Why professors so often run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

21 10 2011

Three or four presidents of my university ago (they come and go so fast these days that I’ve lost count), I asked the man what percentage of courses on campus are taught by adjuncts. He said he didn’t know. At the time, I thought he was lying, but after reading Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters I’m going to have to revise that assessment. I’m now pretty sure that he just didn’t care.

On one level, Ginsberg’s book doesn’t tell a professor anything new. Obviously, the number of tenure-track faculty at American universities has shrunk significantly over time, while the number of administrators has skyrocketed, particularly those of the middling rank who Ginsburg repeatedly refers to as “deanlets.” These deanlets, by Ginsburg’s account, face a continual struggle to justify their overcompensated existence. Therefore, they make the lives of the remaining overburdened tenure-track professors interested in exercising their prerogatives with respect to teaching and shared governance substantially more difficult.

Although the book does not break new ground, it’s greatest strength is its thick description of the administrative mindset. Sometimes it reads like Clifford Geertz at a Balinese Cockfight. Clearly, it’s a whole ‘nother culture in administration. I used to wonder how some of these people manage to sleep at night, but the answer is really quite simple: administration, to most of them, is an end unto itself.

This is precisely why I’m so concerned about who gets to make technological choices on American campuses: professors or administrators. I don’t think this issue is getting the coverage it deserves in the ed-tech press. Take this question from the Chronicle‘s Wired Campus blog to a Pearson OpenClass honcho:

Will colleges be able to control how OpenClass is upgraded and whether to accept new features?

While they didn’t even think of adding the phrase “or professors” after the word “colleges” in that question, much to Pearson’s credit the answer to that question does include us in the equation. Unfortunately, plenty of administrators are ready to cut tenure track professors out of vital teaching decisions entirely.

You think I’m exaggerating? I Googled up this old Chronicle article after reading about it in Ginsberg’s book. It focuses on a reorganization plan proposed by the Chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents a few years ago:

Mr. Manning’s plan…would offer cut-rate tuition to undergraduates who agreed to take courses online “with no direct support from a faculty member.” The proposal calls for fulltime professors to assume an “oversight” role as the university employs more adjuncts and asks advanced students to start teaching beginning students. It says that, in general, the university system should consider “abandoning some of the ingrained structures that restrict our approach.”

On the one hand, you got to admire the guy for admitting that courses are worth more when faculty teach them. On the other hand, what exactly are these students going to learn without “direct faculty support?” Why don’t they just go the library, read a bunch of books and cut out paying tuition entirely?

This explains why that plan got nowhere. It also demonstrates the value of faculty input in academic decision-making of all kinds, technological and otherwise. Too bad those of us who are left are so stressed trying to do everything else that falls under our job description that we have no time to participate in these kinds of shared governance activities. But as Ginsberg suggests, there’s a deanlet out there somewhere who’d be more than happy to take that responsibility off your shoulders.




One response

22 08 2013
On the phenomenon of bullshit (academic) jobs. | More or Less Bunk

[…] positions is Benjamin Ginsberg from Johns Hopkins. I’ve mentioned “deanlets” before in my pre-MOOC days, but here’s Ginsberg’s first use of that term in The Fall of the […]

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