Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Higher Education? Part II: Administrative Bloat


Read my brief, mainly positive review, here.
Read Part I of my review, where I wonder what a professor is really worth, here.

Right on target in the book Higher Education? is its attack of the administrative bloat of the university.  in the chapter attacking professors and their pay vs work, the authors point to the fact that professors are serving on more and more committees, increasing their administrative duties and taking time away from teaching. The authors argue that the professors are to blame because they want to feel as though they are being heard and that the university is truly a world where shared governance rules.  But is this a case of the professors willingly giving up their time for committee work that they initiated or an increasing number of committees dictated from the top down in order to appease the masses?

The modern university has an administrator for everything: counseling of all sorts, admissions, advisers of all kinds, coordinators, associate this, assistant that, etc. Experts are brought in every year to advise and administer to newest program to increase enrollment, improve retention and completion, ensure effective teaching, technology integration, grants applications...the list goes on and on. We have textbook specialists who can overrule a professor in their choice of materials for their course! It seems to have become an arms race between the administration and the faculty: for every new administrator, there needs to be at least one committee to "advise" them in their job.

But how much impact do these faculty committees really have on the day-to-day decisions administrators make? How do professors know what student advisers are telling students in terms of majors, classes, etc?  Should this function be in the hands of an administrator or an academic who knows the programs and the students, not from a transcript, but from the work they've done in class? The question that needs to be asked, who is the "expert" in any situation when it comes to the students?

I think there are a number of factors that has lead to this administrative bloat. One, universities are running scared of liability. So much of the bloat comes down to worrying about complying with laws. Not just research laws or grant guidelines, but laws about student privacy balanced with the worry that any student (and their parents) could sue because of whatever reason strikes their deep feelings of injustice. Two, universities are playing too many games: accreditation, rankings, government funding, private funding. While the for-profit sector in being burnt to the ground, the universities pat themselves on the back because they fulfilled their accreditation requirements by forming another committee and hiring another "expert" administrator.

Three, there aren't very many professors left. The majority of the classes in universities are taught by adjuncts, contingent faculty who are not well paid or (sometimes) well-informed about the university. Students used to go their faculty advisers (and some still do!) but when there are no longer any faculty to see, they are forced (or the university is forced) to provide some sort of guidance for them. And, another administrative layer is born. Faculty used to oversee all aspects of student life on campus. No more.

The authors deal with the issue of adjuncts in the book, making the connection between student success and the number of adjuncts they have in front of the classroom during their initial years. But they tend to lay the blame at the feet of over-paid professors who refuse to retire. Instead, they need to be looking at the administrative class, the ones who are making the decisions about hiring an increasing amount of adjuncts and an increasing number of themselves. More adjuncts have seem to have lead to more administrators.

Another unexamined phenomenon is that this administrator class is also highly educated. Browse job postings for administrative positions and the ideal applicant has at least a masters degree. This increase in administrators has lead to an increase in students seeking graduate degrees. The administrators wear the veil of an expert because they have a graduate degree. One wonders how the university used to run before there was a PhD in higher education administration or student services. Or how the university ran before these students were paying full-ride to get these graduate degrees.

And I think professors (at least some of them) secretly like the idea of the administrators. Because, at the end of the day, any failure can be put at the feet of whatever administrative unit was in charge. I would argue (or at least I think it should be examined as a possibility) that it was not the professors who threw away their responsibilities beyond their narrow job descriptions, but that administrators took those responsibilities away. Chicken-egg argument, but an important one. And as the demands from outside of the university kept increasing, the professors certainly weren't lining up to get those roles back. Who wants to deal with accreditation boards, government representatives, and layer upon layer of regulation and laws?

I would say that parents should ask, when universities brag about all of the services/specialists/administrators who are there to "help" their child, ask a) does your child REALLY needs this and b) is an administrator really the best person for this job? As a professor, ask yourself, does my committee work really reflect an authentic opportunity to participate in university governance or is it keeping me happy so that business can go on as usual?

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