Hot! Universities have been taken over by administrators

VancouverSun.com – opinion
May 15, 2012.   By Barry Cooper, Special to the Sun

For the past few weeks I have been working at the University of Erlangen in Germany. Apart from congenial students and colleagues, the most impressive aspect of the place is its lean administrative structure compared to what I’m used to. It got me to thinking.

Of course, universities have always had administrators, and the Germans are no exceptions. And they do love titles: the rector, for example, is styled “Your Magnificence.” In North America, such exalted personages, though with less grandiose labels, historically have been recruited, often reluctantly, from the faculty for limited-term duty. When I was an undergraduate at the University of B.C., the dean and later president, Walter Gage, taught calculus to engineers. Those days are gone, perhaps for good. No longer do academics set priorities for university life. Today, administrators make the rules and control the agenda.

When professors were on temporary administrative assignment, they never forgot the purpose of the university was teaching and research. Now, full-time professional mangers see administration as an end in itself.

Today, there is a fundamental conflict between academics and administrators. Teaching, research and scholarship have as their overriding purpose making public new ways of thinking or recovering forgotten old ways. Professors are as competitive as anyone else, and they enjoy making discoveries and introducing superior insights. They see the university as a means to that end.

Administrators see university as an end in itself and teaching and research are just the means. They think that the curriculum, for instance, should reflect what students, their parents, or maybe government bureaucrats want. Faculty know they are better qualified than anyone to determine what students should learn.

Across the continent, administration has become a growth industry at a time when budget constraints are said to compel the reduction of full-time faculty positions. Recently, for example, the University of Calgary offered mostly senior faculty a “one-time buyout” with no guarantee that their positions would be replaced. Such a commitment, they said, would reduce administrative flexibility.

One reason administrators have won is because there are so many of them. At the U of C, the “Executive Leadership Team” boasts, besides the president, six vice-presidents and two lawyers. More interestingly, the first vice-president listed cannot do his job, fundraising, without the aid of a senior director, four executive directors, 13 directors, four associate directors and 13 lesser officers, coordinators and specialists.

What do administrators do? They meet, attend conferences and organize retreats. Sometimes they have joint retreats with administrators from other universities. This is how they learn about “best practices,” which seems indistinguishable from mindless mimicry, the very opposite of academic discovery and insight.

They also do a lot of strategic planning. Then they update, develop, and revise it. When they are not planning or retreating, they produce vision statements and slogans.

If you wonder why universities are expensive to operate today, follow the money to the administrators and support persons. I doubt students come to university to enjoy the fine work of well-paid under-provosts and senior associate directors. They are more likely to find whatever educational value exists in the underpaid work of part-time sessional instructors.

Here’s a suggestion. Maclean’s annually rates Canadian universities and colleges with all sorts of measures. They should add a measure of administrator-to-student ratios. Money spent on administration cannot be spent on academic programs. There would be a measure that would mean something.

Barry Cooper is a political-science professor at the University of Calgary.Troy Media (www.troymedia.com)

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