A few weeks ago I had a long plane ride and used it to read Benjamin Ginsberg‘s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters. Ginsberg, a distinguished political Scientist at Johns Hopkins, made headlines with this book and excerpts appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I was eager to read it as I expected to find myself in broad agreement.
Sadly, it is a terrible book. Its evidence consists nearly exclusively of politically-charged anecdotes strung together; its overall claim is only tangentially related to some of those anecdotes; and an inordinate proportion of the anecdotes refer to disputes that took place at the author’s own institution.
The overall claim of the book is that professional administrators have been ascendant in higher education, and that this growth is detrimental to the success of higher education in various ways. This claim is one with which I am inclined to agree, at least in broad strokes, but I found myself less and less convinced as the book went on.
The tone of the book is set on page 2:
…universities are filled with armies of functionaries–the vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings….
For much of the rest of the book, the folks under consideration are referred to mostly as “deanlings” and “deanlets.”
The book is made up mostly of incidents at various universities around the United States in which Bad Things™ have happened. Some of these are appropriately blamed upon the rise of professional administrators; an impressive number took place at Johns Hopkins, the author’s home institution. Hopkins is, of course, an elite university and an important place, but hardly reasonable to serve as the primary example of what the book holds to be a national phenomenon!
Consider this one:
A former assistant dean–or perhaps deanlet or deanling might be a better title–at my university explained that students need to learn more than academic skills…. a premier example is event planning…. “reserving the room, notifying Security, arranging transportation and lodging for out-of-town speakers, ordering food.” (11)
The quote is referenced to this article in the Hopkins Gazette, which certainly does not claim, argue, or even imply (as Ginsberg claims) that
Armed with training in a subject as important and intellectually challenging as event planning, students would hardly need to know anything about physics or calculus or literature or any of those other inconsequential topics taught by the stodgy faculty. (11)
The example provides a recurring epithet throughout the book: “event planner,” used repeatedly and disparagingly alongside “deanlet” and “deanling” to refer to university administrators.
The book proceeds along these lines for the next couple of chapters, deploying selective anecdotes to delineate “what administrators do” (chapter 2) and “managerial pathologies” (chapter 3). Then comes chapter 4, “The Realpolitik of Race and Gender,” which begins thus:
It is certainly no secret that professors tend to have liberal political orientations…. Faculty generally explain the academy’s ideological imbalance, especially marked at elite universities, as a natural consequence of the fact that liberals are smarter than conservatives (97).
References here include three right-wing books of commentary (D’Souza’s Illiberal Education ), Horowitz’s Indoctrination U , and Kimball’s Tenured Radicals ), plus Gross and Simmons’ working paper on professors’ political views; no reference is provided for the claim as to faculty’s beliefs on the etiology of the so-called “imbalance.”
The remainder of the chapter reads like many of those same books: a list of points at which universities have promoted diversity and other “leftist” goals, even in the face of challenges and controversies. The interesting twist here is Ginsberg’s claim as to why: “…a failure to placate the liberal left could result in demonstrations, disturbances, and the potential destruction of administrative careers” (99-100). So here, in the midst of a claim that faculty voices are being silenced by those of administrators, is a claim that faculty voices are too powerful; after all, they tend to believe in “…elements of America’s liberal Democratic agenda,” which is what the administrators Ginsberg decries are implementing!
Ginsberg critiques Hopkins’ Africana studies program, which had only four majors but “…a program director, an eleven-person executive board, ten affiliated faculty, two visiting faculty, an associate research scholar, and a program administrator. The program also boasts ample office space and staff support” (104). (There is no information about how many are taking classes in the program, which would be a better measure.) Again the ground shifts: no longer is it about administrative priorities nor about faculty priorities, but rather about the fact that students are not majoring in Africana Studies. How this constitutes administrative primacy is beyond me.
Later in the book comes a discussion of research funding and the misuse of administrative overhead.
Most universities have a grants office, often called the office of “sponsored programs,” or the like, which nominally exists to help faculty identify and apply for grant funding. In reality, the main function of this office is to serve as the administration’s tax collection agency….
Professors understand that universities must recover whatever costs they might incur as a result of the faculty’s research activities. Faculty, however, are already required to cover the direct costs of their research, including salaries, equipment, supplies, materials, and so forth, from their grant funds. Hence, they regard the high levels of overhead charged by universities as a form of double taxation… (181, 183).
No documentation is provided for what “Professors understand” or how “they regard” overhead in the university. The federal guideline establishes that F&A rates are set based on documented university overhead expenses, which is precisely why the cases of misuse of these funds are well-known. The plural of “anecdote,” it is said, is not “data.”
Finally, the book turns to “what is to be done,” imploring students, faculty, parents, alumni, donors, etc., as to how to combat the all-administrative university. Donors, for example, should be sure to direct their donations to particular programs, since
Unrestricted dollars… will almost certainly flow into the coffers of the deanlets and improve the quality of food served during administrative retreats more than the quality of the education offered by the school. (216)
Again, no documentation; only the assertion of one grumpy professor about the spending habits of over 2,000 colleges and universities.
As I wrote above, I am inclined to agree with the overall proposition that there are too many professional administrators and too few faculty doing administrative work temporarily in higher education. But this book does virtually nothing to document or demonstrate that proposition, and its wild overreach should make readers very wary of the veracity of all its claims. Too bad.