Posted: November 28, 2012
uppose 50 randomly selected college professors from around the country gathered to discuss higher education. Some are from elite private schools and others from downscale and decidedly non-competitive public universities. Some are great scholars, some great teachers, and still others are neither. Within 15 minutes they would join together in a near unanimous lament about their own university administration—its growth, excessive power, and exorbitant salaries. That one issue unifies professors everywhere.
Benjamin Ginsberg, a well-known political scientist at Johns Hopkins, has gone a step further. He wrote a book, one that's a little light on empirical evidence, a bit heavy on anecdotes (though several are entertaining), and certainly no model of even-handed, objective scholarship. For all that, The Fall of the Faculty makes important points and offers an imperfect but reasonably accurate assessment of life on many campuses. Thankfully, unlike most inmates' books about the academic asylum, it is not mind-numbingly dull.
Ginsberg uses government data to show that while the ratio of faculty to students has changed very little since 1975, the ratio of administrative staff (broadly defined) to college students has nearly doubled. The Fall of the Faculty expresses acidic contempt for this new administrative class of "deanlets," Ginsberg's term for assistant deans, associate provosts, and the like. "When administrators take control of a program from the faculty they often ruin it...." "One activity with which underworked administrators can and do busy themselves is talk." "On average...the new administrators are not as good as the people they have supplanted. They do not understand the character of the university or its purposes."
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Ginsberg eventually admits that the primacy of the faculty in university affairs is a comparatively modern phenomenon, dating from the first push for tenure by the nascent American Association of University Professors in 1915. The rise of modern research universities provided a push as well. The Golden Age for faculty, however, came in the generation after World War II, between 1945 and 1970 or shortly thereafter. The rise of "the all-administrative university" began after 1970, marked by the marginalization of tenure and the faculty members it protects in favor of increasing reliance on easily fired instructors employed on a temporary or part-time basis.
Although Ginsberg is basically correct in his assessment of the weakened faculty role in university administration and governance, he mentions but does not adequately assess three reasons for it. First, the Golden Age had rested upon popular support and deep admiration for higher education as the means to a better life for the students who attended, and a better future for the entire nation resulting from scholars' earnest, disinterested, and unfettered pursuit of greater understanding of the starry heaven above us, and the moral law within. The violent Vietnam Era protests brought public attention to universities, and a growing popular conception that they were loosely run, corrupting rather than educating their students. Faculty lacked the discipline, dispassionately objective political disposition, and good judgment expected of temporary guardians of our youth. This ebbing of popular support played into the hands of administrators, alumni, and trustees with the capacity to clip the faculty's wings.
Second, as Ginsberg does note, the rising demand for faculty, which had made it tough to recruit good professors in the 1950s and 1960s, dried up. In those early postwar decades, one had to offer low teaching loads, good pay with nice annual salary increases, and a lot of power and independence. As the number and size (if not the quality) of Ph.D. programs increased, the problem of filling faculty positions abruptly declined, also prompted by some slowdown in economic growth in the 1970s from the boom years of the preceding three decades. Third, this increasing supply of prospective faculty members encountered declining demand for their services. As a result of the "birth dearth" there were 16% fewer Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 in 1995 than in 1980. Meanwhile, the Ph.D. factory built during the Golden Age continued churning out faculty aspirants as if the postwar baby boom were eternal, and would lead an ever-growing proportion of an ever-growing cohort of young adults to seek college degrees.
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Ginsberg, a political scientist, looks at universities as he might assess international relations, in terms of grand strategies and power struggles. (The term "Realpolitik" is part of one chapter title.) He very perceptively notes how the emerging issues of race, class, and gender worked to the benefit of university administrations. Affirmative action programs, for example, led to the creation of a bureaucracy of personnel police to vet academic appointments, previously the faculty's domain. Deanlets in charge of students' residential experience, all the college that happens outside the classroom, persuaded university presidents to create special courses promoting such causes as tolerance and diversity, which were often ideologically driven academic drivel—and also beyond faculty control. Moreover, he notes that faculty, always wanting to demonstrate their sympathetic sensitivity to the leftish cause du jour, yielded their turf without ever putting up much resistance.
Ginsberg views faculty members as relatively altruistic followers of the scholarly tradition, genuinely interested in creating and disseminating knowledge, and in helping students make the transition from adolescence to adulthood by developing an inquisitive, mature mind necessary for the assumption of responsibility. (He is clearly partial to the liberal arts tradition, scorning the vocational emphasis of the modern university curriculum.) In short, college faculty members are, by and large, Good Persons.
By contrast, university administrators really don't care much about the traditional mission of creating and disseminating knowledge, and view students as cash cows providing revenues in the form of fees now and donations in the future. Interested in maximizing their own power and income, the administrators are, by and large, Bad (or at least Not-So-Good) Persons. And because the bad guys are winning the upper hand over the good guys, American universities are in peril.
There is some truth to what Ginsberg says, but only some. It's unlikely that the percentage of faculty members destined for either sainthood or eternal damnation differs markedly from the percentage of administrators. Almost all university employees want to maximize their satisfaction in life. Most faculty get more joy out of helping students than most administrators. But administrators derive satisfaction and serve the common good by, for example, curtailing professors' ability to use the free time secured by low teaching loads to write papers almost no one reads.
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Above and beyond the causes and effects described in The Fall of the Faculty, college administrators have grown numerous and powerful because specialists in various administrative talents (raising funds, lobbying governmental officials, and investing endowments, for example) add to the revenue stream of universities. The chief administrators, with trustee support, then distribute these incremental revenues in ways that meet faculty needs, but also those of other university constituencies. They give the faculty nice facilities, good pay, and fringe benefits, and let them do what they want with most of their time. As a price for providing these things, the deanlets hire lots of assistants, building empires with growing budgets and troops.
Thus, the rise of the all-administrative university results not from diabolical power plays by smart operators who best the naïve faculty, but from the nature of modern academia, where third parties—governments and private philanthropists, in particular—provide a huge share of total funding. To Adam Smith the ideal would be for students to pay professors directly, who would then subcontract with the university for classroom space, keeping student records, conferring degrees at the appropriate time, etc. There would be no need for much of the administrative overhang we have today, and professors would better serve their students—or lose income.
This is not the argument Ginsberg makes, which is fine, but he doesn't provide adequate support for the argument he does make, which isn't fine. The Fall of the Faculty could use, for example, more empirical detail on the proportion of university budgets going for the enhanced administration of modern times. How does the number of deanlets in research-intensive universities (of which his own Johns Hopkins is probably the single best example) compare to the number in institutions that concentrate on teaching, not research? Do schools with faculty unions have different patterns than ones without? Answering such questions would illuminate the causes and consequences of the rise in administration.
Also, there are enormous variations in American universities. Some have vast administrative bureaucracies and a fiercely adversarial relationship between administrators and faculty. Others, especially some of the more prestigious private schools, still have faculty wielding a very strong role in university governance. That power can encompass vetoing almost anything the administration wants and, sometimes, even ousting unsatisfactory (or at any rate unpopular) presidents, such as Harvard's Larry Summers.
Finally, Ginsberg implicitly assumes that the faculty really ought to run the university, to control its destiny. We needn't accept this premise. Left to its own devices, professors are as rent-seeking and craven in their decisions as administrators. The Golden Age of faculty domination often entrusted the teaching of undergraduates to poorly paid adjuncts and graduate students. The educational and social value of those arrangements, predating the academic regime change The Fall of the Faculty decries, are very doubtful.
Notwithstanding those shortcomings, Ginsberg writes well, a rarity for academic social scientists. In particular, he displays his prejudices with refreshing candor, despite spending his adult life in a profession in which candor is often suppressed. The Fall of the Faculty is worth reading without ever feeling like a homework assignment, distinguishing it on that basis alone from most books on higher education.