Universities overpowered by administrators?

If you believe, as I know many academics do, that universities have become places in which professional administrators have subverted the intellectual and scholarly principles of the academy, here’s a book for you. In The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Professor Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins University takes aim at what he regards as the current university culture. His thesis is summed up in this paragraph from the book:

‘Alas, today’s full-time professional administrators tend to view management as an end in and of itself. Most have no faculty experience, and even those who have spent time in a classroom or a laboratory hope to make administration their life’s work and have no plan to return to the faculty. For many of these career managers, promoting teaching and research is less important than expanding their own administrative domains. Under their supervision, the means have become the end.’

Professor Ginsberg writes as if he has discovered something startling and new, but really this is a fairly well trodden path. But does it lead anywhere? He, like others who feel the same way, wants the faculty to re-assert control over decision-making, and he wants that decision-making to avoid strategy, vocational education, interdisciplinarity and research commercialisation.

And that, really, is the problem, because Professor Ginsberg is in the end not really worried about administrators, but about what our wider society now wants universities to do. Remove every single administrator, and government calls for accountability and transparency will still remain and have the same effect. In the end it is not really that a new administrative class has come out of nowhere, but that the taxpayer is no longer willing to give universities money and then let them spend it without any reference to public policy. That may indeed have subverted the traditional academic mission, but administrators are not the cause, just its implementation.

In the meantime, while I have myself often had doubts about some aspects of university administration, I have absolutely never met an administrator who ‘views management as an end in itself’. In any case, what does that even mean? And if we are to re-establish a sense of self-confidence and shared intellectual purpose in the academy (which we must), I doubt that this kind of argument by personal insult will help us get there.

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18 Comments on “Universities overpowered by administrators?”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    *I have absolutely never met an administrator who ‘views management as an end in itself’. In any case, what does that even mean? And if we are to re-establish a sense of self-confidence and shared intellectual purpose in the academy (which we must), I doubt that this kind of argument by personal insult will help us get there.*

    I think you are offering too harsh a criticism of Prof. Ginsberg’s point here. Firstly, your personal experience, as vast as it might be, does not exclude, in principle, the existence of the type of administrators described by Ginsberg and secondly the quoted passage hardly qualifies as an insult, at least in my opinion. I have the greatest respect for university administrators but I could not swear that ALL of them share the same values and sense of affiliation to the University (and I use the capital letter purposely) that I do. Viewing ‘management as an end in itself’ is only another way to describe burocracy, (and the various layers of it) which have come to characterize academic life to the point that even the reason for its initial implementation gets lost.

    Also the following passage is problematic:
    *but that the taxpayer is no longer willing to give universities money and then let them spend it without any reference to public policy. That may indeed have subverted the traditional academic mission, but administrators are not the cause, just its implementation.*

    I have heard this argument before and, albeit my own personal experience of academia is relatively limited, I have often wondered when was exactly this golden age of academia charactyerized by spending public money with no sense of accountability whatsoever. Actually what is hinted at in the post is not only our old friend ‘accountability’ but a more problematic reference to ‘public policy’, which would certainly deserve some more explanation, particularly in light of the recent discussions following the AHRC ‘Big Society’ row (for those unfamiliar with this see http://tinyurl.com/42s9gyt ). No one in his/her right mind is calling for the removal of administrators, they do the most valuable job, but they did an even better one when their raison d’etre was not the implementation of a misguided sense of transparency and accountability.

    • Mary Says:

      I have the greatest respect for university administrators but I could not swear that ALL of them share the same values and sense of affiliation to the University (and I use the capital letter purposely) that I do

      Do all academics share the same values and sense of affiliation to the University that you do, then?

      I would have assumed that some do and some don’t.

      • anna notaro Says:

        of course not, thanks Mary, generalizations work both ways… some academics don’t care or are not interested as Don says below, althought it would be interesteing to explore why that is the case…


    • Anna, you wrote: ‘Viewing ‘management as an end in itself’ is only another way to describe burocracy, (and the various layers of it) which have come to characterize academic life to the point that even the reason for its initial implementation gets lost.’

      Of course there is a lively canon of literature on this point, from Gogol via Kafka to Dickens’ ‘Circumlocution Office’ (not forgetting ‘Yes Minister’). But I don’t detect any of that in the universities. Administrators may sometimes be infuriating, and they may bureaucratise things unnecessarily, but I’ve never met one who doesn’t have a clear strategic objective for the university (small ‘u’) in mind. It may be that one would occasionally want it done differently, but I don’t doubt the intention is related to the well-being of the institution.

      • anna notaro Says:

        the use of capital ‘U’ is just a sign of esteem for the university as an institution, as far as I’m concerned, as much as I love grammar there are instances which the application of ‘rules’ cannot cover and the exceptions to such rules have a more (emotional/irrational) but still justifiable appeal..

  2. don Says:

    What does ‘administrator’ mean, anyway? We need to get agreement on that definition. In my view, I generally regard a university administrator as one who is not directly involved in teaching or research but rather one who enables the teachers and researchers to conduct their work, which is, after all, are some of the key functions of a university. In the university where I work there is little evidence that administrators have become over-powering. Some years ago here, it is true, some senior administrators (that is, not academic staff) had great influence on major aspects of university governance. This was seen by some senior academics at the time as in intrusion into their Fellowship and was a destabilising element on their tightly held seat of power. Alas, with the passing of these, the university restructured to ensure that similar control was not again ceded to the non-academic ‘administrators’. All of the top positions in the university management team are now in the control of the (male) academic fellowship (except for one or two females who run, what might be regarded as, the softer side of things) The real problem is the inability of academics to govern the university in a proper fashion. This is hardly surprising, given that, in the main, their management abilities often lie in some arcane aspect of academic excellence, and not at all related to the pressures and conflicts of organisational management. If there is an emerging power base of university administrators, it’s (note the apostrophe) the soft underbelly of the rank-and-file academics who are to blame, many of which are not remotely interested in where universities are going, being more concerned where their careers are going to or where their next publication of funding source is coming from…

  3. Vincent Says:

    Or, mayhaps this is more apropos http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIto5mwDLxo&feature=relmfu
    Oh, in case high horses are being mounted. Mayhap was on the go in the 1530s

  4. cormac Says:

    I’m not sure an increased need for good governance and acccountability can be assumed to be the entire cause of the siginificant increase in administration one sees in colleges, Ferdinand.
    I think Ginsperg has a point – admin has have a way of growing ever larger, without any obvious improvement in performance (think HSE).
    In our college, we no longer have secretaries, only ‘administrators’. As day-to-day secretarial tasks have become easier due to worpdprocessing (for example, no more typing of letters, exam papers or research as lecturers do this themselves), the former secretaries have been given a different role in the department, often more prominent than your average lecturer – from decisions on timetables to communicaton with externs to outreach communication. Yet the level of training (dare one say it) is often quite low, as evidenced by the missives one sees. For example,it is no exaggeration to say that the head dministrator of my department has a far more direct influence on my career than my HoD – depsite the fact that she has no knowledge of, or interest in, academic matters

    • Don Says:

      …and this is HER fault…? No, it is the fault of the academics whom she purports to serve. Everyone needs boundaries, definition, structures to their jobs. It seems to me that the person in question in your department has not been shown these boundaries because there is no one sufficiently powerful or adept in your department to tell her. This shoes a deficiency in basic people-management skills, very often evident in academic staff.

  5. sapphire Says:

    I have a few comments on what Don said.

    I agree with Don’s reply to cormac. The secretary/exec assistant/administrator gets her duties and boundaries from the HoD. It is part of the job of the HoD to take care of that.

    Don said “…I generally regard a university administrator as one who is not directly involved in teaching or research but rather one who enables the teachers and researchers to conduct their work…”
    Agreed that this is what they _should_ be doing. The concern of academics is that the administration is no longer there to serve the academic staff and students, but rather to serve itself. This is certainly the case in my university.

    Don said “…The real problem is the inability of academics to govern the university in a proper fashion… many of which are not remotely interested in where universities are going, being more concerned where their careers are going…”
    I don’t think it’s fair to say that academics are not interested in where universities are going. It’s a question of priorities and time. Put yourself in the shoes of the average young lecturer. He/she is starting out on an academic career, presumably wanting to rise to professor and become recognized as a researcher and teacher in the subject. (otherwise why become a university lecturer in the first place?) In order to achieve that, one _has_ to focus on career, publications, funding, etc. It’s just not realistic to become involved in administration and spend time on that work, and also have time to do all the academic work. Some academics choose to get involved in administration, and usually the amount of time spent on research and teaching will decline. For example, a HoD usually doesn’t get much time for research these days.

  6. cormac Says:

    Re Don and Sapphire: I don’t see how “its the fault of the academics who she purports to serve”. Ordinary lecturers have no say in this whatsoever.
    Certainly, I agree that it is unfortunate that the HoD takes a backseat, but this happens in all our departments. I think the tasks are divided up higher up in the food chain, again by administrators.

    • Don Says:

      WRT ‘ordinary lecturers’, I suppose it depends on the management structures of the dept/school/college/faculty that these ‘ordinary lecturers’ inhabit. In my experience, all permanent academic staff (and on occasions, even those without tenure) in some depts do have a say (locally, depending on how they bend the ear of the HoD) in how the dept is governed and resourced, and many junior academics go on to represent their depts at faculty meeting and on other university committees where their views (on the perceived threat of administrative world domination) can be heard. The university is still a network of academics – the ‘ordinary lecturers’ need to use this network to have their influence felt and get their views heard. If the HoD or Dean doesn’t encourage and support the ‘ordinary lecturer’, then it’s time for that lecturer to become less ordinary and move on…

  7. cormac Says:

    Don: I wish, sounds ideal. I served on the academic council in our college for 8 years and it was very rewarding. However, it had no bearing whatsoever on issues such as how departments are run administratively.
    For example, in WIT, lecturers are often crammed 4 -5 into an office. Secretaries on the other hand, have immeasurably better office facilities. Why is this? Is the work they do so much more important? It’s a pttern I notice in many colleges..

  8. Dave Says:

    How interesting that the term administrator is so often used in the sector to mean anyone not involved in teaching or research…therein lies the ‘no mutual respect’ problem that has beset the sector for so long…an IT network specialist is no more an administrator than his equivalent teaching IT networks in the School of Computing…an HR specialist is no more an administrator than his equivalent teaching HRM and industrial relations. And a Head of School should be more about strategic academic leadership of the discipline than administrative management. My experience suggests especially that the more senior support professionals have a very serious ambition for their University, often far more serious than the academic whose focus may be on the success of their discipline, their school or themselves – and rightly so from their perspective…except when they want new resources of course! Those Universities that can harness mutual respect for contribution from all professionals (academic and support)working across the organisation in teams with common values and purposes will have a head start in the world of the new type of University coming soon at a cinema near you….

    • Don Says:

      …but, you’ll be waiting, Dave, as many of us who have worked for some time in universities know. The traditional university is a temple to knowledge, the high priests being the academic staff. The rest of us (i.e. administrators, IT, Library, Sports, Techs, H&S, etc) are simply occupiers in the outer temple, altar boys, if you will. The university is a Fellowship of academics, managed by them, for them. Knowledge is their currency, and the u/grad students are the beneficiaries in that they at least get a degree but then move on. Post grad students are the real mules of the academic researchers – they do the donkey work for their Masters or PhD, maybe get a publication, but it’s the academic who gets the kudos, the promotion, the invited review article….the professorship. And so the cycle continues… If non-academic professionals want to expand their own professional competencies outside and away from interfering academics, then a university is no place to be. Google Mintzberg’s ‘Professional Bureaucracy’ and you’ll see what I mean…


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