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No nonfaculty employee at any college campus in the United States will be surprised in the least by these observations, which may be especially blunt but are by no means unusual. One of the many unexamined but implicitly acknowledged truths on these campuses is that they are — despite the rhetoric of equity and inclusivity — deeply hierarchical. Or, to cite again the same piece in The Chronicle, “Traditionally, authority in the academy has been hierarchical and related to assigned functions, the most important of which is faculty teaching.”
While it is not unreasonable to argue for the centrality of teaching in the academy, it is problematic in any workplace to declare openly that the work of some people is simply less important than the work of others. Administrative staff are expected to recruit the students and to maintain the technological infrastructure, to raise the funds for scholarships, and to care for the physical and mental well-being of the community. But they should not for a moment believe that their work is as important — as close to the top of the hierarchy — as the work of those who teach classes.
It is problematic in any workplace to declare openly that the work of some people is simply less important than the work of others.
It seems fair as well to ask whether the unparalleled importance of teaching, as opposed to research, is reflected in the criteria for tenure and promotion at many of our most selective institutions, or whether faculty with light teaching loads are thereby neglecting their main responsibility, or whether tenured faculty typically afford non-tenure-track faculty the place in the hierarchy due to fellow teachers — but perhaps those are subjects for another time.
Universities are built around the primacy of expertise. Everything from the organization of academic departments to the most common forms of pedagogy rests on the assumption that in order to do a job well, one needs an appropriate level of training, knowledge, and experience. Yet the definition of expertise is for many very narrow: Expertise in an academic discipline — traditionally defined through the possession of a Ph.D. or its equivalent and through the production of scholarship — is legitimate and provable. Expertise in other areas without which the university could not function is at best less important and at worst nonexistent. The most extreme form of this view is that faculty experts have become burdened on college campuses by armies of incompetent “widget makers” who are both disposable and an impediment to the pursuit of the “scholarly life.”
I spent 15 years as a faculty member and confess, to my shame, that I sometimes held this view, or at least did little to discourage others from holding it. Now, having spent 17 years as a college president, I realize that it is both wrong and destructive: wrong because there are many nonfaculty jobs within the university that are both essential and require high levels of expertise, and destructive because a community cannot be both truly inclusive and openly contemptuous of a large number of its members. Of course there will always be things like organizational charts and reporting lines, but these are different from the blanket claim that the work of some people — many people — is simply less meaningful and challenging than the work of others.
The truth is that being a mental-health counselor or a residential-life director or a financial-aid officer — or a college president — is different from being a faculty member but not necessarily (or even typically) easier or less dependent upon the expertise that comes with training and experience. When people who hold those positions hear and read regularly — and if they read the academic press, they do read this regularly — that they are not only unimportant but actually impediments to the “real” work of the university, it makes their already challenging jobs even more difficult.
When administrators hear and read regularly that they are impediments to the “real” work of the university, it makes their already challenging jobs even more difficult.
I’ve noticed two particular tendencies among those who demean administrators. One is to lament the increase in various forms of training or education that faculty members are “forced” by those widget-makers to undergo (though in reality it is pretty difficult to force tenured faculty members to do anything). In addition to dismissing a variety of legal obligations, those who espouse these views tend to idealize the university of some earlier time when issues like sexual violence and racial discrimination could simply be ignored.
Yes, some of these training sessions are dull or poorly run, but some are not — sort of like college classes. And in general, an institutional culture that acknowledges the prevalence of these harmful practices and tries to reduce their frequency is preferable to the culture into which I stepped several decades ago, even if it costs me a few hours from time to time.
The second tendency is to extrapolate from bad actors and bad actions in order to generalize about an entire class of people or employees. There are indeed terrible college presidents and overzealous administrative staff members, and they should face the consequences of their behavior. But there are also terrible teachers and faculty who use the security of tenure to underperform for years. In neither case is it accurate to assume that those individuals are representative of the majority of their colleagues.
Here is an idea: The next time a student overdoses in a residence hall, call a faculty member; the next time a family pleads for more financial aid, call a faculty member; the next time an institution has to figure out a way to navigate safely through a global pandemic, call a faculty member.
They are, after all, the experts.