University professors should understand university administration

Some time ago, I went on a little rant here, in a post I called “University administrators should understand universities”.  In it I complained a bit about university administrators who don’t seem to understand what a university’s mission is or how we go about accomplishing it.  I stand by that criticism (while noting that it doesn’t, of course, apply to every administrator).  But I’m here now to stick up for administrators in another way.  I’m really tired of hearing people complain that universities have too many administrators.  Yes, I heard all those folks clicking away in outrage.  For the few of you who are left, let me explain.

Twice just in the last week, I’ve seen university professors roll out the tired old attack on administrators.  Once was a letter to an academic publication arguing that professors are the core of the university (no argument there, other than to point out that students are pretty important too) and so we ought to have more of them, and fewer administrators.  The other was on Twitter, with someone asked why anyone who had trained in science would take on the “unimportant, undemanding, unspecialized, routine work” of being an administrator*.

Look, the argument that we need more professors, not more administrators, is superficially attractive.  After all, it’s professors (and the students, postdocs, professionals, etc. in their labs) who produce the direct outputs that universities are for: the acquisition of new knowledge, and its communication to students and others.  I think what I do is important, and sure, more of me (although perhaps not more exactly like me) would be great.  And it’s certainly possible that somewhere in the university, there’s an administrator we could do without.  But nearly every anti-administration argument I come across proves to be only superficial, because it shows no evidence that its author actually understands administration.

How could the anti-administration argument escape my charge of superficiality? Any claim that administrators are unimportant, and that their number should be reduced, has to do three things before I’m going to pay it the slightest attention**.

  1. It has to identify specific administrative positions that are supposedly unimportant. “Administrators” are a varied bunch, running from financial clerks to Vice Presidents and Presidents, and any blanket statement is just impossible to engage with.
  1. It has to come with an accounting of what the holder of that supposedly unimportant position actually does. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with someone about how we don’t need Position X – only to ask my conversational partner what the person holding Position X does all day, and to find out that they don’t know.
  1. It has to come with an explanation of what will happen to that supposedly-unimportant person’s tasks if they aren’t around. Are they tasks that don’t need to be done at all?  Or are they tasks that should be transferred instead to professors’ workloads?  (These are the only two choices.)  If it’s the latter, it’s incumbent on the arguer to show that those tasks can be accomplished more efficiently by professors than they are by administrators.

Have you seen the movie Dave?  It’s one of my favourites.  Kevin Kline’s character, in an improbable sequence of events, winds up in the Oval Office impersonating an incapacitated President.  In a hugely entertaining scene, after one night studying the US federal budget, he singlehandedly identifies millions of dollars in budget savings – by pointing at things the US government is doing, but does not need to do.  But: his character knows nothing about how that government actually operates (his ignorance is pretty much the point of the movie).  How likely is it that Dave’s overnight analysis is correct – more correct than decades or centuries of analysis by an entire government worth of legislators, professional civil servants, and so on?

Dave is fiction, of course, and that particular scene should require of its viewers a huge suspension of disbelief.  The fact that for many people, it doesn’t, seems to explains two things.  First, there’s our predilection for electing utterly unqualified “outsider” candidates to office (I know you think I’m thinking about Donald Trump, but let’s not give Ontario’s Doug Ford a free pass here).  Second, there’s our repeated gullibility in eating up campaign promises to slash deficits and pay for new programs by cutting unidentified (always unidentified) government waste.  Academics who revel in calls to slash administration (and we love such calls, and I’m guilty of occasionally loving them too) are committing the same logical blunders.

What’s especially disappointing about the we-need-to-reduce-administrators trope is that academics are supposed to be really good at stating hypotheses precisely and then challenging them with data.  That’s what we do (and not just in the sciences).  It makes me sad to see how easily we let this attitude go when it’s convenient to us – especially, when it feeds our sense of outrage.  We all love to feel outraged (this isn’t the only post here at Scientist Sees Squirrel that proves I’m not immune).  But if our outrage is about administration, and administrators, can we please learn a little something about it first?

© Stephen Heard  September 24, 2018


*^I’m not identifying either piece or either author, because I’m not interested in criticizing their particular pieces.  The trope didn’t get tired by being rolled out only twice.

**^This includes the inevitable response to this post, perhaps in the Replies but more likely on Twitter, that simply restates the “too many administrators” argument in its full naïve glory.  And yes, that will happen, probably within 10 minutes of this post’s publication.

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11 thoughts on “University professors should understand university administration

  1. Chris MacQuarrie (@CMacQuar)

    So I’m NaA (Not an Academic) but the impressions of upper level administration/management have an analogue in the public service.That is to say, we often don’t understand what folks in HQ (read “Ottawa”) actually do all day. A late colleague of mine did offer the bit of advice after he had taken on a management role for about two years late in his career. His only regret, after returning to his normal job, was that he’d not taken on a temporary management role earlier in his career (” an acting position”, in our parlance). The reason he offered was that being in the acting role offered him a chance to see how the other side of the operation thought and worked. He said if he’d experienced this earlier in his career he might not have been so hard on his managers, knowing what they have to deal with every day.

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  2. Eric Lamb

    Nice post. I have become more involved in administrative committees in the last couple of years, and have come to appreciate the many the admin staff who do the background preparation, efficiently present material, and keep meetings running on time (with decisions made).

    In the category of things we can get rid of with no regrets, how about the tri-council financial oversight? My institution is apparently spending several hundred thousand dollars a year on adding this (grant-agency required) additional level of financial oversight. This is on top of the 2-3 levels of review that every transaction previously received. One has to wonder, was there really several hundred thousand dollars a year in inappropriate spending going on before that….?

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  3. crowther

    The argument I’ve heard most often doesn’t address any of your 3 criteria, but does at least have a whiff of data: this school was doing great a decade ago, and since then the number of faculty has remained steady while the number of administrators has increased by 200% (or whatever), with no obvious resulting improvements to the school that the critic can think of. EphBlog (for Williams College alums, run by an alumnus, used to make this argument all the time back when I was reading it. What do you think of such arguments?

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, I’ve heard that argument too (I hear ’em all!). A good start is to ask what fraction of the new administrators are there to fulfill jobs around student mental-health support and student diversity (just as two examples). Those are things that we did abysmally poorly in the past, and doing them better does require some admin support. Of course, if their answer is “I don’t know”, as it nearly always is, then you can with good conscience simply stop listening 🙂

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  4. Peter Apps

    My impression (from government and quasi-government research organizations rather than academia) is that the problems that administrators and managers deal with all day are created by other managers and administrators – the system grows while feeding itself. Rather than looking at the problem as being too many administrators it could be framed as too much administration.

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  5. Tobi

    Certain administrative decisions just bothered me so much and whatever group (academics or administrators) is involved in making those kind of decisions, I will be comfortable arguing against having too many of those people in decision making roles. A case in point when I arrived at my graduate university, there were parking lots, which to me and other students there was nothing wrong with them. But within few weeks, they were torn down and remade. This was at a time when people were complaining about lack of funding for research etc. I doubt it that anyone that is familiar with the concept of opportunity cost would make that kind of decision. But then, I have been surprised before.

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  6. smirkpretty

    As an administrator first and only, I’m a bit anxious about stepping into the fray. Nevertheless, here goes. My colleagues and I are extremely dedicated to the mission of the university. In fact, I see one of my primary roles as that of Coordinator of Paperclips. Meaning, faculty should be focusing on research, teaching, advising students, creating cutting-edge collaborative proposals across disciplines. That good stuff.

    My job, on the other hand, is to help students take the right classes, as well as to find (and use effectively) the tools needed in the world that exists alongside academia. I help manage course scheduling, student advising, tracking degree progress, organizing admissions and graduation activities, and pointing students in the direction of campus resources. This is not an exhaustive list. By taking care of it on the student services/administrative side, faculty don’t need to be experts in that stuff. Students can then have the full attention of their professors and advisors on more substantive matters.

    I agree that a large part of what consumes the days of folks like me is the insatiable appetite of Administration – not necessarily administrators, but the kind of global force of bureaucracy. Things like assessment and reporting. Financial aid. Federal and state educational policies. FERPA.

    What I’d really like to be doing is focusing on increasing access and equity in higher ed by developing the kinds of co-curricular programming that is shown to improve graduation rates and career readiness, particularly for first-gen and other underrepresented students. I have my own professional commitments that brought me to higher education administration. Putting these commitments into practice is constrained by ever-increasing need (student need and administrative demands) in the context of ever-diminishing resources. This is a lament that seems to be shared by my counterparts on the faculty.

    As always, thank you for your thoughtful treatment of this ongoing discussion!

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  7. Billy Hunter

    I am an Early Career Academic, but have had a brief 9 month daliance as an administrator. One thing to bear in mind. University administrators / professional support staff act as a civil service. They are usually the people who implement policies, but the decisions are usually made by senior academics in executive roles.

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