Administrators ≠ Leaders

[Guest blogger Michael DeCesare teaches in the Department of Sociology & Criminology at Merrimack College, North Andover, MA.]

I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

James Madison
Speech in the Virginia Convention
June 16, 1788

It seems that everywhere I turn, I’m confronted by references to higher education leaders and leadership. Senior-level administrators—vice-presidents, provosts, and the like—are now routinely referred to as “senior leaders”; groups of administrators have been recast as “leadership teams.” And in a recent essay entitled “Building a Stellar Team” Patrick Sanaghan attempted to coin a new term (with accompanying acronym) to describe a group of competent senior administrators: “stellar senior team” (or SST).

These shifts in the language of higher education administration—from administrator to leader, from group to team, from senior-level administrators to senior leadership team—constitute the next step both in the slowly changing culture of higher education institutions and in the structure of the relationship between faculty and administrators. They signal the next stage in the ongoing corporatization of the academy. Illustrations of the “gradual and silent encroachments of those in power” that Madison observed, indeed.

Amid all of these recent linguistic twists, it has become difficult to remember that administrators are very rarely “leaders” in the proper sense of the term. Do presidents lead institutions? Yes—and no (see the debate over the “leadership crisis” at UVA this summer). How about governing boards, and the armies of “vice presidents, provosts, vice provosts, associate provosts, deans, vice deans, associate deans, and assistant deans” that Benjamin Ginsberg (p. 20) lists in his book The Fall of the Faculty—whom or what do they lead? The short answer is: no one and nothing.

Interestingly enough, the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) appears to be the only professional association that recognizes the validity of that answer. Persisting as it does in using the traditional term administrator, the AGB understands that governing boards, presidents, and vice presidents administer policy and, to a certain extent, manage faculty. But they do not lead.

Professional organizations representing specific and legitimate campus leaders have existed for a long time. The American Council on Education (ACE), for example, which represents presidents and chancellors, and currently sponsors four leadership programs, was founded in 1918. But the explosion over the last four decades of institutes, professional associations, and other organizations dedicated to training higher education “leaders” has given rise to an administrative class on most campuses—a sort of academic petit bourgeoisie. Universities themselves have played a central, if belated, role in this development. The University of Pittsburgh, for instance, founded the Institute for Higher Education Management in 1999 in order to provide “a forum for exchange among leaders of higher education institutions.” Pitt began offering an Ed.D. in Higher Education which was “designed specifically for individuals aspiring to administrative positions in post-secondary education.” Harvard, arriving at the leadership party a decade later, began offering an Ed.L.D. in 2009—that’s Doctor of Education Leadership. Pitt and Harvard are just two of the universities whose names are on the long list of eminently respectable institutions, public and private, that offer degrees and programs in the training of higher education’s new “leaders.” Structured by institutes, professional associations, and universities, and backed by cultural beliefs, a dubious new leadership arrangement has been cemented in place: The more higher education “leaders” (administrators), the better.

But how to convince the professoriate to buy into it? How to subtly reinforce the misguided notions that administrators are actually leaders, and that more and more of them should be professionally trained to lead faculties? These are among the questions that soon emerged from the administrative rearrangement of higher education. And the answer immediately presented itself: culturally, by changing the language that we use.

The ultimate effect of a seemingly benign shift in semantics is a profound change in our perception of reality. As Susan Jacoby argued convincingly in her book The Age of American Unreason, we need only think about politicians’ recent substitutions of “troops” for “soldiers” and of “folks” for “people” to grasp the power of language to shape our mental images and, consequently, our thinking. Replacing “administrator” with “leader” effectively accomplishes the same kind of mental illusion and leads to the same type of sloppy thinking as replacing “soldiers” with “troops.” It also does something much more insidious. To casually refer to administrators as leaders is, by definition, to think of and to treat professors (and everyone else on campus) as followers. The language we use has the power not only to shape reality but to create new realities. And the new reality of professors’ structural position is here: we are mere subordinates to a rapidly growing administrative class.

This country’s fourth president worried that politicians’ gradual and silent encroachments would abridge the citizenry’s freedom. I worry about the same trend, albeit on a much smaller and altogether different scale. Substitute “faculty” for “people” and “administrators” for “those in power” in the quotation from Madison, and you’ve got an accurate description of the present situation at many institutions of higher education.

So what happens on a campus when “those in power” gradually and silently encroach upon the “people”? We need not look beyond this summer’s debacle at the University of Virginia or the ongoing disputes at Wayne State University and St. Louis University for the answer: the faculty rightfully engages in revolt.

One thought on “Administrators ≠ Leaders

  1. A wonderful essay! Thanks for addressing these important topics. It never ceases to amaze me that people who have spent most of their adult lives as students in higher ed, then faculty members, suddenly forget all of that once they become “senior leaders.” Is there a secret pledge or oath people take that forces this collective amnesia?

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