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A Retired Old Duffer's Blog Spot
STRUCTURE AND DYSFUNCTION IN AMERICAN HIGHER EDUCATION
August 29, 2008
This will be my last post to this thread. I realize that I am now almost two years removed from the current academic scene. It is best for me to blog about matters with which I am in closer contact. As my last entry, I will reprint a memo I circulated to the faculty and administrative staff at the university where I spent 33 years of by 37 year career in higher education. It was written during the darkest moment of that university's history, when administrivia ran amok and academic concerns were given only cynical lip service. Conversations with academic friends around the country convinced me that I was addressing a local manifestation of a general problem in higher education.
I'm certain that things are much, much better now, so consider this an historical document from the bad old days.
TO: ALL FACULTY
FROM: Gregory Singleton
Department of History
DATE: 9 October 1990
re: STRUCTURE AND DYSFUNCTION AT NEIU
I am no clinician, but I have spent enough time with Max Weber and his intellectual descendants to recognize institutional depression when I see it. The signs are clear: futile petitions with vague agendas, whispering in the hallways, low profile of key administrators, rapid surge in the number of faculty interested in early retirement, the beating of heads against the wall.
We have serious problems here. They cluster into two mutually defining patterns: administrative addiction to power and faculty co-dependence.
Let's consider the addictive problem first. I know a good deal about this, having spent the most miserable time of my life testing administrative waters at another university. I've been in recovery from administrative addiction for about ten years. Therefore, I have given a great deal of thought to what makes seemingly normal people become administrators (we know why the abnormal ones do), and what makes them behave as they do once they begin to exercise power.
There are four reasons why academics go into administration:
A. Monetary needs increase (e.g., the kid is ready to go to college and both Stanford and Harvard have accepted).
B. After a particularly uninspired series of class session and/or utter frustration after the umpteenth attempt to get that damned article at least started, one comes to believe that one has run dry of ideas and should probably do the students a favor by just leaving, but one has no skills marketable outside the academy.
C. As the result of a personal crisis one abandons the professorial modes of rigorous empirical investigation and speculative thought about the results of the investigation, and reverts to such primitive measures of personal worth as financial remuneration, size of office, grandiosity of furnishings, and exalted titles.
D. One feels that s/he has a grasp of organizational dynamics and an ability to get things done, and therefore has an obligation to gain a position where s/he can "really make a difference" (which implies, of course, that one does not really make a difference in the classroom or while engaged in scholarship).
Obviously, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Every A, B, and C speaks the rhetoric of D when giving a rationale for choosing an administrative career. In and of itself, that is no disaster. We can all identify with those in category A. We can all rejoice that those in category B no longer inflict themselves on students. There is no reason, on the face of it, why such people can't do a competent job of administration.
But we all want to avoid the category C type. This victim of good, old-fashioned status anxiety is a dangerous, insatiable beast. No amount of power is ever great enough. No matter how high the category C administrator might climb, there is always someone who has a bigger office, larger salary, and a more exalted title--all of which reduces the power addict's estimate of her/his own position. The result is time-wasting power-plays that do nothing to further the mission of the institution. These power-plays often seep into the discourse of the category C administrator who affect a conversational style that is filled with gratuitous explanations (e.g., "Inter alia--oh, that's Latin, as some of you may know.")
The bad news (there is no good news here) is that the category C administrator is now the dominant type. There are probably two major reasons for the increase in this category in recent years. Given the increasing superstructure of higher education, a growing number of academic Yuppies essentially bypass the professorate and come to their positions devoid of any lost ideas and ideals to lament. They are fully imbued with infantile fixations on tangible symbols of worth. Second, given the culture of administration (which slavishly apes what administrators believe to be the culture of corporations, and which is usually about twenty years out of date), the vast majority of A, B, and D types devolve into C. The acculturation of an administrator begins early in the selection process, and continues throughout her/his career. Unlike interviews for faculty position, where candidates are encouraged to speak with candor, the administrative search and screen process is an obstacle course in which the candidate is expected to avoid offending the interests of faculty, students, staff, peers, subordinates, and superiors. To win means to con. The winning candidate is then given an office with appointments which mark the relative prestige of the position. Everything exists in a pecking order according to the administrative worldview. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, administrators abhor free-standing entities. They perceive the professorate as subordinates. We earn less, our offices are smaller, and we have no clout: ergo we must be subordinates.
This reality construction is mandated by the same logic that places value on competition and acquisition. Put another way, administrators have bigger (offices, salaries, and Lord only knows bigger what else), and are therefore more important. To quote Clint Eastwood (the only time in my career I shall do so), they are legends in their own minds.
Once in a while one can find an administrator who is truly a facilitator and can do a great deal of good. But, more often than not, we encounter those who are powerless over power, acquisition and status. Their lives have become unmanageable.
Unfortunately, most of us feel that they make our lives unmanageable as well. While I do not wish to minimize the danger of the type C administrator, those of us who are faculty have often entered into a co-dependent relationship with them. This has the effect of increasing their power over the faculty and inadvertently confirming their addictive worldview.
When we waste time engaged in futile battles with the administration over trivial issues, we diminish the educational and scholarly enterprise. It is a drain of time and energy that can be better spent. I invite as many of the faculty as are willing to join me in a program of recovery from administrative co-dependence. This memo is already too long so I will reduce the Twelve Steps to Three:
GET OVER IT; GET REAL; GET A LIFE.
The first thing we must GET OVER is the notion that we can change the administration. Administrators at this university are appointed by other administrators to serve the interests of a Board consisting of members who are part of corporate and political cultures, and are themselves addicted to power. State legislation makes it clear that the Board has all operational power. We have power over educational delivery and development, and we should hold the line on any encroachment into that realm by administrators. We will butt heads and outlast them, but we are not going to change administrators. We have our culture. They have theirs. Attempting to "win over" an administrator is a futile activity. (Having already cited Clint Eastwood, allow me to redeem myself by introducing a quote from Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN: "All I say is, kings is kings, and you got to make allowances. Take them all around, they're a mighty ornery lot. It's the way they're raised." The same is not quite true for chairs, deans, vice-presidents, and presidents--but it is close.)
The second thing we must GET OVER is the low regard addictive administrators have for faculty. This brings us to the GET REAL part--Addictive persons with exaggerated self images are frightened and insecure. Administrators are highly paid temporary help, and can be axed at a moment's notice. The administrator, therefore, must constantly set aside principled action and please her/his superiors. Faculty, by contrast, are free to be obnoxiously principled. Of course type Cs have a low regard for us. That's what you do with people you resent. So GET OVER IT and GET REAL.
Some faculty resent the larger salaries administrators are paid. GET REAL. Those salaries are a function of the odiousness of the work and the instability of the positions. GET REAL about the administrative world-view. The purpose is not to degrade faculty (that is a consequence). The purpose is to support administrative denial. Every administrator knows at some level that s/he is peripheral to the real work of a university. But the core of their culture leads them to cling to the fiction that those with large salaries, bigger office, and more exalted titles are central, important, and crucial. Therefore, education is not the real purpose of a university; administration is. Faculty and students exist so that administrators can administer. As a result of this peculiar view of reality, administrators have disdain for faculty. That bothers you? GET OVER IT. Quit worrying about what a sickie thinks of you.
GET A LIFE. Actually, we have one--a noble and rewarding one. We are the continuous and central core of the process of higher education. Our task is not to capture the power to operate the institution, nor is it to become so entangled with the dysfunctional administrators that we also become dysfunctional. It is our task to determine the nature and direction of education at this university, and to deliver that education to our students. That is something we do day by day. It is not something the administration should or can do. The rhetoric of administrators here and in Springfield notwithstanding, I have not seen any real attempt to deal with the educational process. This is our turf, and, frankly, administrators would not know what to do with it.
This is not to say that we simply ignore addictive administrators. When they leave droppings on our turf, we must rub their noses in it (and I will confess that I find that a very pleasant activity). When we do this we must be very specific about what the droppings are and where they were found. Omnibus and continuous attacks on the administration are a waste of time and just feed their sense of centrality.
But calling attention to the droppings, necessary though it may be, is peripheral to both our task and the purpose of the university. Let us cease letting the activities of administrators dominate our conversations. Let us talk with each other about the process of idea formation and how we stimulate and guide that in our students. Let us share the joy that led us into this profession in the first place. The droppings are there, Lord knows, but we will keep them in proper perspective if we just get on with the task that both our obligation and our passion. We are at our best when we offer guidance to those coming to terms with the complexity, ambiguity, and contradictions of our existence. That is a task worthy of our calling.
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