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Administrative Juggernaut?

Administrative Juggernaut?

I had the pleasure this week of listening to a talk by Ben Ginsberg, whose book on the decline of the faculty is legitimately creating some stir. Professor Ginsberg highlights the fact that in American higher education, the number of academic administrators, and the budgets attached, have grown more rapidly than those of students or faculty. The result is certainly worth attention, though I (predictably) don’t view it quite as ominously as Professor Ginsberg does.

Professor Ginsberg sees the pattern as emerging from three factors: first, sheer administrative creep – bureaucrats seeking to expand their domains. I’m sure this is involved. I hope I haven’t been too guilty here myself, but obviously I’m not the best judge (my staffing has expanded, so there is a topic here). Second, he highlights the decline of faculty strength due to overproduction of PhDs – oversupply makes it easier to override. I’m not as sure of this point overall, since oversupply in some domains is matched by shortages in others (e.g. Management faculty, whose undersupply has actually given faculty arguably too much bargaining power on issues like teaching loads – another debate, I admit). Finally, and I did welcome this one, Professor Ginsberg remarked that faculty have helped set the stage for more administration by failing to be aggressive enough in taking on administrative tasks. I think this is clearly true and worthy of constructive redress (for example: the difficulty in persuading people to be department chairs). The inquiry must address, however, issues of competence as well as levels of interest.

I was surprised, however, at the lack of attention in this analysis to outside variables. Professor Ginsberg is clearly hostile to most assessment activities and related personnel (again, I think we could use further debate on this), but surely this has resulted primarily from the external regulatory climate, including the big accreditation outfits. I would also note the arguable need for some administrative expansion in areas like development, particularly at public universities in response to the decline of state funding. Finally – though Professor Ginsberg and I would disagree on this – I think some nod must go as well to changes in students’ needs and expectations. Professor Ginsberg is fairly hostile to the expansion of student life activities, and I actually agree that some open discussion would be quite useful, but I doubt that an objective assessment would turn out entirely negative.

I was pleased that Professor Ginsberg acknowledged that academic administrators come in different flavors. He’s less hostile to those of us from academic backgrounds. I confess (and I probably differ from some in our faculty senate on this) I never felt I left the faculty in becoming first a chair, then dean, then provost — though I know I have, for better or worse, become attuned to some factors that “regular” faculty don’t think about as much. We are trying to help interested faculty get further information on leadership roles, for I would agree with Professor Ginsberg’s implications that more input from people with solid academic credentials is a partial way out of any current dilemma.

I’m also persuaded, at risk to my claims of still being faculty, that there are a variety of issues in current academic decision making that simply require a level of time and experience that most “regular” faculty, quite properly, are not interested in developing. Again, there is a dilemma here, not easily solved.

Still, the discussion is important, and Professor Ginsberg’s administratively Luddite approach helps highlight issues and changes that faculty and administrators should be willing to jointly discuss. He ended by appealing for a more oppositional faculty, and I (again, self-interestedly with my administrative hat on) have some hesitations about this. But we’ll see what happens.