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**.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.