The Higher Education Power Shift to Administrators

Published January 3, 2012

Review of The Fall of the Faculty, by Benjamin Ginsberg (Oxford University Press, 2011), 264 pages, $29.95, ISBN: 019978244X.

In this heroic book, Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, examines the great power shift to nonacademic administrators in higher education. Were the author not such an esteemed academic at one of our greatest universities, this book could be taken as a humorous satire on how administrators are ruining some of our best institutions. As one with previous academic experience and current constant contact with same, however, for me this serious yet grimly funny read rings all too true.

Today, corporate search firms often select college presidents, hiring business managers and fundraisers instead of superior academics. Faculty have virtually no say over who is chosen and, later, little opportunity to judge their performance. In an extreme instance, Virginia Commonwealth University faculty were astounded to discover their administration had signed an agreement with the Philip Morris tobacco company prohibiting professors from publishing research without the company’s permission.

In 1999, the University of Dubuque’s president informed his faculty that, because of a financial shortfall, the administration was eliminating or consolidating more than half the school’s majors and programs without faculty consultation.

Ginsburg tells dozens of such stories. He repeatedly describes the reduction of true academic programs in favor of “student life courses”—out with physics or calculus, in with “event planning.”

Administrative Bloat
Forty years ago, the nation’s colleges employed more professors than administrators. Over the past four decades, the number of faculty increased 50 percent compared to student enrollment, while administrative staff increased 85 percent.

The national mean of administrators and staffers per hundred students rose 30 percent during that time, to nine, and many schools dwarf that number. At the author’s school the number is 31, at Rochester University it is 41, and at Vanderbilt University it’s 64. University boards at top-heavy schools, the author says, “need to ask why my school employs three, or four or more times more ‘deanlets’ than the national average.”

A common explanation for administrative expansion is the ever-increasing need to fulfill mandates and recordkeeping demands of federal and state governments. Administrators welcome and even encourage intervention from external agencies because these give administrators additional leverage over faculty in course planning and curriculum.

There is no doubt some faculty members have been complicit in the expansion of college and university bureaucracies. Almost every professor would prefer to spend time in the laboratory, library, or classroom than attending committee meetings.

‘Creative’ Bureaucracies
Administrators seem incredibly creative at fashioning positions inessential to their institution’s proper functions. Perhaps the expansion of university bureaucracies is best illustrated, Ginsberg says, “By an ad placed by a Colorado school which sought a Coordinator of College Liaisons.” That was certainly nor for the benefit of the students.

Ginsberg visited many universities while researching this book. He was always surprised to find administrators had little to do, so they made up projects irrelevant to educating students. More amazing, to him, was how often administrators found resources to hold off-campus retreats where they could be undisturbed by day-to-day campus activities when faced with actual difficulties. Some of these administrator retreats were staffed by professional facilitators from esoteric organizations focused on experimental education.

Ginsberg reports at length about school administrators’ continual construction of strategic plans. At a John Hopkins faculty meeting, he once “asserted that our college’s strategic plan was a waste of paper.” The vague plan was soon abandoned, but his colleagues greeted him with hostile silence thereafter.

Lobbying for Taxpayer Subsidies
Ginsberg also tracked 50 lobbying groups in Washington, DC representing the 5,000 institutions of higher education attempting to milk more and more money from federal taxpayers. Some of their successful lobbying has prevented the public from seeing universities for the businesses they are.

Much of the book reads like investigative journalism, documenting case after case of administrative malfeasance, including fraud, embezzlement, bribery, and kickbacks. Fraud, in fact, appears to be pervasive throughout nonprofits. One study estimated U.S. nonprofits’ theft and embezzlement totaled more than $40 billion per year.

University administrators employ diversity and civility as instruments of managerial power rather than philosophical principles, Ginsburg says. He goes into great detail on this topic, explaining how it has allowed administrators to gain more control over faculty hiring.

Tales Explaining Decline
In the same vein, Ginsberg offers a complete though brief explanation of the famous 1993 “water buffalo” episode at the University of Pennsylvania and the 2006 Duke Lacrosse team’s tragic story. The book finely summarizes the ups and downs of tenure and offers a wonderful description of President Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers, who was later drummed out of the Harvard University presidency by diversity rage.

Ginsberg defends faculties, warts and all, as needing to become once again the most important element of academe. He charges university boards with getting things back on track by putting faculty members back onto these boards, where their contribution is invaluable.

Ginsberg could not have written this book without enjoying tenure, as the Hopkins administration is certainly still seething. If you enjoy well-written nonfiction and have at least a nodding interest in higher education, this book will awaken you to intrigue you never imagined, and its contribution to our higher education system’s decline.

Image by Jared and Corin.