In the current wave of online ill-will between contingent and tenure-track faculty (which of course most faculty in either group will never see, know about or care about), one of the common sentiments that produces some modest degree of agreement is, “Blame the administrators”.
The common refrain, echoing the arguments of Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty, goes something like this:
1) Faculty used to be firmly in control of most of the business of academic institutions.
2) Administrators took that control away from them.
3) Then administrators made more administrators and fewer faculty, and made most of the faculty contingent employees. Why? Because they’re bad, because they could, because they hate truth and justice, because they’re neoliberal capitalists.
4) And so here we are. We should retake governance, fire most of the administrators, and rehire most faculty as tenure-track faculty.
This at least is Ginsberg’s take. Every once in a while in Fall, he pauses to consider what the faculty role in the history of administrative growth might be, every once in a while he considers the role of federal and state regulations, every once in a while he thinks about larger trends in employment and the economy. But for the most part, he views faculty as having little or no role in the growth of administration and the rise of contingent labor, he almost never asks whether students played a part, treats academia as a self-contained institution that explains itself, and largely sees administrators, particularly the “deanlets” that he views with special contempt, as the deliberate and programmatic agents of the marginalization of the faculty.
Now keep in mind, as always when I join in these discussions, that I am in a very favored and increasingly isolated institutional situation. Swarthmore faculty may grouse about governance and managerialism, but I generally assume that this is like students grousing about cafeteria food, a kind of obligatory disgruntlement. In any serious comparison with most of global academia, we’re still very much at the center of the governance of the institution, especially in its academic operations. I can teach largely what I like and so can most of my colleagues: the restrictions that have power over us are almost entirely imposed by departmental and divisional colleagues, not the institution. My department can set the terms of its own curricular program within very broad parameters. In a faculty that is mostly tenure-track, hiring of contingent faculty has been mostly a short-term strategy for managing sudden growth in student interest in a particular major or about replacing faculty on leave in heavy enrollment departments. This is not to say that we are not dealing with some of the same pressures and issues that are affecting all of academia, but this is precisely my starting place: some of the drivers of managerialism, administrative growth, and faculty marginalization are totally outside of any given institution, and impossible to contest through a simple shifting of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
But the history here is in some broad measure the history of many institutions. 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.
Professionalization is in and of itself a driver of growth. It is on the faculty side as well as the administrative side: some departments grow not because they are trying to manage increased demand but because the consensus in academic institutions supports growth into a new specialized field. Specialization in academic disciplines creates economic pressures on institutions: when only a specialist can teach some aspect of a departmental or division curriculum, they have to be replaced if they are absent, augmented with more labor resources (likely contingent teaching if we’re talking after 1980) if many students want to work in that general area of study.
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.
Ginsberg’s complaints are largely confined to residential life staff and then to growth at the top of the administrative pyramid, just under a president or chancellor. Residential life administrations usually include on their org chart things like specialists in mental health, diversity coordinators, learning disabilities specialists, some of which may have regulatory compliance woven into their work. Even if they don’t, most of those jobs have had at least the passive, sometimes active, support of many faculty at many institutions.
So even if you back Ginsberg in his acerbic dimissal of “deanlets”, who irk him in part because they intrude into what he thinks should be the sole prerogative of faculty (instruction and curricular design) and in his thinking that there are too many bosses and supervisors at the top of administrative hierarchies, you’re only making a dent in the overall growth of administrative compensation budgets.
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. I think most faculty would avoid making the latter two arguments on the record, at any rate. And on the first, when 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. At large universities with Division I athletic programs that draw heavily on the general operational budget, you might (justifiably) hear faculty raise questions about whether that has anything to do with the core mission of the university, and maybe there’s a few other areas you could similarly underscore, but this is hard work. 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.
All of this brings back the question: who is the boss then, especially in universities where the terms of labor are so increasingly miserable for teaching faculty?
And the answer is, depending on what kind of bossing and decision making about terms of labor we’re talking about: the structures of the institutional culture overall, faculty, top-level administrators, trustees, state politicians or society at large. Meaning, first, it is a misguided political idea to look for a single bad guy to take out of the picture, to remove from bossing, in order to create a better work environment and better terms of labor. And different institutions work differently. More poorly resourced or less scrutinized institutions often operate on more arbitrary and capriciously centralized terms with more power in the hands of top administrators. Strongly religious colleges usually have some kind of formalized cultural overlay that ‘bosses’ the lives and work of faculty and staff. State legislators in some political cultures around the U.S. are more pervasively involved in inspecting and controlling the working lives of university employees.
Some “bossing” embedded in the terms of faculty labor, especially for contingent employees, traces straight back to tenure-track faculty or even to other contingent staff. TT faculty, even when they’re a small remnant of what they once were at a given institution, still usually control the content and structure of much of the curriculum, and therefore determine what kinds of contingent work is needed, how often it’s needed, and how stable the expectations are for further employment. They’re often the people who determine whether a particular contingent faculty member will be rehired, how they are evaluated, whether they have access to resources, and so on.
But what has driven academic institutions towards more and more aggressive use of less and less well-treated contingent faculty? Who is the “boss” of that move? Who made and still makes that decision? Here, yes, it’s totally fair to point to top-level administrators. Tenure-track faculty at many institutions own some piece of that move, often because they failed to respond actively to discourses around cost and budgeting except with a total dismissal of cost as a consideration or with strategic moves intended to preserve their own labor practices while permitting the larger institution to move in a different direction. But top-level administrators drove a lot of this approach to managing costs and financial resources. Larger forces beyond the university have also “bossed” this system into being, ranging from the extent to which the cultural idea of being a scholar remains attractive to many undergraduates to the overall structural impoverishment of labor markets world-wide (e.g., when all the choices are increasingly bad, it’s easier to defend the particular badness of the way you are employing people).
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.