Apr 1st 2019

Bureaucracy and Power in American Higher Education


The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility. 

Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 

Most colleges and universities continue to educate students in a reasonably effective manner, but only because the power of the new class is still circumscribed by the existence of the increasingly weaker cohort of tenured professors. Although tenure has its critics, it remains indispensable within over-centralized universities run by the new class. Since tenure is the only mechanism that can balance the power of the new class, the abolition of tenure would not, as its critics suggest, revive higher education, but enable the new class to exercise unchecked power and subordinate education to its own interests. University reform must therefore aim, above all, at reestablishing a healthy tension, or balance of power, between administrators and tenured professors—between the new class and the dissidents. 

The Power of the New Class

Contrary to their own democratic self-representations, the power of university administrators is both vast and unchecked. The relations between presidents, chancellors, provosts, and deans on the one hand, and their bureaucratic apparatuses and faculty underlings on the other, are structured in a strictly hierarchical manner, with the result that power is concentrated at the very top of a tall power pyramid. Thorstein Veblen already made this point in 1918, when he wrote in The Higher Learning in America: “The chief … will be likely to draw about him from among the faculty a conveniently small number of advisers who are in sympathy with his own ambitions, and who will in this way form an unofficial council, or cabinet, or “junta”…. He will also, in compliance with charter stipulations and parliamentary usage, have certain officially recognized advisers, — the various deans, advisory committees, Academic Council, University Senate, and the like, — with whom he shares responsibility, particularly for measures of doubtful popularity, and whose advice he formally takes coram publico…. It is, further, of the essence of this scheme of academic control that the captain of erudition should freely exercise the power of academic life and death over the members of his staff….” 

Top administrators preside over enormous assets, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, and have inordinate influence over personnel. These academic elites determine the budgets for all divisions of a university—often with only perfunctory participation by lower levels of the bureaucracy or the faculty—and control the payouts on endowments to research centers and institutes, thereby effectively appropriating monies originally intended for non-administrative purposes. Top administrators also determine which departments or programs will or will not exist or thrive; they control and distribute space and all other scarce resources, thereby being able to play off units of the universities against one another; they appoint the chairs of important task forces; and they often even weigh in on which students departments should admit. Finally, top administrators have virtually uncontrolled authority to expand their own ranks, to hire favored faculty, to privilege “superstar” professors, and to grant or deny tenure. 

Boards of trustees ostensibly hold sovereign power in a university and are supposed to control for such over-centralization and abuse, but they are usually powerless, indifferent, or incapable of affecting university power holders. Board members meet infrequently, usually lack pedagogical expertise, make decisions on the basis of information provided to them by university administrators, lack institutionalized access to faculty and alternative sources of information, and are too numerous to act easily in pursuit of “collective action” goals. Unsurprisingly, boards tend to defer to high administrators, and generally assert themselves only in times of manifest crisis, when “problems” are clearly visible, information is openly available, and solutions seem obvious. In sum, boards have as much difficulty counterbalancing, controlling, and supervising university administrations as they have counterbalancing, controlling, and supervising corporations. 

An Imbalance of Power

University administrators form an enormously powerful “new class” not unlike that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s:  “[The] monopolists of administration … constitute a narrow and closed stratum…. But that is not all, since the Communist bureaucracy also has complete monopolistic control over material assets…. The ownership privileges of the new class and membership in that class are the privileges of administration.” Djilas’s insights rest on those of Max Weber, Roberto Michels, and Karl Marx—as well as, arguably, Plato and Aristotle. It is, after all, a truism of political theory that every class of power holders is primarily concerned with sustaining itself and with reproducing the conditions that sustain its power. Every class of power holders is primarily concerned with promoting itself and its own interests. 

This is as true of liberal universities as of communist dictatorships and capitalist democracies. Radicals often hope to negate this trend by constructing elaborate utopias; liberals and conservatives generally recognize that such self-aggrandizement can be limited only by a system of institutional checks and balances that, in democracies at least, tend to be anchored in constitutions. But universities have no constitutions. The nearest thing to a basic document is a contract signed with a teachers’ union, which can easily be disregarded if appeals to “higher interests” or “crisis situations” are made, or a university’s formalized “rules and procedures,” which always contain loopholes and fine print that effectively enable nimble administrations with significant resources and determined agendas to have their way. 

This gross imbalance of power means that the priorities of the administrative elite become the priorities of the university as a whole. This does not mean that the new class is opposed to “education,” while professors champion it. In fact, both sides often agree philosophically on just what a good education entails. But abstract agreement on abstract issues such as knowledge and critical thinking generally takes a back seat to questions of power whenever contentious issues regarding curriculum, departments, requirements, standards, hiring, tenure, promotions, and the like arise. Then, both professors and administrators generally propose answers that sustain their power. The resulting tension, which may appear destructive and counterproductive, is actually good for the educational process, precisely because it guarantees a functioning marketplace of ideas and genuine competition of visions and interests and ensures that no side can achieve hegemony. 

The problem is that this ideal “balance of power” has long since shifted toward administrators, who hold far more resources and power than professors and also determine the rules of the game. And inasmuch as the leading priority of every elite is self-perpetuation, the dominance of university administrators translates into the effective subordination of “education” to the self-perpetuation and power of the administrative elite. The central problem affecting higher education is thus not, as many liberal critics suggest, commercialization and corporatization. Nor is it, as conservative critics argue, the irresponsible behavior of errant professors. Although lamentable, commercialization, corporatization, and irresponsible behavior are only symptoms of the over-centralized power structure within American higher education.


Power, Privilege, and Pathologies

Over-centralization of power is always inefficient and, in both communist states and universities, it fosters a range of pathologies. First, it leads university administrations, like Soviet-type bureaucracies, to grow in a seemingly inexorable fashion. Higher-level officials are rarely fired, even during economic downturns and budgetary shortfalls, as the working assumption of the new class is that problems, crises, and pathologies naturally require more administrative intervention, not less. Over-centralization also leads to the accumulation of privilege. University and college presidents, provosts, and chancellors earn enormous salaries. Administrators earn more, on average, than professors, if only because professorial salaries are frequently frozen for long periods of time, while those of administrators are not. 

Over-centralization also leads to lack of accountability. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, and their inner circles of supporters can do just about anything they want, while lower levels of the bureaucracy, in the fashion of all over-centralized administrative apparatuses, invariably justify their inefficiency by passing the buck to higher authorities. The Lawrence Summers fiasco at Harvard University in 2001-2006—when President Clinton’s former secretary of the treasury almost managed to eviscerate a great institution—grabbed the headlines, but that kind of non-accountability is important precisely because it is not unique. Summers used the enormous powers of his office—financial allocations, personnel promotions, and simple bullying being his favored techniques—to cow the faculty and demoralize the students. 

Finally, over-centralization encourages the new class to develop ties with elites within federal, state, and local government, foundations, and the business community. Rapidly expanding institutions such as Columbia University and New York University cannot avoid forging alliances with municipal authorities and powerful real-estate interests and thereby effectively joining what C. Wright Mills called the local “power elite.” Although the new class can take advantage of such connections to promote the university’s interests, the very existence of such extensive horizontal ties encourages the new class to see its own interests as part of the wider power elite’s interests. Moreover, when government authorities or business interests are corrupt, as they often are, it is hard to imagine that university elites implicated in their affairs can remain unaffected.


The Emergence of the New Class

The university new class emerged as the result of two “objective” mid-twentieth century developments in American higher education.  First, higher education expanded from the privilege of the few to the right of many. As student enrollments boomed, colleges and universities had to offer a variety of services ranging from dormitories to counseling to extracurricular activities. Budgets and administrative apparatuses grew apace. Second, external funding of higher education—by government, foundations, and a growing cohort of alumni/ae—also grew in leaps and bounds. Some money went to research and some to teaching, but much necessarily had to go to the bureaucracy that underpinned the new programs, the new buildings, and the new research institutes. The upshot of these two trends was the emergence of the “multiversity”—a huge institutional network possessing vast sums of money, large real estate holdings, and a sizeable labor force. All multiversities resemble city-states, and some, such as the Ivy League schools, have assets that are larger than the Gross Domestic Products of many bona fide states. 

These trends might not have led to the emergence of a new class were it not for the fact that, as the university became the multiversity, its over-centralized power structure, a basic feature of all American universities since the nineteenth century or earlier, as Veblen reminds us, remained intact. Past administrations also possessed much power, but, with vastly smaller fiefdoms and less extensive assets, they were institutionally limited in what they could do. The new class is therefore the product of the marriage of a hierarchical power pyramid with few resources to a multiversity with enormous resources. 

Facilitating the new class’s power is the inability of the tenured professoriate to offer resistance. Most analysts emphasize the individualistic, almost anarchic inclinations of professors as the key obstacle to collective action, but the real reasons are threefold. First, disciplinary and thematic specialization has taken off  since World War II—partly because knowledge has greatly expanded and universal expertise has become impossible, partly because a vastly larger student body demands a variety of different kinds of courses, and partly because external funding continually encourages scholars to “expand” their horizons by pursuing the research priorities of governments and foundations. 

Second, the professoriate has, like the student body, become diverse—developing from a largely white, male profession to one that currently encompasses a multiplicity of ethnicities, races, sexes, genders, religions, and the like. And third, the ranks of adjunct faculty, who get paid miserable sums per course, receive no health benefits, do not vote on departmental matters, and are disinclined ever to rock the boat, continue to grow: at present they teach about two-thirds of all courses taught at U.S. higher educational institutions. The number of tenured faculty members is thereby reduced, making them more susceptible to infighting over scarce resources and reducing their sense of corporate identity. The share of tenured and tenure-track professors in U.S. higher educational institutions has declined from one third to one quarter in the last twenty years. 

These three trends have created an almost insurmountable obstacle to collective action. As collective action theorists emphasize, it is rational even for like-minded individuals to “free ride.” Sometimes, cultural, linguistic, national, or other types of solidarities can override the free-riding tendency and incline individuals to act collectively. But the contemporary professoriate shares almost nothing but tenure. Professors feel beleaguered and isolated, and they know they are dependent on the new class for perks. Moreover, they live in different worlds. Physicists have little in common with deconstructionists, rational-choice theorists have nothing in common with post-modernists, and historians of food in medieval Russia inhabit a different world from that of historians of imperialism in Latin America. If and when tough decisions face departments, questions of gender, race, and so on almost invariably assume center stage and the resulting divisions make jointly formulated stands difficult to achieve. 

Unions can address some of these issues and promote some degree of solidarity—as they do outside the ivory tower—but only at levels far removed from the day-to-day operations of a college or university, where fragmentation and competition usually rule the day. Political parties, which usually mobilize people in pursuit of certain causes in the society at large, are also absent from universities. In other words, universities lack already existing institutional vehicles for collective action: everything depends on professors, and if they cannot overcome the centrifugal forces pushing them apart, collective action will not take place and the university administration can rule unopposed. Significantly, it was only after Harvard’s Summers had enraged every single faculty constituency that professors were able to unite in opposition and, in effect, oust him. 

Divide et impera

The professoriate is highly susceptible to new-class “divide and conquer” manipulation. The promotion by the new class of “superstar” professors—with vast salaries, enormous expense accounts, large offices, and minimal teaching loads—enhances professorial divisions by creating a privileged stratum directly beholden to the administration and dependent on its good will. The superstars, who could lead faculty resistance to the new class, are thus coddled and coopted and are part of the class, in all but name. Dissent in universities is thus the luxury of the few. Lower-level administrators are beholden to the new class, students are fearful of expulsion, adjuncts keep a low profile, and non-tenured professors worry about being denied tenure. Contrary to their own self-image as fearless speakers of truth to power, tenured professors rarely dissent—especially as conformity with administrative designs can bring extensive material benefits and usually harms faculty competitors with whom one feels little solidarity anyway. 

Because the professoriate is weak, and getting weaker, it tends to adapt to the encroachments of the new class—but usually in ways that enhance the pathologies besetting over-centralized systems. All too often, professors feign agreement with new class pronouncements while engaging in quiet individual resistance. Like lower-level administrators in centrally-planned economies, professors hoard information, provide misleading data, and employ the language and logic of the prevailing university ideology to hide the reality within their departments. The resulting breakdown of communication and information flows between administration and faculty leads to calls by administrators for still greater control—hence the incessant insistence that faculty produce more and more reports—and to equally great resistance by professors. But attempts to establish greater control only lead, as in all centrally planned economies, to newer and cleverer ways to assert the “power of the weak” and circumvent centralized control. 

Professors also adapt to the incentive structure created by the new class by retreating into research and downplaying teaching. Contrary to conservative critics, most professors are not fearless radicals who want to revolutionize the world, or even the campus. Indeed, pusillanimity and conformism may be rather more widespread professorial character traits. Moreover, most professors enjoy teaching and would be happy to do more of it—if they knew that teaching would be rewarded as much as research and publications. After all, professors are rational human beings who want to do what they enjoy—writing and teaching—while receiving just reward for their efforts. Despite its insistence to the contrary, the new class does not reward professors for teaching. Research and publications are the single most important criterion for tenure, prizes, and salary increases precisely because they bring in foundation and government grants and impress alumni/ae donors. I know of no instance of a university president “raiding” another university’s best teacher.


Is a Balance of Power Possible?

Can this extraordinary growth of new-class power be reversed or balanced? The hyper-centralized power structure of American colleges and universities is too deeply rooted to be changed anytime soon. The multiversity also appears to be here to stay. A reversal of new-class power is therefore highly unlikely. Some degree of balance can be reestablished—but only if the secular reduction in the number of tenured professors is halted and the professoriate, however specialized and fractured, is able to retain its autonomy. Since tenure is the only mechanism that can balance the power of the new class, the abolition of tenure would not revive higher education. Instead, abolishing tenure and transforming the professoriate into an army of overworked and underpaid adjuncts led by a tiny sliver of superstars would enable the new class to exercise unchecked power in its domain. 

Whether or not such enormous power would lead to still greater commercialization and commercialization may be debatable. But it would almost certainly end all pretense of democratic governance at universities, encourage the best and the brightest to avoid academic careers, and completely subordinate the educational process to the needs and priorities of the new class. If the experience of over-centralized Communist regimes is any guide, such an arrangement is intrinsically ineffective—producing bad products at high cost. Salaries may drop and some monies may be saved, but the pathologies of over-centralization discussed above represent massive hidden costs. Over-centralization is also intrinsically unstable—producing disgruntled subordinates, illegitimate rulers, and dysfunctional institutions. American universities will not, like the Soviet Union, collapse. But they just may come to experience a persistent condition of “stagnation,” similar to that which characterized the USSR under Leonid Brezhnev’s inglorious rule.

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