Of all of the contributions I’ve had to the “crisis” of higher education meme inspired by Tony Grafton’s recent review in the New York Review of Books, no one has yet called out administrators and/or administrative bloat. Most of us humanist faculty types appear to see the liberal arts college administrators as tapdancing as fast as they can with the budgets handed down by the central administration. (Or, perhaps the other problems just loom larger–who knows?)
Well friends, that changes today with this guest post by commenter truffula, who is a department head in the natural sciences at an urban university. She identifies the “growth toward a corporate organizational structure” as the burr under her saddle these days. She asks, given the budgetary pressures in public higher ed, can we really afford all of those administrators, especially when the ones at her uni seem to be more dedicated to their own salaries and perks than to serving the students or the general public? She portrays the administrative class at her uni as barbarian invaders of the groves of academe, “harvesting as much as they possibly can and . . . salting the fields.”
Take it away, truffula:
A colleague whom I love dearly has this crazy scheme to storm out of the castle, form guilds, and conduct our transactions directly with our customers. Unfortunately, his preferred alternative to the brick and mortal castle is the interwebs. I’ve argued with my colleague about the pedagogical problems and the risk of ghettoization associated with online classes but I can’t dismiss his idea entirely and here’s why: the maintenance costs associated with the modern university president, vice presidents, provost, vice provosts, and various assistant and associate deans are very high.
Here at Provincial State U, a large public university, our growth toward a corporate organizational structure has led to what some would call an administrative bloat problem. Some code of public relations suggests that it is bad to give one of the dozen or so vice presidents/provosts a raise in these times of furloughs and hiring freezes so instead the big bosses create new job titles and promote internally to fill those jobs–at higher pay, natch. The administrative class didn’t get where it is today by being stupid. But the costs of professional administrators are more than just their salaries. They’re harvesting as much as they possibly can and they are salting the fields.
I do not know but my guess is that our upper administrators have all read books or attended management seminars in which they learned about the importance of well-defined hierarchies. (I guess this because I’ve been told that as a department head, I am supposed to impose such a structure. For the record, I refuse.) The hierarchy is important in part because it simplifies the assignment of blame when things go awry but it also sends a strong message about the individual’s place in our campus society. This growing class structure is the source of considerable resentment. When observable inequity is paired with increasing work loads among the classified staff—due to a combination of factors, including enrollment growth without increased staffing—it leads to distress. People with deep institutional knowledge either quit, check out, or sink into productivity-stifling depression. These are costs we should add to our accounting.
Every administrator who is on a career path understands that goals must be set and met so that ze may be judged to have excelled at hir work. The university is a huge and complicated organization so for evaluation purposes, those goals must be represented by simple metrics, that is, numbers. The reduction of the educational endeavor to a set of numbers either met or not, changes how we understand our mission and sets departments up to fight with each other for warm butts in seats. These are more costs we should add to our accounting of the professional administrative class.
Suppose I set a pedagogically sound enrollment cap of 20 on a class, the class schedulers put me in a room with 30 seats, and I enroll 15. Now, 15 is a solid turn-out for an upper division specialty class in my department but when the VP for Fiscal Strategies (really, we have one) reviews the spreadsheets, what ze sees are two problems: first, the mismatch between the cap and the size of the room is underutilized space, and second, I have 5 (or 15) seats worth of unrealized revenue. The evaluation is even worse if I’d managed to attract 18 souls the last time I taught the course—now I’ve lost revenue over time. If I held class outside, perhaps in the shade of an old oak tree, I would not have these problems. I’d have to draw all the figures in the dirt with a stick but I think I can do that.
Many of us down in the trenches at Provincial State U are going to counselors now. Our jobs are driving us crazy but we can’t afford to walk away. The psych professionals tell us that our anger and sadness are entirely rational responses to the corporatization of our university. “Just try not to yell so much,” they say, “try to hold on until you can retire.” I think the counselors are right, what ails us at my large state university does have its roots in our transformation into a public corporate organization but it is not just that. What ails us are the class divisions associated with hierarchical ordering of people and the performance-metrics drive to value quantities that are not about learning.
(It may also be that if these administrators–the university equivalent of corporate executives–were really any good they would not be slumming here with us but would in fact be running successful corporations. Maybe our execs are not very good.)
As I understand it, the first western colleges were collectives formed to protect the rights of students and teachers. If we could fix the corporate disease–if we could think more collectively about the endeavor of higher education–we could stop fighting for student contact hours, a battle that leads us to water down classes and drive down expectations. If we could fix the corporate disease, we could pay our staff more equitably and stop thinking of each other as the problem.
What do you think, dear readers? Does this resemble at all your university? Can you relate? Are there any administrators out there who want to offer another perspective on what she calls “administrative bloat?” (Or should we call that adminsitrative “PUMP you UP?“)
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