Faculty Fallout

Administrators have taken over US universities, and they’re steering institutions of higher learning away from the goal of serving as beacons of knowledge.

Aug 1, 2011
Benjamin Ginsberg

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, AUGUST 2011

During my nearly five decades in academia, the character of the university has changed, and not entirely for the better. As recently as the 1970s, America’s universities were heavily influenced, if not completely driven, by faculty ideas and concerns. Today, institutions of higher education are mainly controlled by administrators and staffers who make the rules and increasingly set the priorities of academic life.

A recent study showed that between 1997 and 2007, the number of administrative and support personnel per hundred students increased dramatically at most schools—103 percent at Williams College; 111 percent at Johns Hopkins; 325 percent at Wake Forest University; and 351 percent at Yeshiva University, to cite some noteworthy examples. My book, The Fall of the Faculty, exposes this troubling reality.

The ongoing transfer of power from professors to administrators, who often lack academic credentials, has important implications for curricular and research agendas. On the surface, faculty members and administrators seem to share a general understanding of the university and its place in society. If asked to characterize the “mission” of the university, both groups usually agree with the idea that the university is an institution that produces and disseminates knowledge through its teaching, research, and public outreach efforts.

This similarity, however, is deceptive. To faculty members, scholarship and teaching are the lifeblood of academic life, and the university is an instrument necessary to achieve those ends. But to administrators, the faculty’s research and teaching activities are, first and foremost, means of generating revenues, not ends in themselves.

These differing orientations give administrators and professors divergent views of teaching and research activities. Administrators have what might be called a demand-side view of the curriculum. They believe that a college curriculum should be heavily influenced, if not completely governed, by the interests and preferences of potential customers—the students, parents, and others who pay the bills.

The faculty, on the other hand, views teaching as an end more than a means, leading them to take what might be called a supply-side view of the curriculum. Professors are more concerned with teaching topics they consider important than with placating students and other campus constituencies.

With regard to research, academics tend to take the view that ideas and discoveries should be broadly disseminated through peer-reviewed publications and presentations at professional meetings. Some professors, to be sure, are interested in the possibility of profiting from their discoveries. But most professors are more concerned with the process of discovery and the professional recognition that comes from developing new ideas in the laboratory, and they see any pecuniary gain to themselves as incidental to their main goals.

University administrators, on the other hand, view faculty research mainly as a source of revenue for the institution. They are not particularly entranced by its intellectual merits, except when commissioning puff pieces for the alumni magazine. In recent years, through the introduction of technology transfer offices, administrators have taken charge of knowledge dissemination. To administrators, scientific discoveries are primarily sources of hundreds of millions of dollars in potential overhead fees and licensing fees.

What is the ultimate purpose of these administrative efforts? Administrators say their goal is to financially strengthen their institutions so they may better pursue their teaching and research missions. If, however, we focus on what administrators do, rather than what they say, a different picture emerges. What administrators do with a good many tuition and research dollars is reward themselves and expand their own ranks. At most schools, even mid-level administrators are now paid more than all but the most senior professors in the professional schools, and considerably more than professors in the arts and sciences. And new deans are cropping up everywhere.

Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science, founding director of the Washington Center for the Study of American Government, and chair of the Center for Advanced Governmental Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Read an excerpt from The Fall of the Faculty.