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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More Essays

May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”
Apr 1st 2020
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.
Mar 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The coronavirus crisis has forced us to look at our behaviour in a way that we’re not used to. We are being asked to act in the collective good rather than our individual preservation and interest. Even for those of us with the best of intentions, this is not so easy."
Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "In March 2020, my sister Nancy and I did something that, as scholars, we had never done before: we wrote about ourselves, comparing our own experiences receiving cancer care on either side of the Atlantic. As we recently reported in the BMJ, much of our experience is similar. As twins, we both have the same form of cancer. Both of us received excellent treatment in well-established university teaching hospitals. Both of us are now in remission. But there is a glaring difference. Nancy lives in the US, covered under a good private healthcare scheme. I live in the UK, covered by the NHS."
Mar 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "In philosophy, individualism is closely linked with the concept of freedom. As soon as restrictive measures were imposed in Italy, many people felt that their freedom was threatened and started to assert their individuality in various ways. Some disagreed with the necessity of cancelling group gatherings and organised unofficial ones themselves. Others continued to go out and live as they always did. We often assume that freedom is to do as we choose, and that is contrasted with being told what to do. As long as I am doing what the government tells me, I am not free. I am going out, not because I want to, but because that shows I am free. But there is another route to freedom..........."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by a blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain. The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect brain systems linked to motivation and mental agility. There is also evidence of chronic stress effects on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s important to do things that make you happy or content as you are doing them – and doing them for yourself. Research has found that picking recovery activities you find personally satisfying and meaningful is more likely to help you feel recovered by the next morning."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACTS: "A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.........Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle...........there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso.......very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators.......The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "As our global population is projected to live longer than ever before, it’s important that we find ways of helping people live healthier for longer. Exercise and diet are often cited as the best ways of maintaining good health well into our twilight years. But recently, research has also started to look at the role our gut – specifically our microbiome – plays in how we age."
Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."