Who Controls the Campus Agenda: The Faculty or Campus Administrators?

Faculty believe that it is their right and duty to set the campus agenda. Faculty expect to establish – either directly or indirectly – the main thrusts that their campuses will pursue. In particular, they see it as their prerogative to determine:
  •  the standards by which students – both graduate and undergraduate – will be admitted to campus;
  •  the research agenda of the various departments, institutes and colleges into which the faculty organize themselves;
  • which academic programs will be emphasized and which left to wither;
  • who their administrative leaders shall be – from program directors and research institute heads up to chairs, deans, provosts and presidents;
  • the academic and professional criteria according to which promotions are decided, grants are pursued, prizes are awarded,
    appointments are made and support staff are hired;
  • the extra-curricular menu of their campus – e.g., who shall receive official campus invitations to speak, what corporate
    collaborations to seek, which donors to cultivate, even what campus clubs shall receive official sanction.

Historically, the faculty actually did enjoy the capability to do all of these things. This was in part because it was viewed as the natural way to run a university, and in part because there were no countervailing forces to prevent it. The administrative layers that accompanied and facilitated faculty control of campuses were fairly thin. That is, the percentage of professional, full-time campus administrators was small compared to that of the faculty. Furthermore, many of them were drawn from the ranks of the faculty (to which they returned after relatively brief stints in campus administration) and so although these faculty functioned as administrators, they still thought of themselves as faculty and deported themselves accordingly.

All of this has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. The number of campus administrators has exploded. Instead of a single dean of an all-encompassing college of arts and sciences, we see a host of deans spearheading numerous units into which the large college has been split. These deans enjoy the support of a gaggle of assistant and associate deans, dragging in tow scores more chairs, heads and directors. This is accompanied by a proliferation of new academic units on campus – e.g., Urban Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies and countless other ‘Studies’ departments representing ‘compelling’ fields of academic study that we didn’t know existed in mid-twentieth century. These bogus departments are augmented by a slew of ‘indispensable’ administrative support units and positions — especially at the central campus level – all of which has resulted in an explosion of assistants, staff and advisors. The academic pedigree of these lower and mid-level administrators is notoriously weak. They – and, unfortunately too often, their senior level bosses – are not culled from the ranks of the tenured faculty. Finally, the money has followed the growth in size. The salaries of all this new campus uman infrastructure are high – in some cases bordering on the obscene.

The net effect is that while faculty are often under the mistaken impression that they continue to perform the duties outlined in the opening bulleted list, they in fact do not. Increasingly, the setting of academic priorities, the discharge of academic responsibilities and the establishment of the overall academic agenda is under the control of a vast, over-centralized bureaucracy of campus administrators – whose allegiance is often not to objective faculty goals but rather to narrow political agendas.

How did this come about and what are, and will be, the consequences? Here are the means by which this fundamental transformation of American academia has come about:

Societal. The movement toward centralized administrative control of academia mirrors similar trends in other facets of American society. The most obvious is the gargantuan growth in power and scope of the federal government. Americans seem to be losing faith in their society’s ability to solve its problems at the local, community or family level and, over the last 50 years, have been turning increasingly to a powerful, omnipresent, central government to manage the people’s most intimate affairs. Similar trends toward centralization of power can be observed in American corporate life, health care and the media. It’s not surprising, therefore, that a similar movement occurred in higher education. Incidentally, the same phenomenon is prevalent in K-12 education as well.
Specialization. The trend toward specialization in science, technology, even in the humanities has been well documented. The result has been the growth of little fiefdoms all over campus. In order to avoid Balkanization, all of these separate domains have been brought under the control of the all-powerful center.
Universal Higher Education. The American people have come to favor the idea of universal higher education – everyone should go to college and get a degree. It is self-evident how the movement to mass higher education has abetted the dramatic expansion of academic ‘choices’ on campus and the proliferation of specious academic programs – together with the personnel to administer them.
Money. Society has been throwing money at higher education at dizzying rates (large government and corporate grants, rapid and substantial rises in tuition and fees, generous federal and state subsidies, lavish endowments). Well, money always means
power. Often, faculty are too busy or too naïve to devote the requisite time to gain control of incoming funds. Administrators, on the other hand, are most expert at grabbing hold of and directing financial resources to their own liking.
Politics. It is well-documented that the nation’s faculty are overwhelmingly liberal in their politic outlook – especially, in the humanities and social sciences. Well, a less well-known fact is that campus administrators are even more so. This leads to faculty acquiescence toward central campus control since the overall campus milieu created by central administrators meets with faculty approval.
Secrecy and Duplicity. Campus administrators excel at creating structures, which lend the impression that faculty are in control. Universities commonly sport faculty senates, faculty advisory committees, faculty members on the Board of Regents, and various other official mechanisms, which suggest major faculty input into university governance. It’s all window dressing. The real power runs from the President down through the metastasizing labyrinth of campus administrators who make the critical decisions.
Accountability. Suspicion grew over the years that life-time tenure appointments for faculty could lead to abuses (as it sometimes does). Structures were put in place to mitigate. Annual faculty activity reviews, department and program reviews and periodic academic assessments by both internal and external committees – driven by the administrative contingent – has further sapped faculty energy and power.
Hegemony and Fear. As indicated above, the liberal mindset is pervasive on campus. Administrators have devised clever and forceful methods to ensure that it stays that way. Faculty who buck it are ostracized, sometimes even forced out. More commonly faculty dissidents are cowed and silenced by the threat to their career posed by past ostracization of those who flaunted their opposition. Heaven help those, for example, who fail to genuflect to the Diversity regime imposed by campus administrators.
Adjunct Faculty. Another well-documented phenomenon is the startling decrease in the percentage of instructional staff on campus comprised of tenured faculty. A rapidly growing percentage of university instruction is presented by adjunct faculty. The
latter have little interest and virtually no say in campus governance. It is not surprising that the decreasing percentage of regular academic faculty has less influence also.
So what have been the consequences of this transformation of campus power from the faculty to the administrators? Here are four deleterious ones; there are likely others:
    1. Politicization of the campus. There is an almost all-pervasive political bias on campus. Faculty and students who don’t parrot the liberal line – not just on politics, but also in science (e.g., climate and evolution), culture (gay marriage and     abortion) and economics (spending and taxes) – are viewed not only as wrong, but often as crazy. It is intimidating, tyrannical and completely contrary to what the nature of a campus environment should encompass. Education has been replaced by indoctrination.
    2. Lowering of academic standards. Because of the spread of meaningless studies programs, abuses of affirmative action, pressure for grade inflation and the silencing of the faculty, the academic standards of the university continue to slip.      Campuses have degenerated into diploma mills producing clones of the liberal people who run the place, not independent thinkers with innovative ideas – which is of course what universities are supposed to produce.

    4. Prohibitive cost. The explosive growth of the administrative clan has led to an unchecked growth in the cost of the product. Tuitions have skyrocketed; students graduate (or don’t graduate) after incurring enormous debt; increasingly the supposed  payoff in higher income that a university degree is supposed to ensure is disappearing and finally, the worth of the product that the universities are selling is called into question.

    6. Bubble. Which leads to the increasingly widespread belief that higher education is our nation’s next bubble. The situation outlined in #3 above is unsustainable. And as Stein’s Law says: ‘If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.’ A major crisis in higher education is waiting around a nearby corner. One wonders if one of the outcomes of the budding crisis will be a return to a more prominent role for academic faculty in university governance.


    This essay also appeared in The Land of the Free at: