The burdens of university administration

When in 1991 I took over as Dean of the Law School of the University of Hull in England, one of the first things I decided to tackle was the proliferation of administrative functions for academics. Pretty well every lecturer and professor had traditionally been given some non-academic task, ranging from managing student admissions to servicing certain committees. Furthermore, some of them – conscientious people – were particularly anxious to ensure that they performed the role satisfactorily, and so had begun to spend more time on this than on their teaching and research functions. A side-effect of all this was that many of the School’s academic activities had become seriously bureaucratised. All of this was further incentivised by an academic career development framework that gave special recognition to time spent on administrative work.

My solution to this problem was to appoint a School administrator, someone with a full-time task of managing the administrative tasks and functions and to streamline them so they would not overwhelm the School’s academic activities. Other Schools in the university followed suit, and before you could say ‘committee meeting’ someone had pointed out that the university was recruiting administrators at a faster pace than academics.

It would not be unfair to say that most universities have struggled and continue to struggle to find the most appropriate way of handling administrative and non-academic middle management functions. A university’s mission is most obviously associated with lecturers and professors, but to facilitate and support their work requires the effective conduct of administration. But who should do this, and how? One university I visited a few years ago had developed a policy of encouraging academics who were so minded to transfer to vacant administration posts, in the belief that they would have a better idea of how to manage these roles in a way that supported the primary mission. Indeed it would be fair to say that some of the most gifted university administrators I have worked with have been former academics. But then again, some of these transferred academics have found the relationships with their former lecturing colleagues to be particularly difficult as they were seen as having ‘crossed over’ to the other side.

It seems to me that universities are now far too complex to be administered by academics on a part-time basis, and the professionalisation of certain university management functions was not only inevitable but right. Complex roles like human resources cannot be undertaken effectively by what are really gifted amateurs. But when academics complain about creeping managerialism brought about by the proliferation of administrative appointments – as happens regularly, a recent example being in the University of Kentucky – what they are objecting to is often an apparent redirection of mission and vision away from the frontline intellectual and scholarly values. A result is a growing hostility of academics towards administrators, and vice versa.

There is no viable alternative to the professional administration and  management of organisational functions in a university. But this may go wrong if the organisation does not have a clearly designed and jointly owned strategic direction that is adopted by the administrative staff also. So the answer to any perceived imbalance of functions is not to pillory administrators, but to ensure that they share with the academic community the task of charting the way forward for the university. It means reducing the distance between both groups and ensuring that the university does not have a system of separate castes. Most universities still get that wrong, and it is time to take the issue seriously.

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2 Comments on “The burdens of university administration”

  1. zogger Says:

    The trouble with bringing in administrators is that, (a) very often, they do not understand the features of higher education that distinguish it from most service industries (and more so from other forms of business,and
    (b)to justify their roles, they create activities which are passed back to the very academics whose time you are trying to protect to carry out while the the administrators “monitor performance”.

    As academics turned administrators are (marginally)less likely to suffer from the above flaws, it would make more sense to train up (self-selected) academics into “professional” administrators.

    • Angel Says:

      Actually zogger, there are many administrators who have been students themselves and have worked their whole careers within university administration so understand what makes higher education unique.

      And why are academics turned administrators less likely to create activities that justify their roles? In my experience, it has been academics taking on administrative functions for the sake of bolstering their prestige that has caused the most hassle; they have neither the time nor the inclination to do the job properly.

      I agree with Ferdinand that a hostile relationship between academics and administrators is unhelpful in any university. Broadly speaking, academics should determine policy and administrators should implement it. The lines of responsibility should be clear and it should make no difference whether the administrator is an academic, from another sector or worked their way up from within – so long as the job is done well.

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