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Administrative Issues

The problem with higher education, one Johns Hopkins professor says, is the people who run it

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The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters

Benjamin Ginsberg

Oxford University Press

Posted on the door of political science professor Benjamin Ginsberg’s office on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus is a newspaper story clipped out of the university-sponsored JHU Gazette. The headline: “Edgar Roulhac, vice provost for academic services, to retire.”

The article is equally dry, but a friend of Ginsberg’s, knowing his particular qualms with university administrations, taped it there for the professor to read. According to the article, Roulhac “assisted and guided the president and provost in advancement of the university’s mission, goals and priorities” and “assumed broad academic planning oversight and stewardship for the advancement of JHU’s full- and part-time academic programs . . .”

Ginsberg is unimpressed by the story’s accolades: “There are a lot of people like him in every university. They say the faculty vegetates with tenure, but the administrators are here forever and ever and never did anything to begin with.”

That represents the essence of Ginsberg’s latest book The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press), in which Ginsberg takes readers into the bureaucracy of university administrators, in his view a top-heavy army of generals who do little to advance the cause. He coins the term “deanlets” to describe the assistants to the assistants with puffed-up titles and vague job descriptions, and questions what, exactly, they do with their time and everyone else’s money.

The book delves into a broad range of topics, from the treatment of minorities on campuses and how it affects a university’s operations to the history of academic tenure. But where it’s strongest is in its analysis of the data about the ever-rising numbers of administrators and the dwindling amount of faculty, who are having increasingly less say in the world in which they teach.

“The problem is administration, bureaucracy is self-perpetuating,” Ginsberg says. “Those who find themselves in a bureaucratic career path want to increase the importance of what they do. They want to aggrandize their role.”

And in order to accomplish this, Ginsberg asserts, administrators seek to increase their numbers, thereby increasing their ability to circumvent faculty and board members and justify diverting money to operating costs, travel funds, and inflated salaries. The end result is schools where teaching and research cease to be the function of higher education and instead are simply a means to an end.

“I have encountered many admissions and registration officials who seemed to regard students as nuisances who interfered with the smooth operation of their offices,” Ginsberg writes in his book. “Of course, without students, there would be no need for admissions or registration officials.”

Ginsberg’s tone can be belittling, which has the unfortunate effect of undermining his credibility. Though he is careful to clearly, and frequently, point out that not all administrators are bad—and not all professors are good—he generally maintains the stance that administrators are unintelligent drones best left to filling out paperwork while the big kids—the faculty—do the real work. His vigorous sarcasm seems unnecessary at best. In detailing the administrative habit to attend “team-building” retreats on the university’s dollar, for instance, Ginsberg writes,

We can, however, be confident that college administrators would never spend even a dime of tuition revenue on selfish pursuits. They force themselves to hike, canoe, and kayak solely to sharpen their managerial skills and ability to work as a team for the betterment of the college.. . . . We can be absolutely certain this would be the only reason administrators would even consider dragging themselves to Maui during the winter for a series of workshops. . . . Given the expense and hardship usually occasioned by travel to Hawaii, it is entirely appropriate for colleges to foot the bill.

Still, what this book says is important. If Ginsberg is correct—and numbers don’t lie—then America’s higher-education system is slowly leaking brain cells and becoming yet another standardized institution where provocative thought is discouraged and degrees are earned solely for paychecks.

“I think the university is not what it was, it’s not as strong as it was, and I think a university run by administrators is not the intellectual equal of a university run by faculty,” Ginsberg says. “It’s not exciting, it’s not interesting. Administrators aren’t open to new ideas. They’re not into new ways of looking at things. They like every day to be like the day before. And that’s not how it should be.”

Perhaps Ginsberg’s most striking discovery, and the one that provides the most solid basis for his screeds, came when he decided to find out how such staffers occupy themselves each day. He searched the internet for meeting minutes at major universities, and found that most meetings involved nothing more than talking about past meetings and planning future meetings, a notion he confirmed with an administrative colleague.

“They meet to discuss meetings to plan meetings,” he says. “It’s like a universe of its own. It has no relationship to any reality. And I was shocked that they even knew that’s that what it was.”

Ginsberg is fond of Star Trek, and likens the administrators to the alien collective the Borg and their assertion that “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” Many of his colleagues think the assimilation has already happened; The battle’s already been lost. Ginsberg concedes that that might be true, but still, he says, “It’s worth pointing out.

“Tens of billions are spent on the care and feeding of deanlets that perhaps could be spent on developing new programs, technology, ideas—maybe even tuition doesn’t have to be as high as it is,” he says. “A big chunk of everybody’s tuition dollar is spent on deanlets. Obviously the professorate has the immediate stake but this is an institution and industry that affects everybody. And in my view the triumph of the deanlets undermines the university for everybody."

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