Bashing Administrators While the University Burns
Denunciation, recrimination, and grandstanding are pit stops on the road to oblivion
Furstenberg joins a venerable tradition of scholars, stretching from
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Furstenberg joins a venerable tradition of scholars, stretching from Thorstein Veblen to his colleague Benjamin Ginsberg, who decry the misplaced priorities of universities and those who lead them. Infected by the mentality of the marketplace, these custodians of tradition contend, universities have abandoned their lofty (and laudable) mission as creators and repositories of knowledge. They have been reduced to mere finishing schools for the offspring of the One Percent. Their endowments serve as tax shelters for latter-day captains of industry whose philanthropic priorities conflict with, and eventually supersede, long-cherished academic values.
The elegiac tone of Furstenberg’s essay is justified. The following are incontrovertible: the adjunctification of the professoriate; the proliferation of deans; the defunding of public universities; the depreciation of the humanities; the sharp rise in managerial salaries; the comparative stagnation of faculty and staff compensation; the conflation of a university’s reputation with the fortunes of its athletic teams; and the asset-stripping that sometimes accompanies university partnerships with private enterprise.
The allure of mounting the barricades is almost irresistible, but what’s the point if we all end up guillotined?
It is not my purpose to rebut Furstenberg’s critique or to rationalize the injurious slashing of benefits. Yet his essay suffers from a defect that undermines its forcefulness — a false nostalgia for a purportedly lost Golden Age of faculty-led university governance, insulated from and impervious to market forces. This notion is widely shared in contemporary academic culture. It is also harmful, stifling reform when universities can ill afford complacency.
If universities are to survive the present crisis (and, sadly, many will not), a collective drive for self-preservation must replace the internecine jostling between the faculty and administration. Averting a mass-extinction event will necessitate a radical restructuring of the university, which can only succeed with an unprecedented degree of collaboration.
Myths provide comfort but offer little practical guidance. It is easy enough to conjure a vision of a lost academic paradise where philosopher-kings served as presidents, and departments were semiautonomous cantons. This paradise, the myth continues, was decimated by the irruption of centralized authority, the eclipse of academic by corporate values, and the corruption brought by private philanthropy and athletics. The only chance for redemption, according to this view, is a restoration of the prelapsarian idyll.
Among the drivers of the much-lamented “administrative bloat” are government regulation and student services. The former has added layers of compliance most university denizens applaud, including the creation of offices to uphold civil-rights laws and Title IX, unmistakable signs of social and political progress. Similarly, the advent of a vast support apparatus is not an affront to the university’s academic mission. The monochromatic student body of yesteryear has been replaced, felicitously and partially as a result of faculty advocacy, with a heterogeneous one more reflective of society’s diversity at large. Students from less privileged backgrounds often depend on support services to flourish, with staffs large enough to meet high demand.
This faculty critique of the contemporary university is predicated, then, on a surprising ahistoricity. Such critiques obscure from view the rationale for current structures of governance. If only academics were more involved in decision-making, Furstenberg asserts, the present calamity would have been averted! Leaving aside the fact that most university leaders are decorated scholars and not M.B.A.-bearing, philistine apparatchiks, his argument is both fatuous and difficult to sustain.
Take Johns Hopkins, for example, the largest private employer in the state of Maryland, with tens of thousands of employees. Management of a complex, sprawling organization requires expertise, something generally prized in the academy. Do many professors — notwithstanding their brilliance and prowess in the lab or classroom — possess such expertise? As many, I would argue, as the number of the managers maligned by Furstenberg who would be qualified to teach graduate seminars.
It would be disingenuous to deny that the status of the professoriate has been degraded in recent decades. Yet, at prestigious, well-endowed, private colleges, the faculty still enjoys advantages — from comparatively high salaries and generous benefits to slender teaching loads and regular sabbaticals — that are the envy of working people everywhere, including those in menial jobs who toil without benefits at universities. Tenure, though eroded and widely under siege, offers protection, security, and a sinecure, as well as the freedom to criticize one’s employer, found almost nowhere else.
These fruits are enjoyed in exchange for research and teaching of the highest caliber. Yet it should not be forgotten that these fruits are harvested from two heretofore fecund trees: philanthropy and tuition revenue. Much of the latter derives from loans assumed by students, with deleterious consequences for their futures. At public colleges, state funding has been replaced by tuition revenue. This is a source of great consternation. There is no insulation from the market. At my university as at many others, public and private, we are, out of necessity, in a market for students. And that market is shrinking because of demographic trends and accelerated by Covid-19. To sustain our institutions, we must adapt. Otherwise, we are doomed.
Denunciation, recrimination, and grandstanding are pit stops on the road to oblivion. This is not to say that faculty criticisms of university leadership are unfounded or invalid. But they are a dead end unless accompanied by the constructive aim of collective betterment. The allure of mounting the barricades is almost irresistible, but what’s the point if we all end up guillotined? What use is rehearsing old grievances if students balk at further indebtedness, and our revenue models collapse?
I anticipate one of two scenarios in the coming years. In the first, the familiar feuds persist, and the university edifice crumbles, with old enmities slight consolation for those who remain amid the ruins. In the second, instinctive self-preservation and mutual interest incite faculty-administrative cooperation, institutional moribundity is reversed, and a new university is erected on the foundations of the old. Viva la revolución, indeed.