Disruption-ism and the modern university

We all know about the administrative over-kill problem in today’s universities, right? The number of administrators keeps growing, and they’re getting some eye-popping salaries– my own university is a typically impoverished rust-belt institution, with no signs we’re sky-rocketing in the rankings, but our president made $696,970 in 2015-2016, plus free housing and various other perks– and he only ranked thirty-fifth among presidents of state universities. (In the private sector, the salaries go way higher– Columbia U’s president made about 4 million that year.) Meanwhile, all over the country tuition’s up, faculty numbers are steady or shrinking, and a huge amount of teaching gets done by underpaid temporary faculty.

So the administrator problem is partly about resource allocation — the costs of administering the university are taking up resources that could be supporting students, research, and teaching.

But there’s another side to the administrator problem, which comes from the way administrative careers work these days. Once upon a time, colleges just moved the chair of Chemistry or Classics or whatever into deanships, then when their term was up, another local stepped in, and the former dean went back to the classroom. But now there’s a general hunger for newcomers, people from other colleges who can bring in new perspectives and aren’t bound by local habits and attachments. The idea is, an administrator isn’t there just to make things run smoothly and check that everyone’s doing their job. Administration is now about shaking things up and innovating, disrupting, just like we imagine happening in the business world. So more and more, there’s a national administrator career track, with lots of movement as people climb the ladder from one job to a more important one, and go from one college to another– usually from a lower-level school to a better one, though that gets complicated, since sometimes you have to move to a lesser school to find a higher-level position.

There are obvious problems with that system, and also some that are less obvious but more pernicious. The obvious ones come from the costs and friction you get with any job turn-over. Nowadays replacing a dean means a national search, and that means five- or six-figure expenses for hotels, airfares, dinners, and moving expenses when the new person actually shows up; my own university (did I mention we’re impoverished?) even uses head-hunter firms to locate candidates, which adds to the cost. Then there’s the time the new dean spends getting to know the campus and its systems, rearranging office staff and furniture, etc etc etc. It adds up to real money.

But the real bad news isn’t about the finances, it’s about what success on the career ladder now requires– namely, some dramatic accomplishment in your previous job, something that demonstrates you’re the one to bring the new thinking and innovation to your new job. That’s one of the standard dean-interview questions– “what achievement are you proudest of?”; and the correct answer is not “I just kept things working pretty well and made sure the faculty stayed productive.” No, the correct answer is about instituting new programs, closing down or rearranging old ones, funding inter-disciplinary projects, and all that kind of thing.  “The status quo is the enemy” is a line I actually heard in a deanship interview a few years ago, though to be fair, that guy didn’t get the job.

The point isn’t that these are all bad ideas; just like in every other corner of life, some are good, some bad, and most a mix of good and bad. Rather, it’s that the recruitment system creates constant pressure for upheaval, pressure that doesn’t have much to do with the realities of teaching and learning– it reflects instead the specific interests of career-smart administrators. That includes the time-frame for innovation, as well as the content. If an administrator hopes to climb the ladder before they’re too old to enjoy life at the top, they can’t spend a lot of time dicking around on long-term planning or gradual implementation. Whatever the new signature program is, it has to be up and running in time for the next round of interviews. That also means not waiting around the office until faculty or student groups– the people who actually know about the relevant fields– show up to propose a new program. A successful candidate has to be Pro-Active as well as Innovative and Disruptive.

And just as the ideas aren’t necessarily bad, the individual people involved aren’t especially bad either– it’s the system that generates the dysfunctions, not the individuals caught up in it. We Buffalonians just lost our own dean of undergraduate studies to a better (and much richer) university, after less than four years on the job. By all accounts he’s a nice and serious guy, apparently on a first-name basis with everyone, genuinely engaged with campus life.   But his three-plus years of deanship have been a wild ride of innovation, centering on an ultra-dramatic redesign of the undergraduate curriculum. The university’s own news bulletin describes it as “involving the creation or revision of approximately 1,000 courses and engaging hundreds of faculty and staff members.” What with the various campus debates and approval processes, all that “creation or revision” actually took place over about twenty months, after which the new program was declared good to go and the leftovers of the previous program were scrapped. That probably made for an easy answer to the “what’s your biggest accomplishment” question at his interviews for the next job. Redoing a thousand courses in less than two years is definitely a big deal– but does anyone think it’s a good way to do business?

We’re an accomplishment-oriented society, the kind that views climbing Mt Everest or curing cancer as proper markers of a life well spent. So it’s no surprise we bring that value-set to thinking about universities, or that we favor job candidates who can list dramatic accomplishments. What’s not so smart is to ignore the systems that define what counts as accomplishment and that shape how accomplishments get carried out. Right now, our systems need some serious rethinking.