Monday, November 05, 2012

Administration as Academic Alternative

I had to smile at this piece in InsideHigherEd.  It recommended a more open-minded attitude towards administrative careers as options for academics who had trouble finding the tenure-track position of their dreams.  Among other things, it claimed that widespread faculty loathing for administrators as a class -- the term “evil” was used -- prevents good candidates from seeing possibilities that actually exist, and from seeing the good that actually gets done.

Unfortunately, it didn’t answer its own question.  “Who is this Admin You Speak of?” is actually a great question.  (I’m imagining a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Administration.”  “We drank.  We smoked.  We measured outcomes against rubrics.  We drank some more.”)  It even fell into its own trap, claiming that the violence prevention coordinator in the Women’s Center is “not faculty but not an administrator either.”  Hmm.  In the terms usually used when people rail against “administrative bloat,” she absolutely is.  

This Chronicle piece (behind a paywall, alas) falls into the usual trap, even though it seems to know better.  It points to an alarming rate of increase in “administration,” only to note in passing that the rate of increase among “supervisory” or “executive” ranks has been in the single digits.  (I’d guess that since the start of the Great Recession, it’s negative.)  In other words, it collapses “staff” into “administration,” and then uses unease with the latter and numbers from the former to imply some sort of Leviathan sucking up resources that rightfully belong to faculty.

Definitions matter.  

On my own campus, for example, most of the growth in full-time employment has been among IT and financial aid staff.  If you break down expenses into “faculty” and “administration,” they fall under “administration.”  But the new hires are mostly not supervisory.  They’re highly skilled -- database administrators do not grow on trees -- and relatively inexpensive for the skills they bring.  They’re incredibly necessary.  Other areas of growth include services for students with disabilities and institutional research.  Again, critics of “bloat” are invited to specify which they’d cut.  The supervisory ranks are actually thinner now than they were five years ago; it’s the behind-the-scenes staff that has grown, and it has grown in response to real needs.

To the extent that fledgling academics want to try their hand in administration, but don’t have special expertise in IT or statistics, I’d recommend looking at grant-funded programs that target specific populations.  These do a world of good for the students in the relevant groups, and call on the people who work in them to be utility infielders.  

The more traditional academic management route usually requires some level of full-time faculty experience first, though with the thin bench in many areas, even that is starting to change.  

The ideological gulf between “faculty” and “administration,” I think, dates back to the 60’s concept of the “total institution.”  Back then, serious people sometimes treated a single institution -- a hospital, a school, or a prison -- as a universe unto itself.  If you did that, then whomever was in power locally stood in for Authority, and embodied every resentment against Authority.  In other words, it’s a category error born of a sociological shortcut.  The truth of the matter is that both “faculty” and “administration” are part of the same institution, higher education, which is coming under unprecedented assault by people from entirely different fields, with entirely different agendas.  Colleges aren’t “total institutions” and never were -- they’re relatively small parts of a much larger whole.  Slicing those small parts into even smaller warring camps only serves to weaken a sector that already needs all the help it can get.  

Getting over that divide involves admitting that higher education isn’t a self-contained universe.  Which is good, because it isn’t.  It’s a small part of something much larger, and it needs thoughtful and dedicated people in every role.  The people who make sure the campus wifi network keeps running aren’t “bloat,” and the folks who help students develop study strategies aren’t, either.  In this political time and place, that kind of name-calling and blaming amounts to assembling a circular firing squad and hoping that it will make everything okay.

Program Note: Big Announcement coming November 13.  And no, it won’t be President Obama’s college grades.