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  • A students takes their seat for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

    A students takes their seat for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University | Photo: Reuters

The traditional role of a university as a place of ideas and academic freedom needs defending.

In his 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, gives an explicit institutional analysis that explains what many faculty in North America have been feeling intuitively as their institutions have changed around them.

The main change in universities in recent decades, Ginsberg argues, has been the rise of administrators at the expense of the core activities of the university - research and teaching. It matters, he argues, because administrators and professors have different worldviews.

To professors, the university is a means to certain ends, all having to do with knowledge: the creation of it, the development of it, and the sharing of it.

To administrators, teaching and research are means to the institution's ends. They are business lines, which an institution can take or leave, depending on what suits the current institutional goals (profit, or simply the expansion and growth of the administrative part of the institution). In an administrative worldview, then, closing down an english department or a math department and allocating those resources to a parking lot is a perfectly rational thing to do.

The tone of Ginsberg's book is refreshing, and I suspect very deliberately irreverent. Power in an institution depends on maintaining a mystique of insiders who attend exclusive meetings (retreats, seminars, etc.), who are aware of insider language (including particular fads and acronyms), and hierarchies of titles and authority.

Ginsberg describes the administration as 'deanlets', and pokes fun at their principal activities, including the production of strategic plans, media relations to maintain an institution's image, travel to seminars and workshops to meet other administrators in person (even if the topics of these workshops is the irrelevance of in-person instruction in the face of e-learning), and of course, the cultivation of relationships with wealthy donors.

The irreverent tone and the damning collection of facts, figures, and some shocking anecdotes describing the rise and effects of the all-administrative university fleshes out a core institutional analysis of how the administration came to power at the university.

Ginsberg points to three key developments. First, administration used to be done by faculty who did administrative tasks for a few years before returning to their scholarly and teaching activities. Today, university administration is an alternative career track. Many scholars who go down the administrative path neither plan to nor do return to scholarship, and slowly become what they are surrounded by.

Second, administration has developed independence from the faculty in two key ways: independence from faculty's administrative work was achieved by expanding administrative staff, and independence from the university's core mission was achieved by expanding the role of private donors. Even if public funds and student tuition still pay most of the bills, a relatively small percentage of money from private donors buys the administration, and the donors, significant control over the institution's future.

Ginsberg concedes that faculty are far from perfect. "They can be," he writes, "petty, foolish, venal, lazy, and quarrelsome".

But with administrative power comes new pathologies. Indifference to the university's core mission means indifference to academic freedom and the possibilities for real creativity, innovation, and social progress that can result; the treatment of research and teaching as business lines comparable to other activities results in shirking, squandering, and outright fraud and corruption; an administrative philosophy emphasizes preparing students for the workplace in low-level vocational and skills-training instead of thinking of the university as a place for human development, where students can grow and challenge and change their own views and, perhaps even come to think about what in the world they could and should change for the better, with their new knowledge.

An interesting chapter, and one I did not entirely agree with, was the chapter on "Realpolitik of Race and Gender". In it, Ginsberg argues that students from oppressed constituencies strengthen administrative control when they make alliances with administration against faculty. To Ginsberg, academic freedom includes the possibility of discussing and debating matters that may make others uncomfortable. Democratic rules of debate and discussion, as well as of academic freedom and freedom of expression, should be the guide.

The administrative solution, however, is to impose such things as mandatory trainings and Student Codes of Conduct - which, having a shaky legal basis, end up being unenforceable. The fact that they are legally questionable is irrelevant, however, because university administrations only apply these codes very selectively (and, I might add, in a politicized way).

My disagreement with Ginsberg in this chapter is relatively minor, but I will note it: it is only that students from oppressed constituencies are more likely to turn to (false) administrative solutions if faculty are unsupportive.

The entire discussion is about a key question: who does the university belong to? Here, we might get some help by bringing in another book, Christopher Newfield's Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press 2008).

In it, Newfield discusses the threat of vast social change posed by the possibility that everyone in society might join the middle class by universal access to higher education.

To Newfield, attacks on faculty privileges, on the obscurity of today's scholarship, on the humanities and basic sciences themselves, on the attempts to use affirmative action and other tools to make the university truly inclusive - all of these were tools to stave off the prospect of a universally educated, multicultural middle class, with the capacity to shape and change the direction of the whole society.

The ideas used to help roll this possibility back included: the notion of a meritocracy, in which the talented rose to the top in a society based on competition; the acceptance of inequality as a fact of life; the notion that market and business outcomes were the final arbiter of what was worth learning and thinking about. I would argue that, to the extent that faculty accept these latter ideas, we are undermining our own autonomy, our own academic freedom, and our own ability to contribute to the development of society through our scholarship and the development of our students through our teaching.

Returning to Ginsberg, who has his own ideas about what faculty have done wrong to facilitate the rise of administrative power. First, faculty have become too comfortable allowing administration to be done by others. Too busy to go to meetings? Too busy to take a part-time administrative post for a few years? Someone else is waiting to make those decisions for you.

To take control again, faculty have to become more active - at all levels, but especially on boards of trustees. Faculty have to keep control of teaching away from external and administrative bodies.

Second, faculty have succumbed to pressures to produce so many PhDs that the powers and freedoms academics were able to negotiate decades ago when PhD graduates were scarce have been eroded, in part because professors lack the power they had when there was no "reserve army" for universities to rely on. Administrations know that for every tenured academic in their system, there are others with PhDs who are struggling in the part-time, by-course system without any academic freedom or the hope of tenure.

Ginsberg concedes that this point, and the idea of supporting the reduction or closing of many PhD programs, constitutes "especially bitter medicine", and he has no obvious solution, only hope that through "regular two-way communication, members of the faculty and university boards might discover a formula for abating this unacceptable state of affairs." 

To Ginsberg's suggestions about what faculty need to do differently, I would add one:  as a cantankerous bunch, faculty disagree with one another about many things, from curriculum to labor relations to politics in Israel/Palestine. If faculty cannot have these debates openly and according to democratic and academic norms, and instead seek to use administrative solutions on those whose politics they abhor, they are, again, undermining their own place in the institution, as well as the core mission of the university.

If we use - and model - academic principles and respect free expression in debates with those we disagree with, we will be in a much better position to defend these principles against encroachment when our own interests are attacked.

Ginsberg's arguments were built on evidence from U.S. universities, but to anyone working in a Canadian university, almost everything he describes is eerily familiar and frightening. I have been recommending his book to everyone because, as he says, "the university can be a marvelous institution", and one "well worth protecting".


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