The all-administrative uni?

Dear colleagues,

About a year ago, during the refurbishment of our building, many of us noticed that doors were being removed from classrooms, so only one door remained rather than two or three. This eliminated evacuation exit routes. Furthermore, the remaining door was the one at the front of the room, which meant that classes would be maximally disrupted by any arriving or departing student.

Luckily some of this was reversed, but it did raise the question of who made the decision? Certainly not those who teach in the classrooms. Apparently the decision was made by some committee outside the faculty, with no pretence of consultation with those affected.

This small anecdote illustrates a phenomenon noted by many academics: they are consulted less and less often about decisions affecting their teaching and research. Richard Hil in his book Whackademia reported plaints from across the country about this downgrading of academic input into decision-making. Hil attributed this to neo-liberalism, the dominant ideology of corporate capitalism. Is there another explanation?

Insight is available from a book by Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University in the US, titled The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011) . In referring to "faculty", Ginsberg uses the standard US terminology; here we would say "academics" or "academic staff".

I consider one of Ginsberg's earlier books, The Consequences of Consent, about the way the system of representative government restrains greater democratisation, to be a path-breaking contribution. It has not received the recognition it deserves because it challenges the widespread belief in the beneficence of electoral democracy. Knowing some of his previous work, I was intrigued to see what Ginsberg had to say about university governance.

His basic argument is that the earlier system of academics doing most of the administrative work in universities is being superseded by a vast expansion of full-time administrative posts. Previously, academics would take on roles such as dean or provost on a part-time basis, expecting to return to full-time teaching and research following a period of administrative service. Now, though, this system is largely replaced by an expanded role for full-time administrators, supported by numerous staffers. Ginsberg supports his argument by citing data on US higher education covering several decades.

Ginsberg is quick to say that, in his experience, many administrators are very good at their jobs, and many academics have shortcomings. This is an important reservation, with which I wholeheartedly agree (see appendix below). The problem, as Ginsberg sees it, is less with individual administrators than with the system of administration.

Ginsberg's argument against the new system of management is that many administrators have little or no personal experience in teaching and research, and thus are not well placed to make good decisions. Academics who served as administrators on a short-term or part-time basis could be expected to put teaching and research as their number one administrative priority. Full-time administrators, with no expectation of entering or returning to the academic ranks, can have a slightly different priority: providing a justification for their own roles, and expanding them.

This is a familiar problem in the theory of bureaucracy. To use an analogy, people are more likely to be careful when dealing with their own money than when dealing with other people's. Ginsberg says academics are better placed to prioritise what he believes are the ultimate goals of the university: learning and scholarship.

The Fall of the Faculty is filled with examples of the problems with administration-heavy universities, with Johns Hopkins given pride of place because Ginsberg has personal experience there. He's also relied on news reports and stories told to him by colleagues at other universities.

Ginsberg provides story after story about administrators who waste too much time and money on meetings, planning, image management and fund-raising. He provides stories about administrators who shirk their jobs, squander money, enrich themselves and protect their turf.

There's a chapter on promoting diversity, which Ginsberg sees as a way for administrators to expand their realm while pacifying left-wing academics. Speech codes serve a similar function. Fortunately, these facets of US academic politics play a comparatively small role in Australia.

Ginsberg addresses the crucial question of what is driving the expansion of US university administration. One possible explanation is the increasing size of universities, but he gives figures showing that numbers of administrators are growing far more rapidly than the numbers of students or academics.

Another explanation is that government requirements are to blame. This certainly seems like what's happening in Australia. However, Ginsberg provides figures showing that administration is growing faster at US private institutions, where government demands are much less. He also gives examples of university administrators actually pushing for greater external accountability measures that will give the administrators greater power within the university. Whether anything similar is happening in Australia remains to be investigated.

Yet another explanation is that few academics want to do administration. True enough, but this is not new. Ginsberg notes that as the casualisation of the US academic workforce has proceeded (with an ever smaller percentage of tenured academics), there has been virtually no casualisation of administrative work. Top administrators in the US are happy to make the academic workforce more precarious but not those of other administrators. (This does not necessarily hold in Australia.)

Another explanation - not mentioned by Ginsberg - is that academics are overpaid, so it is financially expedient to hire administrators to take over some of their functions. If salaries of permanent academics were low enough (and wages for casual and contract academics, as well as administrators, high enough), it would make sense to employ more tenured academics. This explanation probably doesn't work all that well in the US, given low academic salaries in some fields (such as English literature) and generous salaries for some non-academics.

So what is the explanation for the movement towards ever more administrators? Ginsberg argues that bureaucratic aggrandisement is responsible. Basically, administrators push to increase their power and numbers, gradually sidelining academics. As noted before, this is an argument about the operation of the higher education system, not a criticism of individuals in the system.

Is the fundamental problem with increased university bureaucracy that academics have a reduced role, or is it more general? When doors were removed from classrooms in our building, it seemed that no one in the building was consulted. Most non-academic staff may be just as disempowered as academics.

If you read books by management consultants, you will discover much praise for involving employees in decisions affecting their work. There is plenty of research showing greater productivity through employee participation. However, few universities base any of their own policies on this or any other research. They are driven by other imperatives.

Ginsberg sees only a little hope. He lists things that could be done by university governing bodies, by the media, by academics and by others. But what will change to make any of these groups take action?

It's possible to see the earlier system of academic self-governance as an anomaly in a world of encroaching bureaucracy. Is there anything to stop bureaucratisation? Looking at other realms, such as military, business and artistic fields, there is hope by innovation from the margins.

Imagine a university that transformed itself into a collegial, democratic, self-managing system. This would have to encompass the entire university community, including all staff and students, and not just apply to privileged academics. Such a democratised university in principle might well do much better teaching and research. But it could hardly survive in a world in which survival depends on satisfying other bureaucracies.

Therefore, I think the main prod for change is likely to come from outside the sector, from mutual-learning and autonomous production systems. Think of open source software and then apply the same principles to learning and research, and you have something that looks very different from current bureaucracies.

I would be the first to admit that fundamental transformation of universities does not seem a likely prospect, given their survival for many centuries under diverse political and economic systems. Nevertheless, the challenge posed by open-source initiatives may offer some surprising twists to the future of higher education.

27 February 2013

Thanks to Kate Bowles, Sharon Callaghan, Xiaoping Gao, Anneleis Humphries and Anne Melano for helpful comments on a draft.

Appendix: the good old days?

Was there a golden age of collegiality and professional service in US academia? Not according to what I've read. Decades ago, there were serious problems, including sexism, racism, power games, petty-mindedness and laziness. Here is a selection of readings about US university life in earlier generations, which can be used as a complement to Ginsberg's critique of today's administration-dominated US university system.

Bernie Fels, 'The academy and its discontents', Telos, no. 40, summer 1979, pp. 173-176. A bitter attack on power-mongering in the university and especially the complicity of leftists in it.

Richard D. Mandell, The professor game (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977). An incisive, witty, sarcastic and cynical view of US university professors.

Monte Piliawsky, Exit 13: oppression and racism in academia (Boston: South End Press, 1982). A potent critique of racism in US academia.

Richard K. Scher, 'Academic macho', Educational horizons , vol. 61, no. 2, Winter 1983, pp. 83-87. A concise survey of pathologies of academic interpersonal relations.

Charles J. Sykes, Prof scam: professors and the demise of higher education (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1988). A no-holds-barred attack on the US professor's teaching, research and culture.

Pierre van den Berghe, Academic gamesmanship: how to make a Ph.D. pay (London: Abelard-Schuman, 1970). A humorous and extremely biting satire of the myths and realities of academic life.

Arthur S. Wilke (ed.), The hidden professoriate: credentialism, professionalism, and the tenure crisis (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979). A collection of case histories of internecine battles, exploitation, abuse and general nastiness of academia, showing especially the vulnerability of students, women and junior staff.

George Williams, Some of my best friends are professors: a critical commentary on higher education ( New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958). A damning account.

Logan Wilson, The academic man: a study in the sociology of a profession (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942). Things have not changed much since this study dealing with academic hierarchy, status and processes.

Professor X, This beats working for a living: the dark secrets of a college professor (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1973). An amusing exposé of university life.

(These citations are extracted from my book Tied Knowledge.)

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