28.8.11

SWARMS OF OFFICERS, HARASSING OUR FACULTY AND EATING OUT THEIR SUBSTANCE.

A few evenings ago, Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg appeared on Extension 720 for a discussion of his new The Fall of the Faculty:  The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, which might make its way onto the Cold Spring Shops reading list, time or interest permitting.  There's commentary available on line.  On one hand, the dean at Anonymous Community suggests that the attention to administrative bloat is misplaced.
Staff is increasing, but management is shrinking. And the staff increases are mostly concentrated in a few discrete areas: IT, financial aid, and students with disabilities. Prof. Ginsberg is invited to specify which of those he considers unimportant.
Let's break it down. Information technology: in some future Renaissance scholars will wonder why as literate a civilization as ours permitted the iVandalizing of the language by writers of computer programs and builders of electronic tools, and why university administrators provided a support service the freedom it has received to impose its choice of tools on the faculty.  For the production of scientific papers, my college has subjected me to training on Advance Write (subsequently Samna, eaten by Lotus); that then gave way to Word Perfect, but later some of the desk jockeys decided that the Microsoft Office products were more useful for their purposes, and when they got in the habit of attaching those virus vectors to electronic mail, we all had to have that suite installed, and sometimes we've had to install the upgrades on our own time.  Never mind that Scientific Word and Scientific Workplace are better suited to composing technical papers: that's our own effort to learn and modify.  It's not enough to saddle us with inadequate tools, oh, no, we can't run off paper copies of our course outlines and distribute them, those have to be provided on Blackboard, and we have to be proficient enough now on a potted version of PeopleSoft (another eIlliteracy) to make grades available.   The front end for these things gets done over from time to time, for reasons that escape me.  (The justification for the latest revision of Blackboard is amusing: wikis, mashups, blogs, group assessment; to add annoyance to insult, the table of organization of course tools is all new).  There is, however, a lot of work available for the people who decide that it's time for an upgrade and install the upgrade, and keep the faculty up to speed on the problems with the upgrades, and take questions about the problems that arise with the upgrades.  There must be a better way.

Or financial aid, otherwise known as the home office of the college bubble.   To some extent students rely more heavily on financial aid because state subsidies are smaller (that's a separate, and complex topic) but to some extent that's higher education pursuing enrollments whether the enrollees are up to the work or not.  Which brings me to student services.  The dean would put that division on the side of the angels by focusing on disabilities, but somewhere that spills over into access for its own sake, and the creation of offices, sometimes serving the general student population, sometimes serving only the scholarship athletes, for the preservation of eligibility, or retention and completion more generally.

Professor Ginsberg's thesis is that student services and financial aid metastasize, usurping faculty responsibilities and dumbing down the curriculum, in part by appealing to the better angels of the faculty's nature.  (Short form: package diversity as implementing civil rights, and sustainability as regard for the environment.)  Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars suggests that faculty dissent from politicized administrative bloat is misplaced.
Faculty members are deeply complicit in the regime Ginsberg describes, and administrators are in some cases the main proponents of liberal education in opposition to the illiberal views of a significant portion of the faculty.

But midway through the book Ginsberg offers an arresting thesis. In “The Realpolik of Race and Gender” he argues that “on many campuses the political commitments of the faculty have been hijacked and perverted by administrators.” The administrators, he says, have learned to play upon the ideological commitments of the faculty to affirmative action and gender politics by seizing these themes as grounds for building their administrative empires. They do so by “forging what amount to tactical alliances with representatives of minority groups as well as activist groups on their campuses.” The faculty, not daring to utter a word that might be mischaracterized as racist or sexist, sit back and passively watch as administrators “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 faculty cannot oppose.”
Professor Wood's vision is the tragic vision. Whether The Last Marxists are in the university administrations, and theirs is the responsibility for the coreless curriculum, the administrative bloat, and the bubble, or not, higher education's failure at its mission is sufficiently obvious that the public has lost faith in the faculty.
Ginsberg is lamenting a bygone era of strong faculty influence on the university and wistfully imagining a path to restoration. But one of the reasons such restoration is unlikely is precisely the public disaffection with what the liberal faculty have wrought. Blaming the consequences of political correctness on the parasitical administrators who learned how to use it to their own advantage isn’t going to persuade very many people to give the authors of the PC university another chance. 
Twenty years ago I offered an essay to the Faculty Bulletin at Northern Illinois.  It began "Universities are failing at their mission."  I'm tempted to post it (although, because the original is in Advance Write, and saved, if it is saved at all, on a 5 1/4" floppy, that involves a lot of typing) and take stock of what has transpired since then.

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