The Faculty Has Fallen

Like many academics of a “certain age,” I have long noticed the growth of the campus bureaucracy. For example, at the University of Illinois—where I spent 28 years—it seemed that half of all new construction was to house administrators. The administrative expansion was relentless even though enrollments remained almost unchanged and faculty salaries remained flat.

Fortunately for myself and other puzzled but similarly observant academics (of “a certain age”), Professor Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty brilliantly (and with great wit) explains this rabbits-in-Australia phenomenon. Even better yet is his account of why this population explosion undermines the university’s core mission of teaching and research. To repeat a point impossible to exaggerate: the intellectual costs of bureaucratic expansion far exceed the extra salaries and expensive, wasted office space.

Ginsberg’s cold statistics confirm every professor’s worst nightmare. Between 1975 and 2005, he reports, full-time faculty grew by 51 percent; administrators at an 85 percent rate and “other professionals” by 240 percent.  In some schools, Vanderbilt, for instance, the student-to-administrative staff ratio has come to resemble the passenger/staff ratio on a luxury cruise.

Moreover, Ginsberg argues, the usual glib explanations offered by administrators—burgeoning enrollment, government mandated record-keeping, pressures to hire faculty spouses—fail to survive close scrutiny. The real impetus for aggrandizement is power. Today’s administrators want to dominate university life, and like some alien life-form introduced into an environment that lacks natural predators, they just keep multiplying.   

What do most administrators actually do? The answer, Ginsberg assures us, is what many senior faculty suspect: almost nothing of any intellectual value. His well-documented catalogue of make-work projects includes endless meetings to fashion long-term “strategic” plans filled with boilerplate and homilies (commonly called “vision statements”) that are quickly forgotten, expensive conferences that are dripping in psychobabble and activities like canoeing to sharpen “decision-making skills,’ and supervising committees to concoct meaningless benchmarks, targets and lists of “best practices.” All the while, the administrators voice the latest managerial buzzwords (e.g., SWOT, ECM, and MBO) to impress gullible outsiders. Further, add expensive image polishing campaigns and energetic fund-raising whose purpose is often to hire yet more administrators. 

The word for all of this: waste.

Where The Fall of the Faculty really shines is demonstrating how the expansion-minded administrators manipulate the radical egalitarian agenda—multi-culturalism, affirmative action, the tribal victimization departments, draconian speech codes, and all the rest—to expand their power. This analysis alone is worth double the price of the book ($29.95) and should be mandatory reading for every academic, student, and tuition-paying parent.

They’re able to get away with it because of the faculty’s reflexive, unthinking embrace of the PC (politically correct) agenda. What liberal-thinking academic can oppose helping the supposed victims of oppression? Ginsberg gives the example of the Johns Hopkins Africana Studies program that in 2007-8 had all of four undergraduate students. Nevertheless, there was a program director, an eleven-person executive board, ten affiliated faculty, an associated research scholar, and a program administrator.

To that heavy burden, add all the administrators charged with diversifying Hopkins–everyone from the Chief Diversity Officer, his or her assistants and associates, a staff to monitor and collect statistics, issue reports to the foot soldiers to sit in on faculty recruitment committees to ensure “social justice.”

All of these sacrifices to the gods of political correctness are costly, but they also affect real education. I recall my days at the University of Illinois when the administration bribed the Political Science Department to hire “under-represented minorities” to the point where essential course offerings on India, Japan, and the Soviet Union were seriously neglected.  Who would have ever imagined that administrators could so shape professional judgments long under total faculty control?

Worse still, this budget-bloating wastefulness pales when compared to what Ginsberg calls “the shadow curriculum,” where undergraduates are indoctrinated on the sly with today’s hard left messages on race, class, and gender, plus healthy doses of radical environmentalism, moral relativism and homosexuality.

This indoctrination occurs outside the normal classroom, typically as part of freshman orientation or in semester-long classes run under the auspices of college housing. None of these instructors (or syllabi) must pass departmental scrutiny; all teach at the pleasure of the administration. When I taught at Illinois, I only suspected this parallel leftish curriculum; parents are probably far less informed. I became suspicious only if a student uttered some palpable nonsense and out of curiosity I would ask where the wisdom was acquired. “In a seminar in my dormitory,” was the usual answer.

Ginsberg’s great insight here is the self-serving character of this ideology mongering. Few administrators probably believe the trendy leftish rubbish, but it is the perfect (and ideologically kosher) tactic to expand administrative power at the expense of the faculty. No politically respectable faculty member could oppose hiring a small army of diversity experts beholden to the president to badger the chemistry department to make its courses reflect the contribution of people of color. The PC agenda gives administrators almost unfettered access to policies—especially hiring and curriculum—once the absolute domain of the faculty.           

Nor do these expansion-minded administrators protect academic values in tough times. Ginsberg repeatedly shows that even in times of shrinking budgets, the administrative colossus thrives. In 2009, for example, the president of the University of Vermont announced numerous draconian program cuts, but nevertheless defended bonuses for the school’s top twenty-one administrators as consistent with the “pay for performance” principle. It’s hard to imagine administrators forgoing their annual retreat at an expensive resort to concoct yet one more soon to be buried “long-term plan” so as to save the under-the gun classics department. Sad to say, this self-serving mentality seems commonplace and Ginsberg speculates that the ultimate goal is what he calls the “all administrative university.”

The Fall of the Faculty predictably ends with a “what is to be done” section that stresses the role of trustees and faculty in reversing administrative bloat. This is a complicated topic, but my reaction is “good luck.” Administrators are a crafty bunch and I predict that a clamor for fewer “deanlets” (as Ginsberg calls them) and other unindicted co-conspirators will mean the hiring of yet more administrators to study administrative downsizing. And rest assured, pigs will fly before the university curtails its outreach to transsexual and transgendered people of color.  

Administrators will assuredly dismiss Ginsberg’s analysis as exaggerated alarmism and offer counter examples of heroic school presidents and provosts sustaining Western civilization against barbarian attacks. Since they have large staffs skilled at turning out self-serving hype, their case will seem convincing.

Don’t believe it—just ask any faculty member. When I was a junior professor at Cornell, a story was told, undoubtedly apocryphal, about a dean of liberal arts whose office was being cleaned out after he’d served his five-year term. The secretary found a huge box of unopened mail. The incident was covered up—not to protect the dean’s reputation but to hide the embarrassing fact that the university had functioned so well for five years without the dean even reading his mail.