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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Administration grows, faculty shrinks. Again.
Last week, I took a look back at Michael Bérubé and Cary Nelson’s old edited volume Higher Education Under Fire in order to suggest some resonant parallels with our own moment. Although the book was published in 1995, the political and cultural phenomena it treats are in many ways those of the immediately preceding period. As is true also of another 1995 book, Todd Gitlin’s
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Last week, I took a look back at Michael Bérubé and Cary Nelson’s old edited volume Higher Education Under Fire in order to suggest some resonant parallels with our own moment. Although the book was published in 1995, the political and cultural phenomena it treats are in many ways those of the immediately preceding period. As is true also of another 1995 book, Todd Gitlin’s Twilight of Common Dreams, the campus convulsions that interest the contributors are really products of the mid-to-late eighties until about 1993. (Not coincidentally, Gitlin makes several contributions to Under Fire.) Both books describe a period that, although the authors didn’t know it yet, was more or less receding. They are diagnostic summings-up of a crisis just past.
None of which is to suggest that the major axes of controversy — Republican politicking against perceived left-wing campus decadence; protests and counter-protests over curricula and the politics of identity; disputes over the appropriate scope of academic freedom; sensitivities around affirmative action and related projects of diversification — somehow went away after 1995. But the temperature cooled.
If it had stayed cool, only antiquarians would find reason to return to the rich higher-education literature of the mid-nineties. My working thesis (hardly original with me) is that, since about 2014 or so, and with a significant acceleration in 2020, we have been suffering a neurotic repetition of 1986-93. It is of course a repetition with a difference, or several: the internet, Donald Trump, Covid, the murder of George Floyd.
One area of conspicuous commonality: In both periods, the overall fiscal picture of the sector looked grim; relatedly, fields, especially in the humanities, were shrinking and prospects for graduate students evaporating. “The long-term collapse of the job market,” Bérubé and Nelson write in their introduction, “is making the logic of graduate apprenticeship morally corrupt.” Last month, John Guillory made a similar point when he was asked whether, these days, students should still consider graduate school in English: “I have found it increasingly difficult to teach graduate seminars in the past few years. You feel this wash of anger and resentment ... You feel the bad faith of the enterprise, of producing M.A.s and Ph.Ds who are not going to get jobs.” The general demoralization of those teaching graduate students is an open secret.
Then as now, a combination of recent recession and state divestment underlay the jobs crisis. As Ernst Benjamin, the former general secretary for the AAUP, put it in his contribution to Under Fire, beginning in the 1970s public universities “became financially unable to cope” with rising enrollments; in the following decades, reduced public spending, Reaganite reductions to student aid, and the 1990-91 recession compounded the problem. Benjamin writes that, in 1991, “two-thirds of state colleges surveyed reported midyear budget cuts.” Sixteen years later, the 2007-08 financial crash would instigate another wave of hard times — especially when it came to new faculty hiring, which has never recovered. Today, although the post-Covid outlook for universities is less dire than some had predicted, entire state systems are nevertheless in peril. West Virginia University, to name just one prominent instance, is facing catastrophic budget shortfalls.
These exigencies don’t determine, in any straightforward way, the cultural clashes that played out on campus in the nineties or that play out there now; it will be the task of future historians and sociologists of the academy to specify the causal relationships between the material deprivations and the ideological paroxysms of our moment. Nor is the story one only of decline. In at least one area — campus administration — both numbers and salaries are growing. That, too, was a topic of concern in the nineties. As Benjamin writes, “Between 1974 and 1981 instructional costs increased 9.9 percent and administrative costs 21.8 percent. From 1975 through the late 1980s the number of students increased 10 percent, the number of faculty increased 6 percent and the number of administrators increased by 45 percent.” Benjamin acknowledges that some of this disproportionate growth in administration was justified, for instance by new government regulatory requirements. Nevertheless, he concludes, “on the whole, the growth in the number of administrators and their salaries exceeded these needs.”
No one heeded the warning. As LaMont Jones Jr. described in U.S. News earlier this month, between 2010 and 2021 instructional spending at both public and private universities declined and administrative spending increased. He quotes the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder: “The number of (college) administrators has soared relative to the number of students and to the number of faculty, and there’s a corresponding increase in the cost of doing business.” Those trends, exacerbated by galloping adjunctification, lead inexorably to what the Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, in his 2011 polemic The Fall of the Faculty, calls “the all-administrative university.”
As Ginsberg sees it, one clue to contemporary campus culture wars lies in the growth of administrators devoted to social-justice programming, which he construes as a cynical power-grab. “Issues that to many professors represent moral imperatives,” he writes, “have been transformed into powerful instruments of administrative aggrandizement.” By forging alliances with campus activists, Ginsberg says, these administrators hope to grow their own ranks and to consolidate their power over the faculty. College presidents and other upper administrators welcome these tactics because they appease campus activists and therefore protect the upper administration from forms of criticism it would prefer not to face.
Jaundiced and adversarial though Ginsberg’s portrayal is, the alliance between some activists and some administrators strikes me as an important ingredient in the current campus climate. One reason the Stanford Law controversy attracted so much attention is that it seemed to dramatize that relationship — and its limits. In the coming months, I expect to see other institutions follow the lead of the Stanford Law dean, Jenny Martinez, by establishing new norms around such alliances.
Ginsberg’s animus is not restricted to diversity and social-justice administrators. “The fact of the matter,” he says bluntly, “is that most administrators are not especially talented, nor are most especially qualified for their leadership positions.” Whether or not “most” is an exaggeration, The Fall of the Faculty is among other things a hilarious compendium of anecdotes of incompetence — and of impunity. If the book comes out in a new edition, local coverage of the unfolding situation in West Virginia might furnish an epigraph. WVU’s senior vice president, Rob Alsop, “shared that someone recently told him that if he were in the private sector, he might be out of a job because he let the budget problems snowball before taking action.”
Read Ernst Benjamin’s “A Faculty Response to the Fiscal Crisis” and LaMont Jones Jr.'s “One Culprit in Rising College Costs: Administrative Expenses.” And check out a slice of Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty in our pages.
- “This is the portrait of a Homo academicus who sometimes disappears into the institutional backgrounds against which he sits. To today’s academic precariat, his habitats might seem as remote as late antiquity itself.” In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michael Ledger-Lomas reviews Peter Brown’s new memoir, Journeys of the Mind.
- “Ellsberg has some parting advice to future whistleblowers: ‘Don’t do it under any delusion that you’ll have a high chance of ending up like Daniel Ellsberg.’ This is especially true, he says, now the government is zealously prosecuting under the Espionage Act, which was first used in Ellsberg’s case. (Barack Obama later deployed it eight times, more than any other president, despite pledging to run ‘the most transparent administration in history.’)” In Politico, Michael Hirsch talks with Daniel Ellsberg, who is dying of pancreatic cancer.
- “The two writers had sharp differences over an issue that has only increased in urgency and intensity over the years: whether writing by women should draw on or even acknowledge biographical facts. Duras said yes and Sarraute decidedly no, privately dismissing Duras’s work as ‘trashy.’” In The New York Review of Books, Rachel Donadio writes about Nathalie Sarraute by way of Ann Jefferson’s new “definitive” biography.
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