professors, and the work of the university grinds to a halt.

Ginsberg, using a mix of anecdotes and hard data, begins his case by outlining the recent growth in total number of administrators in higher education, contrasting it with trends in faculty growth, and explores (and explodes) the rationals often offered for these trends, including financial pressures and outside accreditation requirements. He then provides his (rather snarky) analysis of what administrators actually “do,” explains the ways their cross-purposes with faculty actually end up impeding the university’s true mission of research and teaching, and blows the whistle on attempts to use things like diversity and cultural sensitivity as covers for further expansion of administrative bloat. He takes particular pleasure in highlighting the many recent accounts of inside dealing between trustees and university administrators as well as stories of fraud and spending that have come to light in some of the country’s most prestigious universities.

Ginsberg includes a chapter on the rise and fall of the tenure system in the United States, which he (rightly, I think) believes is central to concerns regarding academic freedom. In Ginsberg’s narrative, faculty tenure came about in the first half of the twentieth century through a partnership with university administration and faculty to help build strong universities and shield them against interference from political forces and powerful board members or trustees. Now, however, tenure is seen as an antiquated relic that keeps universities from functioning effectively and prevents administrators from exercising complete power over potentially troublesome faculty.

Finally, Ginsberg ends with an appeal to the university’s mission and ethos and those charged with maintaining it: the faculty. Faculty, he says, have been complicit in the growth of administration and the erosion of their own influence because they’d rather teach and do research and are happy letting administrators shoulder the burden of day to day bureaucratic concerns. However, historically many administrative posts were held by faculty in temporary or part-time positions, a practice Ginsberg believes was healthier for the university because it prevented the bifurcation in values and methods between administrators and faculty that has taken place today. He provides some ideas of what can be done to stem the growth of the all-administrative university, offering a tentative call to arms (tentative because he admits it may be too late).

Before I respond more fully on Ginsberg’s approach, I have a small quibble with his analysis of administrative growth. He tends to be uniform in seeing this growth as a bad thing, but there’s one aspect I don’t think he takes into account, and that is the growth of research centers. Here I’m speaking from my experience as a graduate student, where places like the “Center for Science, Technology, and Values” or the “Center for International and Peace Studies” were major players in supporting and fostering research and teaching at my institution. Each of these centers had to supply a small cohort of administrators to make their work possible. Here, one could make the case that the growth of administration and even bureaucracy helped bridge the divide between development and alumni relations (as each of these centers bore the name of rich donors or administrators) and actual research and scholarship. Likewise at my current (much smaller) campus, similar centers are where some of the most exciting scholarship is taking place. Albeit both these centers are headed by faculty members, but they likely entail some administrative growth, especially if they continue to expand.

Apart from that, I agree with much of what Ginsberg has to say, but where I depart from him is in his evaluation of motives. For Ginsberg, administrators are always the bad guys, and their motive is simple self-enlargement. Perhaps it’s from my own experiences at smaller, faith-based universities, but I see the very real divide between administration and faculty that Ginsberg has outlined less about bad guys and good guys and more about differences in philosophy. At my own institution, for instance, I genuinely believe most of the faculty and administrators have the best interests of the college at heart. Frustration here arises though because we seem to go about pursuing that interest (and understanding it) in different worlds, using different (and often mutually incomprehensible) languages and practices. Instead of the outline of a war, which Ginsberg has provided, what would have been much more helpful to me is an outline that would have helped me understand the world of administration.

Perhaps Ginsberg believes such worlds are simply incommensurate. He touches on some of the relevant differences in his text as, for instance, when he explains in his introductory chapter:

Controlled by its faculty, the university is capable of producing not only new knowledge but new visions of society. The university can be a subversive institution in the best sense of that word, showing by its teaching and scholarship that new ways of thinking and acting are possible. Controlled by administrators, on the other hand, the university can never be more than what Stanley Aronowitz has aptly termed a knowledge factory, offering more or less sophisticated forms of vocational training to meet the needs of other established institutions in the public and private sectors. (p. 3)

What we begin to see are different (and sometimes mutually incompatible) views of the purpose of education, what I’ve referred to as the impossible tight-rope between constituencies and interests that my own administrative team has to walk (and does so largely successfully). The university, some tell us, has to stay relevant to remain solvent. Plus, we’re beholden to our denominational roots and support. So there’s a strong motivation to not do some of the things that college professors sometimes get in trouble for: being critical, helping our students to think and ask difficult questions even when we’re uncertain where the answers will fall. There’s a conflict of interests– a tension– between these two worlds, which is why there needs to be trust but also checks and balances (like tenure).

Another quote from Ginsberg:

As one prominent higher education accreditation official and former college administrator recently put it, though once seen as a route to “personal growth and development,’” higher education today should be understood more as, “a strategic investment of resources to produce benefits for business and industry by leveraging fiscal and human capital to produce a direct, immediate and positive financial return on those investments.” (p. 10, quote from Ronald L. Baker, “Keystones of Regional Accreditation: Intentions, Outcomes and Sustainability,” in Peter Hernon and Robert Dugan, Outcomes Assessment in Higher Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004), 1.)

And here we get back to the discussion of what education should be: whether vocational training, liberal arts education, or (more likely) some combination or balance of both. This is a debate that needs to happen, but it’s not going to happen in administrative retreats, planning sessions, or meetings with consultants. It must happen through dialogue and debate that involves (perhaps primarily) the faculty.

Ginsberg touches on this as well:

Even when their underlying motivations may be questionable, professors are obligated, at least in public, to present strong intellectual justifications for their positions. In turf wars among faculty members, victor is most often secured by those who succeed in framing the issue and offering the most compelling philosophical or scientific arguments on behalf of their cause. The best faculty debates have an educational value. (p. 84)

By contrast most administrative “debates” don’t really ever become debates, as they’re usually top-down directives issued from behind closed doors, even when they purport to be setting the plans or identities for the entire campus. Secondly, as Ginsberg notes, administrative decisions tend to simply be adoptions of “best practices” from other universities or even other industries with little intellectual justification provided. I agree with Ginsberg that the power of the faculty should not be curtailed, especially not the power to be agents in setting university course or policy, because the faculty have the expertise and the vested interest in the research and teaching for which the university itself exists.

I don’t think Ginsberg is fair with his evaluation of administrators as people, but I’m a bit naive and I also tend to give people as people the benefit of the doubt. Plus, I’m at a small institution where I can (for the most part) directly see how administrators work to make my job possible. But I think he’s right when he talks about the different worlds we live in. And this is where the crux of the matter lies.

So what is to be done? Ginsberg offers a few concrete suggestions, which I’ve modified into my own list of modest proposals specific to my own university, outlined below. My academic environment is very different from the ones in which Ginsberg has spent his career, but we share many of the same perspectives and values. We’re part of the same profession, and we both have an ideal of the university we’d like to see preserved, sustained, and developed. To that end, I propose that we:

1. Bring back tenure. As mentioned above, the tenure system is not perfect, but it’s an important balance against administrative authority. Even when the administration is largely benign, tenure is essential to academic freedom. The case could be made that this is even more important at a smaller institution, where personalities and politics have the potential to play a more direct role in conflicts between administration and faculty. The power to dismiss senior faculty members who have been vetted and promoted through due process should rest with the faculty as a whole and not the administration alone.

2. Give faculty representation on the board of trustees. As anecdotal evidence at my own institution supports, the trustees (who carry much of the power of the university, at least in theory) exist in a different world from the faculty. They’re made up of ministers and lay leaders in the community, with backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints that often differ widely from those of the faculty. It’s clear that effective leaders in this environment are those who can navigate between and have credibility with both of these disparate worlds. However, an easy step toward bridging these worlds and increasing faculty agency would be for the faculty to elect a small number of their own members to serve as representatives to this board.

3. Assign administrators some teaching load. This suggestion does not come from Ginsberg’s book but is especially suited to bridging the faculty/administrative divide at my own institution. Many of the faculty feel administrators live and work in a different world than we do as faculty, and many administrators have told me the same thing. This disconnect is heightened by differences in background; even when we want the same things, we don’t speak the same language. As a teaching institution, however, we can all agree that what happens in the classroom is essential. Requiring our administrators to bear some teaching load (or at the minimum requiring that any new administrative position have teaching load built into it) would not only bring faculty and administrators together as colleagues, it would also keep us planted in the same context with the same priorities. Moreover, administrators bearing some teaching load could go a long way to providing limited course release for faculty who wish to pursue research and scholarship but whose current course loads make this impossible.

I think Ginsberg is on to something in his treatment, though his acerbic tone isn’t going to win any administrators over to his side. And that’s not his point: Ginsberg is sure the battle lines are drawn, and he’s articulating a desperate faculty rearguard action. I’d like to think we’re on the same side, just speaking different languages. Unfortunately, I agree with Ginsberg that some of the language and values college administrators have adopted is largely incompatible with what I believe the true values of a liberal arts education actually are, but I haven’t yet given up hope that we can’t bridge those divides and do good work together.

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One thought on “The Fall of the Faculty

  1. Pingback: Baylor at the Crossroads | Stephen R. Case

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