The Fall of the Faculty by Benjamin Ginsberg

As someone who has been connected to higher education in some way since 1979, except 1986-1990, I have a considerable amount of personal experience to test against Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty.  I must say that I couldn’t agree more with his central premise – that there has been tremendous administrative growth in higher education and that this has largely been at the expense of the role of the faculty.  It is amazing how many associate vice chancellors there are on many campuses.

In addition to being a faculty member, I have also been one of those administrators having served as a Dean for five years.  There are many dimensions to Ginsberg’s premise.  First, there are many leaders in higher education who have leaders experience that was developed outside of academia.  Ginsberg quotes an association leader who basically says, “running a university today is very similar to running any other large organization.”  It is true that universities have become more complex.  At the same time this quote is largely wrong because the managerial authority present in a private company is quite different from that of a university.  Consequently, a different leadership style needs to be employed.  Private sector leaders typically don’t have the experience building consensus across shareholder groups that is so necessary in university leaders.  Business leaders are often turned off by the relatively slow pace of university change where it may take an academic year of clock time to get a single new course approved.

A second important part of Ginsberg’s premise that he doesn’t address directly is the career administrator in academic affairs.  There is a growing class of career administrators leading academic units (or, at least helping to lead as a “deanlet” or associate dean) who are far removed from the classroom and the primary student experience.  These career administrators may have started as faculty, but quickly realized their greatest career success would not be as a faculty member.  As an associate dean or associate vice chancellor they look after activities such as accreditation, faculty workload, student retention, faculty development, and the like.  These deanlets often have power because they usually have goodies to distribute to faculty such as course releases, a small pile of research grant money, and faculty development money.  These deanlets work “business hours,” 8am-5pm and longer, 12 months per year.

Ginsberg also illustrates the “follow the money” approach and hints at what I will discuss here, “follow the food.”  I am constantly amazed at what events will come with free food on campus.  If an event has to do with housing, the bookstore, various student activities, financial aid (ironically), student organizations, study abroad, and so forth, there is a good chance there will be free food available.  Yet, there is never free food for academic affairs.  If I could give away this food in class, student attendance would sky rocket!  There might be free food at an academic lecture if it has a sponsor, and the speaker is someone off campus.  Likewise, for faculty as employees, you have to go outside of academic affairs to get free food.  If HR has a training event, if anyone has one of the infamous retreats Ginsberg mentions, if it is an alumni event, if it is a meeting where the vast preponderance of those in attendance are administrators, there is a good chance there will be free food.  If the vast majority of attendees at any gathering are faculty, there is a good chance there will be no free food.

The expansion of deanlets is, perhaps,Ginsberg’s favorite pet peeve.  Having created an Assistant Dean myself, I would still largely agree with him.  In my field of management we have an aphorism that “work will expand to fill the time allotted.”  An analogy is that work will expand to fill the number of people working on a task.  The deanlets will be some of the most harried individuals working long hours.  The question is, is what they are doing adding proportionately to the excellence of the university?  I worked at a university that grew rapidly for about 7 years and saw administrative positions get added.  No doubt there were heavy demands placed on one deanlet, for example, so a second was added.  In a matter of a few months, however, s/he was just as overloaded as the first deanlet.

My final comment is about the faculty themselves.  I am not nearly as optimistic as Ginsberg is in his final section where he holds out the hope that the faculty can reassert their prominent role in what has become the “all-administrative” university.  I agree completely that it is up to the Board of Trustees or Regents to lead the adjustment.  At the same time, I fear the board who wants to change will find a reluctant faculty.  Ginsberg cites a colleague who avoided all administrative meetings and used that time to write a book.  There is no doubt in my mind that the professor accurately read the incentives in place and made a rational decision.  Many faculty simply want to teach and research.  They may have little or no interest in programs being added to the university that are outside their areas of expertise.  They may not care to participate actively in the university’s strategic planning process (depending on how many retreats that entails – but there will be free food!).  They may not want to sit in meetings about the appropriate price of tuition.  Part of the lack of interest comes from the lack of wanting to be accountable for anything outside of their narrow interests.  What stakeholders should a faculty member listen to, if any, about the costs of textbooks?  What stakeholders should a faculty member listen to, if any, about his/her bringing extraneous material that might be politically tinged into the classroom?  Faculty have contributed to this situation in a number of ways.  Not the least of which is the large increase in international faculty, many of whom come from countries with cultures where it is not appropriate to speak a view different from a senior administrator.

Ginsberg has written an extremely important book.  I wish he had left out some of the ad hominem attacks and other sarcastic remarks because they do make his message easier to dismiss by senior administrators.  If current trends in higher education continue, academia will likely be a very different place in 50 years, and one that will not serve the great role it has for society thus far. 


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