That bloated administration: a look back at The Fall of the Faculty

In 2011 Benjamin Ginsberg published The Fall of the Faculty, a passionate argument that American higher education was being taken over by a cadre of administrators (publisher; my book store).  These administrators, most especially deans and deanlets, were sapping the faculty’s roles, soaking up resources, and generally ruining academia.  I’m not sure if the book introduced the phrase “administrative bloat,” but if it didn’t, it certainly gave the term a big push into our discourse.

How does it stand up in 2018?

Ginsberg_FallI’ll begin with a quick overview of the book, then add some reflections.

The central conceit is that for several decades administrators have been running a campaign to take over colleges and universities.  This movement includes expanding the number and variety of administrators:

[U]niversities are filled with armies of functionaries – the vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings, each commanding staffers and assistants – who, more and more, direct the operations of every school. (2)

That population also arrogates a great deal of resources and local political power.  Ultimately the administrators exert control over faculty functions, beginning with governance, then advancing to curriculum and teaching, before compromising academic freedom.  Along the way some benign administrators try to minimize harm.  Otherwise these non-faculty campus denizens behave themselves badly, ranging from wasting time and money to destroying academic programs, and even committing a variety of white collar crimes.

I think today’s academic audience would find some points to support in this book.  The argument that senior administrators are too well compensated and the data on overall administrative numbers having grown more rapidly than those of the faculty will find many receptive readers. (23ff)  Administrative spending has continued to grow since the book appeared (for example), which might confirm its diagnosis. Additionally, Ginsberg’s focus on non-faculty staff gives a new context for complaints about money-losing student athletics (78).

There’s an interesting early sign of the queen sacrifice in the book. Ginsburg identifies an administrative tactic of using financial crises to redo the curriculum (9).  “For the most part, liberal arts programs were to be cut in favor of the business curriculum…”

At another level, The Fall is an appealing mix of personal reflection with extensive research.  It is clearly organized and its arguments easy to follow.  The author offers many very short narratives depicting administrative bad behavior, which neatly embody his ideas and data.  As Alan Scott notes, the authorial voice is that of a prosecutor.

On the negative side, there are some observations and arguments which 2018’s readers might deem problematic.  At one point Ginsberg slams the idea of learning outside the classroom by sneering that “students did not come to [Johns] Hopkins [University] to work with our dining services personnel, our counselors, or even our distinguished administrators…” (20) Advocates for student life would surely object to this.  Supporters of libraries, like myself, would argue that Ginsberg misses the way students learn from librarians.  The reader can add more examples.

Throughout the book Ginsberg comes close to committing a mistake I like to correct, which is conflating all non-faculty campus staff with senior administrators.  He does admit that there are other staff who aren’t as grandiose as deanlets (“information technology specialists, counselors, auditors, accountants, admission officers…”, 24), but they rarely appear in the book.   The Fall is mostly about middle managers and especially senior administrative leaders, not the numerous staff.

In fact, when the book recognizes those staff, it denigrates their professionalism in favor of deeming them senior administration spies:

These “other professionals”… work for the administration and serve as its arms, legs, eyes, ears, and mouthpieces.  Administrative staffers do not work for or, in many cases, even share information with the faculty. (25)

That those other professionals might work with faculty escapes notice.  That they might conduct their valuable work without being deanlet minions similarly fails to appear.  In fact, many of those professionals do work for faculty in the sense that they are, to various extents, supervised or otherwise influenced by faculty members.  Think of faculty governance in budgeting, or the role of faculty on library or technology committees.  Instead of seeing this broader complexity of staff roles and relationships, the author lumps all staff under the header of “management” (29).


Ginsberg goes still further in mocking administrators.  Archly, he writes that “[m]any administrators have neither the ability nor the inclination to develop their own ideas or write their own words.” (93-4)  “Generally speaking, a million-dollar president could be kidnapped by space aliens and it would be weeks or even months before his or her absence from campus was noticed.” (164)  “[T]oday’s senior administrators have no more institutional constancy or loyalty than the mercenary managers of other enterprises.” (169)

At every college and university there are excellent, talented, hard-working administrators.  But, there are too many administrators, and large numbers have little to do besides attend meetings and retreats and serve as agents of administrative imperialism. (218)

He even takes time to mock student athletes as “gangs of large dummies… [who] beat one another to a pulp” (171).  Ultimately the repeated viciousness of the book’s style seems designed to irk all academics but a core readership of some tenured faculty members.

When it comes to faculty members, the book takes a very different tone and with a very narrow focus.  Most of its arguments involve tenure-track faculty, those with campus governance powers and a guarantee of academic freedom.  Only twice in Fall the most numerous segment of the professoriate appears: adjuncts, who lack both governance and academic freedom’s guarantee, not to mention benefits and others of support. Otherwise the book is primarily concerned not with faculty per se, but a shrinking minority of that population.

Curiously, Ginsberg largely blames senior administration for the adjunct crisis, describing the transformation of the professoriate as another instance of the (tenured) faculty’s decline (19, 163).  However, surely tenured faculty must shoulder blame for the adjunctification of the faculty, starting with those at the research-I universities which insist on overproducing PhDs.  Beyond those campuses department chairs hire adjuncts.  Division leaders help organize the allocation of resources towards teaching.  And faculty governance, which hasn’t fully disappeared, can’t evade some responsibility here.

Elsewhere, the book’s account of the academy sketches an odd view of its economics.  Ginsberg seems to criticize administrators for successfully fundraising (42) and for some attending professional meetings subsidized by corporations (47), but without seeming to recognize changes in higher education finance.  That states have dropped their public university support levels, that costs have escalated across the board, which necessitates greater fundraising, doesn’t really register.  The corrupting influence of companies is hinted at, although it seems mostly to be a description of unduly lavish junkets; the major changes in privatization and compensation sweeping the American economy surely merit some mention.  Along these lines John Holmwood criticizes the book for not naming neoliberalism as a cause, then goes further:

Ginsberg’s… concern is to assert the autonomy of faculty, with that, in turn, associated with the autonomy of the university. He seems unaware that the latter has been transfigured. It is no longer an autonomy that serves academic freedom, curiosity and the capacity to produce alternative visions of society that he endorses, but a wish to be free of government control and regulation. This kind of autonomy is no different from that claimed by any chief executive of any other corporation.

Returning to the administration, the author mocks planning in ways many academics would recognize.  Strategic planning can be secretive, take too much time, generate identical mission statements, and be ignored once published (47ff).  Yet The Fall of the Faculty doesn’t offer much of an alternative to strategic planning beyond a nostalgic look back at a time one (or two) generation(s) past when faculty members could somehow manage a modern and complex university as a kind of genteel sideline to their real work.  How this could work after a generation wherein campuses expanded their population, accrued more regulatory burdens, and have to cope with escalating financial crises is undescribed.

Perhaps most problematic for readers in 2018 is Ginsberg’s description of gender, race, and ethnic studies programs as largely created and maintained for administrative purposes (97ff).  In this key chapter we see campus leaders taking advantage of progressive student movements to build social justice centers.  Otherwise deanlets arrange for tenure lines out of proportion to the number of students taking classes or majoring in the topic (104). The goal is the aggregation of power and outflanking faculty.

Put simply, university administrators will often package proposals designed mainly to enhance their own power on campus as altruistic and public-spirited efforts to promote social and political goals, such as equality and diversity, that the faculty cannot oppose. (101)

[U]nder the rubric of diversity, administrators are seeking and finding ways to enhance their power vis-a-vis the faculty. (116)

This description surely does a disservice to many players, including student activists, not to mention administrators who may honestly agree with these politics.  Indeed, Ginsberg’s account leaves open the idea of a campus with senior leaders more progressive than their faculty; would the other prefer to see gender, racial, and ethnic centers not appear as a result?  On a related note, the same campus leaders promulgate speech codes – not to protect students, but to control the speech of faculty members. (116ff)

Borg_dockingstationMany reviewers have complained that the book’s proposed solutions are too weak, and they are right.  The author concludes with nearly a sigh of resignation, comparing the administrative movement to the Borg (219). The most useful attempt at a fix is to get more faculty on boards of trustees (210).  Ginsberg also calls for the reduction in size of PhD programs (215), something I support.

There are other problems which I don’t have the time to get into.  For one, Ginsberg repeats the widely discredited Bennett Hypothesis (that federal support for higher ed drives tuition higher) without attribution or sourcing, which might help explain his views about college financing. (54)

Fall of the Faculty remains a touchstone for criticism of the modern academic administration.  It is less an analysis than a jeremiad, a fierce cry to arms and bitter denunciation of the present day.  Its flaws and shortfalls stem from that nature.  In particular the attacks on professional staff are offensive to many hard-working academics.

On balance, the book is important and useful, but needs not only a large grain of salt from the reader, but the addition of supplemental works for anyone interested in a fuller picture of American colleges and universities.  Ginsberg may have sketched out some ways tensions can unfold between the professoriate and all other campus staff.

(administration photo by kersy83; Borg photo by Marcin Wichary – originally posted to Flickr as [1], CC BY 2.0, Link)


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5 Responses to That bloated administration: a look back at The Fall of the Faculty

  1. Mark Ulett says:

    {full disclosure, I haven’t read the book, but I did love this review!}

    One question that came to mind from reading this is a simple mathematical question: What percentage of the administrators being criticized used to be faculty or have faculty experience? I would think this number would be quite high, given the job descriptions and the background of the administrators I’ve met. (Of course that doesn’t include the administrative ‘friendly fire’ where the custodial staff making minimum wage is decried as evil because the president makes seven figures. But this holds for the people being criticized).

    The book, like so many arguments of this nature, seems to rely on a strong dichotomy between faculty and administrators. These us vs. them arguments make for good reading because we all love a good villain, but I wonder the implications if 60 or 70% of these evildoers were faculty themselves a few years ago. And many go back to faculty appointments after they have done their tour(s) of duty. At the very least, the fact that most admin are ex faculty might seem to skew his argument into some form of ‘we loyalists were betrayal by a small group of turncoats’. Villains>Betrayal, so he may have made a good choice from the literary perspective.

    Clearly there is much to contemplate in this book, and in this review. I, for one, would like to see a competitive performance analysis between comparable universities of two groups 2010-2020: strong faculty governance and weak faculty governance. Looking at retention figures, enrollment, employee engagement, etc. over the decade where changes accelerated and enrollment declined.

    I, for one, find it hard to believe that the Dean of Student Success is really what’s “wrong” with higher education.

    Great post, Bryan. Thanks as always for the cognitive stimulation!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you, Mark, for the kind words and many thoughts.

      That kind of competitive performance analysis would be fascinating.

      “What percentage of the administrators being criticized used to be faculty or have faculty experience?” Ginsberg argues – and I think he’s right – that that percentage had dropped over the past few decades. He describes a golden age where administration was done entirely by faculty, mostly as a kind of side gig; things have fallen with the appearance of professional (although he avoid the word) administration.

  2. Two contributions to make here: There was no mention here of the change in staffing with respect to serving the needs of new online degree program development, though I contend that in the years post-2011, more institutions tossed their hats into the online ring.

    Second, and more importantly, I could not locate any “Deanlet” positions within the University Title Generator, which is a disappointment.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good thoughts, Steve.

      Ginsberg only glancingly touches on online learning, and then to dismiss it as not involving enough faculty content.

  3. Bill Benzon says:

    Hmmm…. I wonder. I’ve not read the book, Bryan, and read your review quickly, but I did notice that Ginsburg was on the faculty at Johns Hopkins, where I did my undergraduate work. When I arrived at Hopkins Milton Eisenhower (brother of Ike) was president. He resigned and was replaced by one Lincoln Gordon, who was forced out by the faculty after only four years. His Wikipedia entry reports:

    During his tenure, students and faculty briefly occupied the university’s executive offices to protest against the Vietnam War[18] [20] despite the fact that Gordon had expressed opposition to the Vietnam War.[3] He also took part in a campus-wide discussion over military recruiting on campus and whether ROTC should have a place at Johns Hopkins.[21] During his tenure, the university was suffering a financial crisis, with an operating deficit of more than $4 million.[3] The crisis caused Gordon to order budget cuts, which in turn caused faculty protests.[3] Faculty were angered because while Gordon was cutting teaching positions, he was increasing the size of the University’s administration. He also incurred student wrath when he re-wrote the student conduct code.

    Notice that penultimate sentence, which I’ve underlined.

    Now, Ginsburg didn’t arrive at Hopkins until 20 years after the coup. But I can imagine that it gave rise to stories that got repeated around the lunch table in the faculty club, etc. I wonder if he heard stories of the days of faculty power and the glorious revolution and has been waxing nostalgic ever since.

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