Remarks on Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty

Reviews of Recent Books Concerning Current Issues in Higher Education: No. 1

Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford U P, 2011.

Ginsberg’s book has very quickly become a seminal work in the growing body of scholarly literature dedicated to higher education’s institutional self-examination. This literature has been written almost equally by administrators and faculty, who share a singular focus on the increasing corporatization of our colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, most of the administrative authors of these studies have expressed largely positive views of corporatization, while most of the faculty have presented decidedly negative views of it. What the administrators have typically seen as the salient benefits of corporate modeling in shaping the future possibilities of our institutions, the faculty have generally regarded as a further compounding of the trends that have turned our institutions into misshapen caricatures of what they have traditionally, and ideally, thought themselves to be or sought to be.

Ginsberg rightly notes that the rise in tuition and direct costs to students over the last three decades has led to a misplaced focus on faculty performance. In the view of the most vehement critics of higher education and, increasingly, in the minds of the general public, the tenured faculty member has become the higher-ed equivalent of the unionized factory worker: an overly privileged and unconscionably protected class whose great resistance to constructive and necessary change needs to be overcome for the sake of general progress.

The truth is that the competition for a decreasing number of tenure-track positions has led to a steady increase in expectations of faculty at all levels. To secure an assistant professorship, candidates now need as much published scholarship as a candidate for promotion and tenure needed thirty years ago. Despite those increased scholarly expectations, teaching loads have generally increased, incrementally but steadily, and the proliferation of “learning options” outside of the classroom has meant that faculty are now expected to supervise such things as “service learning” projects and co-op programs, as well as more conventional internships. And, although faculty at most institutions are less actively engaged in shared governance, the opportunities and expectations for them to engage in departmental, college, university, community, and professional service have proliferated. In short, faculty—even the more privileged tenured and tenure-track faculty–are working harder than they ever have. Furthermore, although it is undoubtedly an overstatement to say that they have been nothing more than wholly blameless observers to all that currently afflicts higher education, they certainly do not deserve the lion’s share of the blame.

Ginsberg places the lion’s share of the blame on administrators. He co-opts the more common phrase “administrative bloat” and gives it a cutting turn in denouncing “administrative blight.” Unlike some of those who have previously attempted to address the corporatization of higher education, Ginsberg does not focus primarily on the dramatic increases in the number and the compensation of upper administrators. Instead, he concentrates on the ripple effects of that phenomenon: the almost entirely unchecked expansion in the numbers of mid-level administrators and of administrative staff. In essence, Ginsberg delineates the peculiar institutional logic by which administration and administrative support have come to consume a higher percentage of institutional revenues than is now allocated to instruction and instructional support. Namely, anyone with vice-president or vice-provost in his or her title not only requires immediate support staff but also subordinate administrators with “associate” in their titles, who each not only requires immediate support staff but also subordinate administrators with “assistant” in their titles, who not only require their own immediate support staff but also liaisons to each other and to the deans and chairs (and associate and assistant deans and assistant chairs) who now form a distinct administrative level more immediately responsible for supervising faculty and those staff allocated to instructional support.

In most institutions, deans and chairs are not listed in the administrative hierarchy below the various vice-presidents and vice-provosts; instead, the two hierarchies are placed side by side as if they are parallel entities. But any review of the individual compensation and cumulative compensation allocated for the positions—and, more importantly, the support staff–within the two hierarchies will very clearly convey which is being given more institutional emphasis and resources. Ginsberg notes that between 1975 and 2005, the number of administrators rose 85% and the number of administrative staff rose 240%–all while the number of instructional faculty remained flat and the number of instructional support staff significantly decreased: that is, the savings realized by the development of electronic technologies have been quite dramatically realized on the instructional side but seem to have had precisely the opposite effect on the administrative side.

The most common argument in defense of the expansion in administrative positions has been that federal mandates, the explosion in technological needs, and the changing expectations of students, who are no longer satisfied with sparely furnished dorm rooms and a few intramural sports, have combined to create many extra-instructional demands on institutions that did not exist thirty or more years ago. But Ginsberg points out that most individual disciplines and the curriculum as a whole have also undergone very comparable, dramatic changes over the same period, and yet faculty have been expected consistently “to do more with less” while adapting to each new wave of innovations in course content and course delivery. Indeed, nothing more pointedly demonstrates the skewed priorities of our institutions than the much-changed composition of the faculty. As the number and compensation of mid-level administrators and their support staff have ballooned, the number of tenure-track faculty positions has declined by about half to about 36% of the total number of faculty employed nationwide, with non-tenure-eligible faculty constituting another 18% of the total, and adjunct faculty therefore accounting for the remainder of the positions, nearly half of the total. Given that adjuncts receive very minimal stipends per course, very few if any benefits, and very minimal if any instructional support, it is not hard to understand why the revenues allocated to administration and instruction are headed in opposite directions.

Ginsberg points out that faculty used to assume administrative roles later in their careers, the assumption being that they would have acquired enough experience with the institutional structure and dynamic, as well as with the personalities of their colleagues, to manage their departments or colleges effectively until a somewhat younger colleague was willing, in his or her turn, to step up to the task. But the shift toward the increasing corporatization of our institutions has created demands for an ostensibly “professional” administrative class. Ginsberg rightly points out, however, that simply creating a distinct class of faculty who rather quickly move over onto an administrative track does not necessarily mean either that those faculty will be especially effective as administrators or that the faculty who might be the most effective administrators will necessarily be attracted to that track.

Nonetheless, Ginsberg himself acknowledges that it is hardly the case that all, or even most, administrators are incompetent. If higher education had unlimited resources and administrative blight were not draining resources from instruction, most administrative positions might even be somewhat easy to justify. But, Ginsberg does emphasize that the continuing proliferation of mid-level administrators is leading increasingly to the creation of positions that do seem ridiculous inventions, as if administrations are, indeed, straining to define new functions and needs simply to sustain administrative growth.

On the other hand, almost all faculty have dealt with enough incompetent administrators to accept, on purely anecdotal evidence, that the number of incompetent and petty-minded administrators far exceeds the number of excellent administrators. In the spirit of that faculty bias, I would like to cite a wonderful retort to the cliché, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Teachers have turned the cliché around to: “Those who can, teach. Those who cannot, pass laws about teaching.” I’m assuming that you can very easily fashion your own snarky equivalent about administrators.

2 thoughts on “Remarks on Benjamin Ginsberg’s Fall of the Faculty

  1. Pingback: The Administrative Sublime | Gerry Canavan

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