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Tenured and Powerless

Who needs professors at the all-administrative university?

By From the June 2012 issue

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The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters
By Benjamin Ginsberg
(Oxford University Press, 264 pages, $29.95)

When I began my college search, a family friend jokingly referred to university as a four-year sleepover. He went to Yale. And he was right.

Universities pitch themselves to new students as beacons of social acceptance rather than academies of higher learning. Magazines and books rank schools according to factors far beyond the classroom, counseling parents to ensure the financial future of their children by selecting “the right school.” Schools send brochures touting climbing walls and focus-grouped slogans about the kinds of students that attend, rather than the kind of learning they can expect.

These books follow the horserace of SAT test-prep, “college culture,” and a variety of other non-essential concerns recently lampooned by the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson in Crazy U, which addresses the shocking build-up of a university-admissions-industrial complex seemingly engineered to make parents go bankrupt or crazy, whichever comes first.

Ferguson’s bewilderment is part of at least a half-century-long tradition of universities “selling out.” William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale railed against the “established non-belief” and “collectivist philosophy” of his alma mater—in 1951; Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind chronicled the flight from a core liberal arts curriculum to more “relevant” studies; Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals skewered the intellectual bankruptcy of modern academics.

Other less partisan books, such as Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate’s The Shadow University, launched a nationwide effort to protect the civil liberties of students under attack by politically correct bands of college administrators who sought to limit free speech to appointed “free speech zones,” or expel students for not getting with the program. All took issue with the sudden shift in focus from learning as it was classically understood to the concerted effort to indoctrinate students into unquestioning automatons, regardless of political philosophy.

Benjamin Ginsberg’s book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, pins the blame for that shift on a new politburo-like administrative style of university governance. In six chapters spanning 248 pages, Ginsberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins, reveals the sea change in American higher education in which the modern university has been gobbled up by bureaucracy, marketing, and a wholesale disregard for learning. Academic concerns have been left behind.

Ginsberg’s salvo is rooted in his five decades in academia, during which schools have gone from being driven by faculty ideas and concerns to being “controlled by administrators and staffers who make the rules and set more and more of the priorities of academic life.” Administrators either refuse to consult faculty or wholly ignore their unsolicited input. Presidential searches are not conducted by committees of qualified academics, but are outsourced to special firms, which then write off any potentially controversial candidates, leading tragically to the “most boring and conventional candidates.”

Worse still, these administrators have little to do, leading them to create make-work projects, such as retreats, conferences, and “strategic planning” meetings. “Little would be lost,” Ginsberg writes, “if four out of five staff meetings (they could be selected at random), were canceled tomorrow.”

Any recent graduate of a university will recognize the products of these meetings: Mandatory sensitivity trainings, offices of “campus life,” special staff-led seminars, or dormitory-based programming seeking to “enhance cultural understanding.”

Fundraising appears to be the only thing these bureaucrats are well equipped to tackle. Even during the recession, colleges were able to raise money owing mainly to the dedication and nostalgia among alumni. But then, Ginsberg notes, administrators appropriate the money “to support more administration.”

During a recent President’s Staff Meeting at one Ohio community college, 11 of the 18 agenda items “involved plans for future meetings or discussions of other recently held meetings.” Other schools charted out similar Russian-doll meetings about meetings, squandering money that could have enhanced the faculty or benefited students in financial need.

Yet the public doesn’t see the inefficiency. According to a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 percent of Americans express “a great deal” of confidence in large corporations as a whole. Forty-eight percent, on the other hand, indicate a great deal of confidence in colleges and universities. This, Ginsberg argues, allows functionaries to fundraise even more successfully.

In 2007, American colleges and universities raised nearly $30 billion in gifts. Harvard raises an average of $600 million per year. This is all thanks to the professionalization of fundraising based on the techniques of Charles Sumner Ward, who found ways to prop up the YMCA in the early 20th century by going beyond door-to-door fundraising aimed at a select wealthy group. Ward appealed to a large base of small donors, and was able to secure larger rewards as those donors became older, more successful, and, most important, more nostalgic. An entire consulting industry sprang up, and soon universities were competing to recruit or retain top “development officers” who could boost school budgets and keep tuition competitive.

Effective fundraising also allows university presidents to hold on to their schools’ massive endowments. This gives them more autonomy and shields them from the kinds of market pressures that could force a greater focus on academic rigor. When testifying before Congress in 2008, college presidents argued that they should not be required to justify their favorable tax status by spending at least 5 percent of their net worth each year. They “failed to mention that endowment income helped to free them from having to consult their faculties regarding university programs and priorities.” A large endowment was “needed to sustain the all-administrative university.”

That administration can go beyond being simply costly—it can be downright spend-crazy. American University’s president, Benjamin Ladner, and his wife (who called herself AU’s “First Lady”), demanded that AU build them an expensive new “official residence” complete with a waterfall. Before Ladner was eventually dismissed he and his wife had managed to spend $220,000 on chefs, $54,000 on drivers, $44,000 on alcohol, and $100,000 on a social secretary.

THE PROBLEM FOR GINSBERG is that he neglects to make a positive case for the faculty. It’s no small thing. The assumption that the faculty has somehow been chafing at the bit to take on more responsibility in administration defies common experience. Ginsberg himself makes note of Cornell Prof. Theodore Lowi (at the time of my attendance, the school’s highest-paid professor), who boasted of writing a popular book on the presidency while being truant from meetings he was expected to attend. Ginsberg thinks the example explains why professors mustn’t cede authority to administrators who will fill the vacuum, but it really illustrates the cavalier way in which many tenured professors treat any administrative activity as a burden on their academic freedom. Small wonder administrators have decided to look elsewhere for help in staffing the kinds of programs that college rankings favor. Few serious scholars in physics want to develop dormitory housing programs.

Tenure (and the disappearance of mandatory retirements) has made it all too easy for professors to dodge administrative responsibilities. Why bother with this small stuff when you can dwell in the library or your study without consequence? Meanwhile, Ginsberg notes with sadness that tenure has become increasingly rare, thanks to a glut of desperate Ph.D.’s willing to forgo tenure-track positions in favor of the rare paycheck. But these “mini-professors” are the very product of an inflated university system that pumps out graduates without regard to the markets they enter.

In fact, AU’s Ladner himself was a philosophy professor prior to becoming the spend-crazy president who gave rise to scandal. Hunter S. Rawlings, a very popular classics professor at Cornell, became president, yet during his tenure made no notable effort to reduce the infamous “Big Red Tape” that only contributes to a competitive and stressful campus environment. His successor, David Skorton, recently wrote in the Huffington Post that the cost of going to college is far too high, all while announcing a new multi-million-dollar research facility on Roosevelt Island in New York City.

When professors enter administration, they are just as likely to continue the endless campaign for growth.

It’s not simply that faculty members are reluctant to make changes. The book ignores the links between faculty ideology and bureaucratic efforts. While Ginsberg rightly indicts the trendy attempts to enforce measures of political correctness on campus, he makes no effort to point out that these views were in vogue during faculty summits in the late 1960s and 1970s, when, as Thomas Sowell says of his tenure as a Cornell economics professor in A Personal Odyssey, administrators and faculty alike worked toward establishing more “relevant” curricula. The new bureaucratic bloat is the illegitimate stepchild of that era.

The university needs a shake-up regardless, and Ginsberg’s enjoyable and accessible book makes that absolutely clear, using data and anecdotal experience gathered within the walls of the Ivory Tower. It’s a rude awakening for all those who saved money for college, and instead got a four-year sleepover.

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About the Author

J.P. Freire is a writer in Washington and a former editor at the Washington Examiner and The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jpfreire.