Who’s the Boss?

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.

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20 Responses to Who’s the Boss?

  1. Michael Cholbi says:

    Tim, great post. I agree completely that faculty can’t just decry “bloat” without at least being willing to pinpoint where the bloat resides. But another factor here is salaries: Even if the various administrators fulfill needed functions, it’s hard not to notice the concurrent trend of adjunctification (a way to reduce salary allocations for instructions) while admin salaries go up. (I can’t verify this easily, but I’m told that on my state university campus of 20,000 students, there are over 60 administrative positions that pay $100,000+). And as the joke goes, where all the adjunct administrators?

  2. Valerie Andrews says:

    It always comes down to who’s got to go. Administrators will not cut themselves, and they can foist the icky job off on others in the name of faculty governance.

    While vague notions of who/what should be cut do not serve to move the discussion in a positive direction, neither do specific recommendatiins made by people who latch onto a position/unit that’s handy, whose purpose is possibly misunderstood and who, basically, is just “not us.” I’ve seen one unit target another that hasn’t done a good job of explaining what they do, so they look like an easy target. Also common curriculum departments hide behind their superior numbers and want to make “little” units the ones to go.

    Above all, we need to focus on who’s flying the planes. No pilots, no flights. Administrators don’t (usually) teach, nor do support staff. Especially in times like these, w need to go back to our core mission. We may have to learn to carry our own luggage and do without warm hand towels following our cocktails and complimentary peanuts. But we can still get the planes off the ground…as long as we have someone to fly.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Ok, I nominate Valerie to be the first person to tell students that they don’t have any counseling resources available, that there are no specialized diversity staff to work with, that there are just enough IT staff to keep the network running (maybe), that financial aid doesn’t have the personnel to meet with individuals to discuss the details of their grants, that there isn’t a career development office, that the president and provost are too busy to meet with them and there aren’t any other senior administrators available, that routine maintenance on the buildings is indefinitely deferred, etc. I recognize that some institutions are pretty close to this already, but this is sort of what the idea of pilots first, everything else is a frill, means. I don’t think there are too many airlines that could fly without ground support staff, air traffic controllers, repair and maintenance staff, luggage handlers, customer service reps, gate check-in personnel, etc.

    And then you can be the person who tells the faculty what “carrying their own luggage” will amount to. For example, perhaps, that they’re the ones responsible for figuring out their own liability and seeking legal representation if a student sues them over a plagiarism charge or because they felt the grade was too low.


    Michael’s point about salary bloat at the top of large research universities is well taken. I think we all learned something about what that trend is leading to when some of NYU’s administrative perks were revealed not too long ago. But here too there is a larger issue: the entire logic of setting salaries against a labor market where that strategy amounts to a positive feedback loop that just kicks that market perpetually higher and higher. That’s what is driving top managerial salaries in all institutions except perhaps the federal government. But if we’re going to rethink market comparison as the main way we decide what salaries should be, at least at better-financed institutions that might also have an impact on tenure-track faculty salaries…

  4. TRM says:

    I challenged Ginsberg at a higher ed forum in DC with this: “The days you are talking about are were when the students were just like the faculty – white. And at many place, male.”

    His response was, “Well, I didn’t say things were perfect.”

    The fact is that the higher education has changed dramatically in the last 50 or 60 years. As a group, faculty and administrators, have not always handled this change well nor always been thoughtful about the long-term impact of our choices. It is going to be long slog to regain some of what we have lost. More full-time, tenured faculty would likely be a good thing. So would mutual respect between administrators and faculty.

  5. Art Deco says:

    Like with much else, your problems are a sum of tiny things. A number of those tiny things have vested interests implicated therein.

  6. An Onyx Mousse says:

    As someone who works at a publically traded company, I have to ask, who in the university system is responsible for EFFICIENCY? As in, where is the accountability for completing the core mission of the institution to serve its intended clients/customers (i.e. students and the beneficiaries of research) using not more than the required amount of resources (which is the institution’s responsibilty to the general public)? Who is advocating for using the latest technology to improve research & learning outcomes while reducing costs to students or holding them flat? In my organizatio, which has a $10+ billion dollar research budget, we think about this constantly.

    Since there is not much cost accountability in the university system, they are the only group of institutions whose prices (not costs!) are rising faster than healthcare, which has similar issues.

    Access to knowledge and understanding have never been cheaper in all of world history than today, but the price of certifying & confirming that knowledge and understanding by a reputable institution has never been higher. This situation won’t last forever.

  7. Western Dave says:

    Onyx Mousse, what if inefficiency is a feature and not a bug of elite universities and colleges? There is an incredibly efficient system of community colleges/state unis that are pretty damn cheap. How many people have you hired at your institution who have gone that track? Why or why not?

  8. John Thacker says:

    right-wing voters who believe that somehow there’s a lot of waste in government social spending

    In the meaning of “waste that can be cut in a manner that provides a net benefit (including when counting the resources required to determine and enforce the cuts)” which is I think the best overall meaning but not always understood. By a strict definition of waste, it’s known by the IRS that around 25% of EITC payments are in error (in excess), but conversely only 75% of eligible claimants claim it— but that’s a rate that is better (especially for the latter) with other social programs. It’s the most efficient of all social programs (and I’d include compared to the minimum wage); it has a high level of “waste” but it has proven very difficult to reduce the waste while still meeting the mission and in a net positive way. A bevy of regulations designed to prevent “waste” can cost more than the waste that they prevent, especially when the waste finds a way around the regulations anyway. (The government contracting regulations seem like an example of this.)

    It’s never enough to even identify specific waste, but you have to have a reasonable plan for eliminating it.

    Although as someone who chose against academia after getting my Ph.D., after comparing with my cohorts I’m amused at the idea that academia is merely mirroring the “the overall structural impoverishment of labor markets world-wide.” Perhaps it’s merely specific to my field, however, but it seems to be getting much worse for those remaining in academia. The “world-wide” qualifier is incredibly laughable, though. Apparently China and India are not parts of the world. Blaming it on “the overall structural impoverishment of labor markets world-wide” functions as a deep authorizing mythology that precedes any engagement with the world as it is, I’d say.

  9. Duncan Frissell says:

    I’m sure we could find many more right wingers (and particularly libertarians) willing to name government programs to kill than academics with the courage to cut college bureaucracy. That’s why you should ask right wingers.

    Hillsdale, Grove City, and other conservative colleges that decline federal funds and federal loans for students save the whole diversity segment and vast government reporting requirements. Health and mental care can be cut back or replaced with 911 stickers. Recreational facilities can be pared to the bone saving both capital and administrative costs. That would also separate real students from non-students among potential admittees. Dining facilities can be restricted to the minimum needed to supply enough nourishment to sustain life.

    And you can covert to a partial co-op system just like in the old days where students work for tuition. There’s your IT department.

    And while they’re at it why not try real coursework and rigor instead of psych and soc and illiteracy.

    Note that the high end institutions already have the cash and willing students to make all these changes without risking the institution at all. Students will still come. Cheap institutions are also better off. The vast mid range of $40k a year private colleges will have problems anyhow and have to make radical changes under this system, so they have nothing to lose. Radical cost cutting and content differentiation is the way to go.

  10. Western Dave says:

    Hillsdale costs $31,000 a year with room and board. Hardly a bargain. And about 25% of the faculty are adjuncts. So…… Or were you trying to be funny and I’m not getting it.

  11. Nord says:

    Swarthmore is $58,000 a year including room and board. Hillsdale is 47% cheaper. Worth it? May be, but in terms of the collusion-oriented pricing umbrellas that colleges have set up nationwide (Amherst is $26 a year cheaper than Williams, what are the chances?), Hillsdale is a bargin.

  12. Art Deco says:

    Duncan Frissel:

    1. The institution I know best makes ample use of student labor in its IT service. However, interested work-study students cannot fully replace trained technicians. (And while we are at it, I would be fascinated to know how you got the idea in your head that college campuses are free of youths working campus jobs).

    2. Western Dave: Hillsdale accepts no federal aid. The $31,000 price tag is the full freight (and Grove City is cheaper).

    3. One thing not brought up is that campuses are overbuilt. (Thomas Sowell has discussed this and how faculty are drivers of this; I’ve seen the same phenomenon). One thing that might assist is a general practice of pairing donated construction with dedicated maintenance endowments.

  13. Art Deco says:

    And while they’re at it why not try real coursework and rigor instead of psych and soc and illiteracy.

    I am not sure what you have against psychology or sociology as disciplines. The study of social relations and history does suffer from poisonous groupthink and a truncated range of questions considered worth of consideration. They did that to themselves. That does not mean that sociological study per se is nonsense, merely that it doesn’t cover the waterfront properly.

  14. Art Deco says:

    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,

    The dean of student’s office likely provides the richest vein.

  15. Western Dave says:

    I wasn’t comparing Hillsdale to Swat, I’m comparing it to Eastern Michigan University, where tuition is about 8K a year even if you through in another 10k for room and board it’s still way cheaper than Hillsdale. The debate isn’t about Swarthmore and Harvard, both of which offer generous financial aid packages and make no debt promises to their students. The debate is about how much state unis and lower endowed private schools cost.

  16. Art Deco says:

    In the interests of precision, Eastern Michigan is not a state university, but a state college with a ‘university’ appellation because it gives vocational master’s degrees. (We don’t do this in New York).

    Let’s see what the sticker price (tuition, room, board) is for some common-and-garden private colleges in my zone:

    Utica College: $45,000
    St. Bonaventure: $39,000
    Siena College: $43,000
    LeMoyne College: $42,000
    D’Youville College: $33,000
    St. John Fisher College: $39,000


  17. Western Dave says:

    Those are sticker prices. D’Youville, for example, gives discounts to over 90% of their incoming freshman. Same thing at Utica. Schools are unwilling to compete directly on price; they pursue the Ursinus strategy. When Ursinus tried to go national from regional, they had trouble pulling folks from outside their traditional area. Market research revealed that people outside the Northeast who hadn’t heard of it couldn’t believe the school was any good if it was so much cheaper than others. Ursinus doubled tution, gave everybody a scholarship and watched themselves ascend the ranks of national liberal arts colleges.

  18. I really don’t think someone teaching at a school as tiny as Swarthmore has any right to mock someone for suggesting that there’s room to shrink administration. Here at Purdue, where we have more than 20 times your student population, you simply cannot believe the size of the administration, or how many programs and departments and officers there are that have seemingly no connection to the educational enterprise whatsoever. It is incredible how many administrators work at this school. It’s not a question of only pilots and no flight attendants, it’s a question of hiring no new pilots because you’re hiring assistants for airplane bathroom attendants.

    And yes: I will gladly tell the undergraduates they have to make do without a vice dean of strategic planning for the operating fund.

  19. Timothy Burke says:


    I’ve really been admiring your blogging lately, so let me take a page from your book and say: this is not mockery. Both because I think you (and even Ginsberg!) are right: administration, especially at big universities, especially at poorly-led big universities, especially at overly centralized big universities, needs to shrink a lot, and because I think you understand what many faculty do not: that we actually have to talk about which administration jobs, which functions. But the thing is, getting there politically, as you’ve been noting on the adjunct crisis and much else besides, takes more than just howling at the moon. It takes understanding how faculty were involved in the growth of administration, it takes understanding what forces are driving this growth that do not originate endogamously within administration, it takes seeing students as agents of and not just consumers of growth, and so on.

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