The faculty strike back?

Back in my undergrad days, when Ronald Reagan was president and MTV played music videos, I thought college campuses were for the faculty, of the faculty and by the faculty. Little did I know that I and my classmates were witnessing a paradigm shift in higher education.

Today, the administrators are firmly in charge and the faculty have little say-so in governance.

That’s the view, anyway, expressed by political science professor Benjamin Ginsberg in a fascinating essay in The Scientist.

08_11_FacultyFalloutGinsberg has been in academia for nearly five decades, so he has had a long-term, front-row view of this shift from faculty-centric university to the administrative-run model we have today. Not surprisingly, he takes a dim view of the new order of things.

The “ongoing transfer of power” from the faculty to administrators — as evidenced by the tremendous growth in administrative ranks since the mid-1990s — is a “troubling reality,” Ginsberg writes.

“On the surface,” he writes, “faculty members and administrators seem to share a general understanding of the university and its place in society. If asked to characterize the ‘mission’ of the university, both groups usually agree with the idea that the university is an institution that produces and disseminates knowledge through its teaching, research, and public outreach efforts.”

Beneath the surface, Ginsberg sees the new structure as one that allows administrators to “reward themselves and expand their own ranks” rather than invest in their institutions’ academic mission.

(Incidentally, the professor’s essay is based on his new book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (affiliate link). The Scientist also provides a true excerpt from the chapter about teaching and doing research at the “all-administrative university.”)

While I take issue with Ginsberg’s cynical view of administrators — hey, what else would you expect from a mid-level marketing administrator like me? — I concede that he is probably half-right on some counts. Yes, the growth of administrators and professional staff has probably added to the cost of education. But the need for these additional staff roles is also a response to the changing marketplace of higher education. (Ginsberg would describe much of that response as “placating” students and their helicopter parents.) On a macro level, the student body is much more diverse today than it was when Ginsberg began his academic career — more diverse, even, than when I was a college student.

I also concede that his perspective is shared by many in academia and might gain currency with a public that is concerned over the rising costs of a college degree. It’s easy to take pot shots at the bloated bureaucracies of just about any campus, especially as tuition costs continue to rise.

It might gain currency, that is, if it were not coming from a college professor.

Let’s face it. College professors like Ginsberg have been the subject of many unfair caricatures long before academia became as administratively burdened as Ginsberg portrays it today. Who among us has never heard someone from outside academia complain about “lazy” faculty members who teach one or two classes a week, write a scholarly article or two a year on some esoteric (read: meaningless) topic, and do nothing of societal significance?

Besides, the public doesn’t distinguish between an executive vice president of academic affairs and an adjunct instructor of English. I doubt the public will sympathize much with a professor complaining about the academic administration.

What I find most interesting about Ginsberg’s essay is how he employs economic terms to describe the difference between faculty and administrative worldviews.

Faculty, Ginsberg writes, hold a “supply-side” view of the academic enterprise. Professors are “more concerned” than their administrative counterparts “with teaching topics they consider important than with placating students and other campus constituencies.”

On the demand side are the administrators, who, Ginsberg writes, “believe that a college curriculum should be heavily influenced, if not completely governed, by the interests and preferences of potential customers — the students, parents, and others who pay the bills.”

My perspective on Ginsberg’s take (disclaimer: I haven’t yet read his book) is that the faculty he describes are more concerned with “teaching for teaching’s sake” while administrators are focused on responding to market forces. But I hesitate to paint with as broad a brush as Ginsberg, because I know many faculty members who are sensitive to market concerns and respond quite well to them, while also managing to balance the demands of scholarship, research and teaching.

In Ginsberg’s view, the academic enterprise must be run either by the faculty (for the better) or the administration (for the worse). But in the real world, the best faculty and administrators are trying to navigate the academic enterprise in a new market-driven world, one in which the enterprise must meet the needs of consumers (students). The alternative will not be pretty.

Maybe Ginsberg wants to incite a faculty uprising against the administration to return the academic enterprise to some former glory, real or imagined, of one in which the professors ran things. But wouldn’t it be better to encourage faculty and administration to band together to meet the new challenges? The survival of higher education may depend on it.

* * *

Related reading:

The Fall of the Faculty — from InsideHigherEd.com

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

5 thoughts on “The faculty strike back?”

  1. I do think that higher ed has gotten too far away from academics and exploration of ideas in the way we market to prospective students; perhaps this is a piece of that puzzle.

    Not everything about higher education is about getting good grades, getting a job and getting the pretty girl under a tree.

    Too often we try to hypnotize them with that job-school message, and then they are shocked when faculty expect them to think new thoughts and fill them with calculus for four years (for engineering anyway).

  2. Good insights. I always thought it was the job of the administration to keep the university running on all cylinders. Sometimes, that means you have to adapt to a culture’s changing view of what education is and its value. Academia seems to abhor change–I’m not sure if it’s just because change is hard, or because they would rather be the drivers. I think it’s a good tension when faculty wants to just teach for teaching sake and administrators respond to marketing forces. I’m not sure how professors think their classes will be filled otherwisse. Today’s culture doesn’t value learning for learning’s sake. Go with the flow and love the debate! Thanks again.

  3. Charlie, Chris – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that there is a dynamic tension between the administrative and faculty perspectives, and that the tension is a healthy one.

    In some ways, it reminds me of my days as a newspaper reporter and the tension between those of us in the newsroom who just wanted to write our stories without interference from the ad sales people, and those selling ads who had to deal with the business end of things. It hasn’t ended too well for the newspaper journalists. (Some, like me, have been fortunate enough to find a great career in marketing and PR, but I still know some purists who refuse to cross the line into PR.) Let’s hope the faculty and administrative sides can learn to appreciate the perspectives of the other side.

  4. Andrew:
    My wife, holder of a Ph.D. in medieval studies, knows all too well the disparity between “topics [faculty] consider important” and what the market is looking for. In fact, the whole concept of “necessary knowledge” has been evolving through a dancing dynamic between the institution and its clientele since the founding of the academy in 14th century European monasteries. When I was teaching, I found that I couldn’t interest freshmen in clear, cogent writing (“free expression!” they’d insist), yet when I taught them business writing two years later they were quick to recognize the merits of coherency. We might bemoan it, but we exist in a time when students are appropriately concerned about their ability to succeed after college–not just their prospects for having a good time a learning a little something in their years on campus. (Somehow, a Bluto quote seems necessary here: “seven years of college down the drain.”) In a time of reduction of tenure-track faculty in favor of adjuncts (who have no longterm commitment to the institution but are focused on their survival instead), a profound shift in demographics and related market forces, and an unsettled and unsettling economy (Dow is off 289 more as I write), administrators (including we marketing folks) are really the only ones with the foresight, responsibility, and ability to navigate between immediate issues and longterm needs.

  5. Just read another review of this book, from Carl Elliot (a med school prof) in the Wall Street Journal: Meddle Management. Money quote:

    Mr. Ginsberg is especially scathing on the topic of “strategic plans”—alleged blueprints for the future that are composed not of specific targets and ways to achieve them but of windy platitudes. He is equally dismissive of the relentless image-polishing performed by university communications officers, whose publications he compares to the propaganda organs of the old Soviet regime.

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