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.
Ginsberg 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.
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The Fall of the Faculty — from InsideHigherEd.com