ginsberg, the fall of the faculty

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 [1991]), Horowitz’s Indoctrination U [2007], and Kimball’s Tenured Radicals [1990]), 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.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

9 thoughts on “ginsberg, the fall of the faculty”

  1. Hmmm, you’re not exactly making me run out and want to read the book.

    Re professors viewing indirect as taxation, I think that is a reasonable summary of the naive response of any first-time grant writer to having to budget for indirect. The push back is to ask what the indirect pays for. Buildings, electricity, libraries, and the “research” part of a professor’s time that is paid for by the university rather than being a line in the direct cost would all be relevant. I.e. if your teaching load is only one course a term, it is only logical that your indirect would be a lot higher than if your teaching load is four courses a term. And there is filling out forms and monitoring compliance with a variety of federal regulations.

    Re the apparent paradox of the liberal agenda, it sounds pretty ironic, if your treatment of the work is fair.


  2. I was quite disappointed with Ginsberg’s book. I share a deep antipathy for administration creep and academic fads, but Ginsberg can’t get past his right-wing libertarian ideology to understand the processes that lead to increasing administration and a declining focus on real scholarship (which he doesn’t much seem to care about, only body counts). It is telling that his own failed effort to concoct a JH in DC program is uncritically presented as if it is an example of administrative hubris. In reality, Ginsberg was doing exactly what all deanlets and deanlings do—they concoct a scheme to create a new administrative unit, then they tout its merits and try to garner additional resources to enable them to be permanent administrators with extra summer salary and a decreased teaching load….only his scheme didn’t work and he’s pissed. I have an outline of a book prospectus examining how marginal scholars have an incentive to invest in the local rewards of administration, while more serious scholars invest their energies in research. The marginals go to meetings, volunteer for committees, seek administrative positions, and scheme to make those ladders for administrative mobility. The serious scholars invest in international reputations, and try to avoid local college politics and gratuitous administrative involvements….the marginals wind up in control….


  3. Sherkat: Does low research productivity and/or quality cause entry into admin? Or does entry into admin (or perhaps anticipation of, and preparation for, entry into admin) cause low research productivity and/or quality?


  4. The sherkat thesis is interesting, and I can see it working in general, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Looking around my own institution, I see several high administrators (including our chancellor and at least two top-notch sociologists, Arne Kalleberg and Barbara Entwisle) who are also internationally recognized scholars.


  5. No one model fits all cases, obviously. However, in general, those motivated to pursue novel administrative opportunities (as opposed to those who have to take their turn at administration, as I have as DGS and department chair), are investing in local rewards. Many do so with considerable gusto, and seek to carve out resources to advance their administrative careers. Exceptions to this are many, as Andrew points in our own field. For OW, People who mostly focus on teaching presumably don’t try to parlay this into administration—though I have seen many “teachers” try to turn a focus on their own teaching into the construction of a new university bureaucracy focusing on teaching. Universities can have need for such things (I wish SIU had centralized teaching evaluations and tracking of student grades and such by course—which we had at Vanderbilt), but I fail to see how most faculty members should be spending their time on such efforts.
    @Krippendorf, most highly productive researchers avoid administration like the plague. Few of the most highly productive researchers have done so much as chair the undergraduate committee, much less chair a department. Of course, as you surmise, for those of us who do, a price is paid.


  6. Alas, it’s all more complicated. 1. Benjamin Ginsberg is a seriously accomplished scholar, though most of what I know was long ago. He also has a gift for polemics.
    2. Re: administration and scholarship. In the lab sciences, one can maintain a very high research profile while holding an administrative position. Nobel prize winner David Baltimore ran Rockefeller University while generating, oh, 100 articles a year; he may not have read all he published, much less written it.
    3. And some people in humanities or social sciences have some odd gift of multitasking or compartmentalizing or something. Peter Stearns, provost at George Mason, is a massively prolific historian; political scientist Sid Verba served as director of the library at Harvard for hundreds of years, and continued to manage a major scholarly output. My colleague Dave Snow chaired at Arizona for nearly a decade–but you probably know far more about his research. They may have all been more productive without administrative burdens, but…
    4. Administration and research require different skill sets, as well as foci. Sometimes they come together, but not always.
    5. I think it makes more sense to look at institutions, structures, and constraints, than psychological dispositions of people who choose to manage.


  7. No doubt it is more complicated. First, yes, Ginsberg is a distinguished scholar, as I noted in the original post. Second, I take Sherkat’s thesis to be essentially structural, not personality-based:

    • Scholars without particularly impressive scholarly productivity choose administration as an opportunity for “local rewards”; and
    • Scholars who choose administration end up producing less impressive scholarship.

    I remain unconvinced of the thesis, but I don’t think it depends on psychological dispositions.


  8. I took on an administrative role (oversight of about 50 part-time instructors from various disciplines, while still teaching a 3/2 load) when asked b/c there was simply no one else available to do it after an unanticipated personnel change. I hadn’t ever anticipated it or looked for any such opportunities, but I do it because…someone has to. I find it a little dispiriting that people who are “serious scholars” would take such a negative view of service. Someone HAS to evaluate all new instructors’ courses to be sure they’re high-quality, and complete the course objectives assessments that are required as part of the regular reports that must be submitted to accreditation agencies, and be on call if an adjunct has a technical glitch in their 7 p.m. computer lab course and needs help fixing it.

    I have come to have much more appreciation for other administrators, on whom I rely to do my job, and whose own jobs I have a much better picture of now. I guess one way to view this would be to interpret me as a sub-par researcher who now sees a different path opening up for me, so I need to mentally invest in administration and view it as inherently important. But I also think it’s easy to write off administration as contributing little because most of us don’t necessarily have a very good idea of exactly what the dept. chair or dean does. I honestly had no idea how long it could take to thoroughly evaluate a single online course, or help design a flyer for a college fair recruitment event, or quickly put together some student demographic data the Board of Regents demanded for some Complete College America thing they’re doing that you never even hear of until 2 minutes ago but they want emailed to them before 5, or the million other unexpected things that can eat up hours of any given day.

    And again…we can say that anyone with any sense, or who really cared about research, would know to avoid this, but someone has to do it, whether on a rotating basis among all the faculty, or people appointed or elected by faculty to the position.


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