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Benjamin Ginsberg

Universities weaken under the weight of their own bureaucracies

By Benjamin Ginsberg
September 12, 2011

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AMID ALL the talk of Washington gridlock, burgeoning debt, and the rise of China and India, one American establishment looks like a beacon of hope: the university. It remains the engine of American innovation, and the envy of our competitors around the globe. But questions have begun to emerge about the quality of American college graduates, the shifts of foreign students to European and Asian universities, and the slippage in the global rankings of American schools.

There are many reasons for this. But to a surprising degree, US universities today are falling short because of a transformation within the nation’s academic community itself. Today’s great universities were built by members of the faculty who - contrary to the myth of the impractical professor - often turned out to be excellent entrepreneurs and managers. Yet, over the last half-century, America’s universities have slowly been taken over by a burgeoning class of administrators and staffers who are less interested in training future entrepreneurs and thinkers as they are in turning institutions of learning into cash cows for a growing academic bureaucracy. The character of higher education in the United States has changed - and not for the better.

Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to university payrolls, even as budget crises force schools to shrink their full-time faculties. There are armies of functionaries - vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, each commanding staffers and assistants. In turn, the ranks of administrators have expanded at nearly twice the rate of the faculty, while administrative staffs have outgrown the academics by nearly a factor of five. No wonder college is so expensive!

Of course large institutions need experienced leadership. But the conventional wisdom that universities are under-managed - that Harvard, for example, has suffered for a lack of proper stewardship - misses the bigger picture. When universities are run not by faculty members but by a professional class of bureaucrats, the driving mission behind higher education is being lost. Without having spent time in classroom or a laboratory - without a purely academic pursuit to frame their broader career - professional administrators tend to view management as an end in and of itself. And so rather than focusing on efforts to promote the best scholarship and churn out the most talented graduates, they tend to focus more exclusively on the institution’s finances, or on picayune battles to expand their own power.

To some extent, universities have hired new administrators and staffers for legitimate reasons - government mandates, the need for information technology specialists, and so forth. But often, administrators hire more administrators just because they can. Bloated, unchecked bureaucracies lead to inanity. At my university, a group of administrators created a “war zones task force,’’ which met many times before reaching the startling conclusion that students should be discouraged from entering war zones. At several schools, including Michigan, Johns Hopkins, and Iowa, administrators created committees whose goal was to identify forgotten college traditions - and invent new ones if old ones could not be found.

Academic bureaucracies across the country spend millions each year drafting and refining strategic plans that, once unveiled to the public with great fanfare, are generally filed away and forgotten. All this while hundreds of thousands of students are taught by part-time “adjuncts’’ so that schools can save money on faculty salaries.

Former Harvard dean Henry Rosovsky once observed that the quality of a school is likely to be “negatively correlated with the unrestrained power of administrators.’’ Rosovsky was correct. At their best, universities are capable of producing new knowledge, and new visions of politics, policy, and society. They can be subversive institutions in the best sense of that word, showing by their teaching and scholarship that new ways of thinking and acting are possible.

Controlled by administrators, on the other hand, the university can never be more than what sociologist Stanley Aronowitz aptly termed a knowledge factory, offering some vocational training but never imparting to students the most important training of all - the ability to think.

Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of “The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters.’’