Meanwhile, the ratio of full-time faculty to students is falling, as are faculty wages.
The new ivory tower’s costs are only part of the problem. Unseemly administrative bloat also has a corrosive effect on the university’s mission. The focus on timely graduation rates, “student success,” and enrollment may be worthy goals in themselves. Yet the administrative vice-regencies dedicated to implementing these objectives have fostered an institutional culture that trivializes academic rigor and penalizes faculty who prioritize it. The American university thrived historically on the marrying of teaching and research—the idea that faculty should be not only competent in the classroom but accomplished practitioners of their field. But many of today’s administrators have little research experience and, rather than Ph.Ds. (the global benchmark of academic accomplishment), boast of esoteric degrees in their own administrative nooks and crannies (in fields like “strategic enrollment management” or “student affairs”). It is also not uncommon that administration rewards failure: Faculty who are mediocre teachers and indifferent scholars are offered career redemption when they are promoted to administrative positions. More than ever, faculty and administrators seem to inhabit different worlds.
Like any self-respecting subculture, administrators have their own lingo. Today’s administrative world oozes with invocations of “excellence.” There is relentless talk about marketing the university “brand” while employing mind-numbing mottos like “hubs of innovation” and “think and do.” During the pandemic, a staff report at UNC-Chapel Hill understandably characterized this insipid rhetoric as “toxic positivity.”
The university community faces an expanding bureaucratic framework that values visibility more than substance. The faculty faces an administration that is increasingly indifferent to the variety and nuance of their research and the substance of their teaching. There is more and more empty praise for faculty members in the form of prosaic honors and unimaginative “certificates of appreciation,” but less and less understanding of what faculty do and why. Even the focus on the intellectual development of students is being sacrificed to the vacuous goal of “student satisfaction.”
class.”In many respects, university administrators are academia’s answer to what has become known as the “professional managerial class,” or PMC. As Catherine Liu argues in a recent book, the PMC is comprised of educated professionals who embrace a moralizing progressive ideology while believing that it can be realized only in a top-down, hierarchical manner. The struggles of social movements and democratic processes leave them cold, as these contribute little to administrators’ hunger for professional recognition. Consistent with Liu’s description of the PMC, university administrators “labor in a world of floating signifiers, statistics, analytics, projections, predictions and identity performativity, virtue signaling, and affectual production.” Because they see universities as stages on which they are destined to display their own professional and moral superiority, they hold in low esteem the matters that preoccupy professors—sound pedagogy, academic rigor, publishing in one’s discipline, even reading books. While there is no denying that many professors are politically liberal, many still adhere to the principles of pluralism and recognizing the existence of multiple viewpoints on controversial issues. More than the faculty, the academic PMC is the source of the dogmatism that haunts contemporary academia.
No When A Stands for Average: Students at the UW-Madison School of Education Receive Sky-High Grades. How Smart is That?