Faculty-administrator distrust is making US universities ungovernable

We must rethink higher education’s intellectual mission in terms that transcend Manichaean critiques of the neoliberal university, says Nicholas Dirks

April 25, 2024
Boardroom meeting divided graph line going down, half black and white half colour to illustrate Faculty-administrator distrust is making US universities ungovernable
Source: Getty Images montage

In his 1990 book The University: An Owner’s Manual, Henry Rosovsky quipped that academic governance is “a form of class treason, a leap from ‘we’ to ‘they,’ and a betrayal of our primary mission”.

He was, of course, acknowledging the general joke about administration being the “dark side” of faculty life. But in the decades since Rosovsky stepped down as dean of Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the joke has taken on more serious tones. In recent years, the relationship between administrators and faculty has taken on elements of class war.

Part of the reason for this is simple (and often justifiable) envy. Even if top administrative positions involve major career commitments and the loss of time to do research, they are compensated at far higher levels than faculty positions, especially in well-funded private institutions.

Another significant reason is the conviction that administrators take power away from faculty. While they do so in the name of the university at large, they are widely perceived by faculty to have a fundamentally different idea of the university: one inevitably tainted by the neoliberal and corporatist world within which universities – public and private alike – must exist.

Beneath the rhetorical surface here is the reality that faculty have their primary affiliations in and loyalties to departments and disciplines. Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, worried in his famous 1963 Godkin lectures that faculty were becoming overly professionalised, at the expense of their commitment to the broader idea, and larger community, of the university. Kerr harboured nostalgia for the small liberal arts college of his early Swarthmore days and was concerned about the highly segmentary structure of faculty life and its effects on undergraduate education in particular. But because he was also passionately committed to building the modern research university (the “multi-versity”, as he called it), he suggested that administrators could play the useful role of moving such universities towards greater interdisciplinary innovation, often against the initial concerns of institutionally conservative (if politically liberal) faculty.

Little has changed since, despite decades of efforts. Some recent critiques of the university by humanist scholars, however, have raised the intellectual stakes around the limits of professional disciplinarity. In his 2022 book Professing Criticism, the New York University literary critic John Guillory has suggested that the intellectual reach of his own discipline of English may well be enhanced by its institutional collapse, necessitating more open, cross-disciplinary and publicly facing forms of critical engagement.

Meanwhile, in Humanist Reason: A History, An Argument, A Plan (2021), Eric Hayot has suggested that undergraduate education should be entirely reconstructed outside the disciplinary (and departmental) confines of traditional university structure and governance. After proposing a radically new curricular mandate for undergraduate education, however, Hayot – distinguished professor of comparative literature and Asian studies at Pennsylvania State University – confesses his sense of its impossibility. He simply does not trust administrators to take his proposals at face value and not use them to cut faculty prerogatives and – inevitably – budget lines and resources as well. Hayot betrays here not only his abiding distrust of administrative integrity, but also his sense – widely shared among faculty colleagues – that any reforms that might end up saving money are inevitably connected to the neoliberal logic of “austerity”.

In his 2023 book The Synthetic University, James Shulman, vice president of the American Council of Learned Societies, shows how this lack of faculty trust impedes many well-meaning efforts to share certain kinds of resources (within as well as across institutions) with the aim of reducing the ever-escalating cost increases in higher education. In Whatever it is, I’m against it (2023), former Macalester College president Brian Rosenberg laments the resistance of faculty to meaningful institutional change, even when this change is both intellectually defensible and institutionally necessary. And in The Learning-Centered University (2024), University of Texas at Austin historian Steven Mintz shows how innovation in teaching has so often run up against this same stubborn resistance to change.

What too often results is institutional paralysis. Distrust grows between faculty and administrators and institutions become increasingly ungovernable, making the cost of college steadily more unsustainable. Serious change can’t be discussed, let alone implemented, except at moments of crisis, when yawning budget deficits and changing student interests (and demographics) collide to compel immediate action. At such times, faculty express outrage that administrators have mismanaged budgets, while administrators often make cuts in crude and ill-considered ways.

The suspicion and distrust between faculty and administrators has now been theorised as an inevitable consequence of the rise of the neoliberal university. As asserted in a recent call for papers about the university from the journal History of the Present, while the figure symbolising the university used to be the professor as the purveyor of cultural capital (as Bill Readings put it his 1997 book The University in Ruins), it is now the administrator, the sign of austerity, the market and neoliberalism more generally.

While administrators do have to balance budgets and invoke the language of markets to generate revenue and monitor expenses, they often lend truth to faculty fears of self-reproducing bloat by hiring more administrators to pursue their goals. Meanwhile, faculty themselves too often refuse to take responsibility for their own institutional privilege, while retreating to their own disciplinary loyalties and identities to frame their sense of how the university should function. As a result, administrators grow increasingly sceptical about faculty governance, and faculty become ever more alienated, assuming on occasion that the retrieval of administrative salaries alone would fix all the budgetary problems of the university.

Faculty governance grew out of resistance to the unrestricted powers of presidents and trustees, who, together, not only made all hiring decisions but also set curricula in the early decades of the 20th century. It first gained significant traction at the University of California in 1919-20 in a faculty revolt against the near dictatorial regime of longstanding president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, and it developed alongside mandates about academic freedom as the newly emergent professional communities of faculty disciplines finally assumed greater control over what could be taught, who could study what, and how they could do so.

One hundred years later, we are seeing the limits of these structures all too clearly. We need to make institutional change in universities less fraught by finding new collaborative ways to engage faculty in the design, alongside administrators, of different kinds of curricula that revivify the general education associated with the ethos (if not always the traditions) of the liberal arts, while also creating more flexible and relevant specialised training pathways for new careers and life goals. And we need to engage administrators and faculty alike in the work to reduce the cost of higher education, break free from the tyranny of rankings, and set broader intellectual frameworks for the evaluation and reward of faculty’s work as scholars and researchers.

Structure precedes agency here, since it seems likely that neither faculty nor administrators will be able to change the way they think about the university until their institutional location is radically reset, alongside consequent identities and loyalties. The sharp divisions between administrators and faculty were created for compelling reasons, but there are equally compelling reasons now for both groups to rethink not just how they must work together but the protocols of university governance across the board – in departments and schools internally and in relation to donors and governments.

Doing so would open up the possibility of rethinking the intellectual mission of higher education in terms that transcend the Manichaean rhetoric used in most critiques of the neoliberal university. The stakes are high, however. If we fail to end this form of class struggle, there may not be anyone left in class.

Nicholas B. Dirks is president of the New York Academy of Sciences and the author of City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University (Cambridge University Press, 2024). He is the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

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Reader's comments (1)

Yep and it is not just U.S. Universities that have a governance problem. UK Universities are often run by clueless Senior Management Teams that are overpaid and have negative value added. They are not held to account for their failings. Meanwhile the academics are set ever increasing targets for decreasing real term pay and ever increasing student numbers to deal with. We need to stop this nonsense by putting academics back in control and them appointing administrators as and when required at appropriate pay levels.