A common refrain from union advocates is that there has been an excessive growth in administrative positions, at this as at every major university – and the implicit accusation is that administrators are less concerned about providing education to students than expanding their administrative fiefdoms.
Well, it makes for a good story, and it reinforces the narrative of greedy, grasping bosses ripping off the poor working stiffs who actually do the work that keeps the university running.
This neat and tidy theory fails to address some crucial questions: for example, why it is happening; why it has been a trend over a very long period of time, at nearly every major university; and most important, what should be done in order to reverse it.
There are legitimate questions to be raised about this trend, about the increased reliance on non-tenure-track faculty, and about other ways in which public higher education is changing in light of a constrained and uncertain financial environment. We welcome a serious discussion about these issues and about their implications for staffing, for budget, and for governance.
There is a place to have these debates: the Senate. And there is a way to have them: probing, fact-based, and, where necessary, questioning about where these directions are taking us. Dealing with these issues through simplistic slogans and conspiracy theories solves nothing and serves only to reinforce adversarial relations.
Timothy Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore College, has provided a good start to this conversation on his blog, “Easily Distracted.” Burke eschews the finger-pointing that characterizes so much discourse about “administrative bloat,” preferring instead to examine the growth in administrative positions from an historical perspective and to reflect on constructive ways to face the realities that gave rise to this growth. His data-based approach is one we should emulate.
We suggest reading the whole thing, but we excerpt some highlights here:
How did the growth of administration happen? It started happening sixty or so years ago because faculty stopped being able to and willing to do many of the major administrative jobs in colleges and universities as the numbers of students grew dramatically and the nature of academic life changed. When academia stopped looking to faculty to handle admissions and residential life and budgets, it started looking to professionals who had done somewhat similar work in other institutions. And those people professionalized the same way that faculty had professionalized a few decades earlier, the same way that faculty were undergoing intensification of professionalization as their ranks grew and grew in the 1950s and 1960s. The administrators didn’t professionalize because that was part of the Master Plan to Destroy the Faculty, but because that’s what was happening across the whole of the economy and society. . . .
Beyond that, what has driven the growth of administration in academia? Federal and state regulatory mandates, for one. Many faculty are uncomfortable focusing on that issue because it makes us sound like businessmen complaining about over-regulation, but maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere. On the other hand, at least some of those regulations are generally supported by faculty, in spirit or sometimes even in specific substance. So we can hardly complain about having to respond by adding administrators to deal with those kinds of compliance issues, which clearly require some degree of specialized knowledge. Legal obligations that follow on the Americans with Disabilities Act or regulations on the welfare of organisms in laboratories or Title IX are serious and complex.
Where else was there growth in staff between 1970 and 2014? Information technology. Human resources. Financial management. At many places, the former especially has been an area of substantial growth. Reconcile arguing that information technology staff should be small with wanting campus networks that run smoothly, are secure from intrusion, pose no legal liabilities, and provide faculty with all the instructional support they need. . .
If you want to do more than that, you either have to name a large range of administrative functions you believe can be eliminated at no cost to the core mission of academic institutions, or you have to compress those functions into fewer positions and be indifferent to any complaints about overwork, or you have to argue for hiring lower-cost deprofessionalized or outsourced labor to do the work. . . . [W]hen I start asking most faculty I know (at Swarthmore or elsewhere) which exact administrative positions they think aren’t needed, I usually get a few desultory, mumbled suggestions but nothing like a categorical area of staff work that they believe could be eliminated. . . . . Faculty who just toss this sort of argument against “administrative bloat” off casually aren’t much different than right-wing voters who believe that somehow there’s a lot of waste in government social spending and a lot of voter fraud: it functions as a deep authorizing mythology that precedes any engagement with the world as it is. If there is any bloat–or at least growth that could be pared back over time–faculty were usually deeply involved in its creation, or they at least endorse the idea of the institutional missions that administrators are supposed to be executing. Faculty want experts in mental health and learning disabilities, they want diversity experts, they want legal staff, they want librarians, they want instructional technologists, they want expert financial and budgetary staff, they want human resources personnel who understand contemporary benefit structures, they want environmental services staff, they want staff who organize peer learning, they want administrative assistants, they want event planners, they want people who handle communications. If you remove any of those functionalities, or ask faculty to handle it themselves, you hear plenty of griping. . . .
The real challenge is to match a specificity of complaint with the agency of some group or constituency who could plausibly be expected to do something different. Just pointing at “administration” and administrative growth as if that alone is both an accurate description of the causes of poor work conditions for contingent faculty and a plausible direction to seek redress or transformation does nothing at all to help. When it is faculty, especially tenure-track faculty, doing the pointing, the gesture both distracts from their own responsibilities, from what they can do right now, and it doesn’t help move us towards some concrete decisions about what kind of administrative growth is at issue, about how to talk about costs without having to preach austerity, about how to stage a more generative confrontation with influential “bosses” outside of the academy, or anything else of use.