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Academic Administrators Are Strangling Our Universities

A parasitic class of self-righteous bureaucrats has taken over campus life

by
John Londregan,
Sergiu Klainerman,
Michael A. Reynolds,
and
Bernard Haykel
September 19, 2022
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman

We generally think of fossilization, the replacement of bone and tissue by minerals, as a process that only makes contact with campus life at the paleontology museum. Yet a parallel variant is destroying American academic life, as universities substitute administrators for faculty and boost their outlays for administration at twice the rate for faculty. Responsibility, not just for processing Federal Student Aid forms and parking permits, but for the process of forming young minds, is being transferred from the faculty, selected for the originality and quality of their thought, to administrators who can be swiftly “deselected” should their expressed views depart from the orthodoxy. Today, even tenure-track faculty must think twice about the reaction of administrators as they conduct independent research, speak in the classroom, or express opinions.

While the antics of a relatively small cohort of post-modernist professors have distracted public attention, especially on the right, a new cohort of administrators zealous to reshape life on campus and off has fastened itself on institutions of higher learning—promoting their own welfare and power as a class through bureaucratic fads and mindsets that are far removed from the values of critical thinking and free inquiry. The speed of this hostile takeover is astounding. To take just one prominent example, the number of administrators employed by Yale University has risen three times faster than the undergraduate student body since 2003, while new managerial jobs have risen by 150% compared with a 10.6% increase in tenure-track jobs in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that “noninstructional activities such as admissions, student activities, libraries, and administrative and executive activities” now make up 67% of the expenses of private for-profit four-year institutions.

What are we getting for this huge commitment of resources to administrators rather than classroom teachers? Today most universities lack core courses in the basics, but they do eagerly issue speech “guidelines”—overseen by the new bureaucracy—to police how faculty conduct classes. Similarly, campus administrators are reshaping students’ lives in their campus residences, mandating student attendance at freshman orientation sessions and panels aimed at forming morals and attitudes on subjects ranging from sexuality to identity to “privilege.” Last fall at a Princeton event administrators required some students to identify themselves as scions of privilege.

Indeed, much of what looks to outsiders like student-led protests and campaigns is in fact the product of the determination of the new administrative class to shape campus norms and priorities according to their own beliefs and preferences—which not coincidentally make the case for the importance of their own jobs. The power of this class, which is parasitic on the mission of the university, is quite considerable: first, they select who gets onto campus, with students who at least pretend to hold the “correct” social attitudes at an advantage for admission. Once students arrive on campus, they are pressured to think in approved ways, with those who dissent in particularly visible or annoying ways being subject to star chamber-like proceedings overseen by the administrators themselves.

Administrators also confer all kinds of benefits on students such as the funding of summer activities or consideration for special internship opportunities. The editors of student newspapers have long since discovered that whether they please the bureaucrats has palpable and direct consequences. There is no comparable pressure from the faculty whose preferred method of persuasion is...persuasion.

Nor is the problem of administrative overreach confined to student life. Today professors must filter virtually all research through an Institutional Review Board—another office dominated by non-academic administrators—which must approve the methods, and even the content of the research.IRB vetting takes place above and beyond the guidelines of research sponsors such as the NSF. Originally established to prevent psychologically and medically hazardous research experiments, atrocities such as the Milgram “experiment” at Yale in which research subjects were pressed to torture others, these boards have metastasized to the extent that virtually any project in the social sciences, even those based on public data, must gain their approval.

Let’s consider some examples of how the suffocating grasp of administrative power has played out. Consider the case of Harvard Law School Professor and quondam residential administrator Ronald Sullivan. In the proud tradition of the American legal community, stretching from John Adams’s spirited defense of the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre to Ketanji Brown Jackson’s work as a public defender, the American legal profession has been committed to the right of the accused to effective legal representation, even when the accused are unpopular. Sullivan honored that tradition by representing the ghastly (and abominated) Harvey Weinstein. A movement emerged at Harvard among those ignorant of the rights of defendants to defenestrate Sullivan for his unpopular association. Harvard’s administration peremptorily dismissed Sullivan from his administrative post. Shielded by tenure, however, he at least continues to teach and enlighten at the Law School—academic tenure protected Sullivan, administrative common sense decidedly did not.

What about research that turns out the “wrong way?” Harvard economist Roland Fryer ran into hostile headwinds with his research on the use, and abuse, of police force. That research was published in a top economics journal, and there it remains despite calls to “unpublish”. But Professor Fryer soon found himself to be the subject of a sexual harassment investigation (see here on the irregularity of the case against him). As a result of what looks like administrative retaliation for wrong-think, Fryer spent two years being banned from campus, and had his academic research center shut down.

Adjuncts, who lack tenure and make up an increasingly large fraction of classroom teachers, are far more vulnerable to administrative coercion. Today, administrators hold adjuncts to account for past statements by anonymous associates. When Harvard adjunct David Kane incurred considerable enmity when he invited a controversial speaker to his class, a group of students dug into his background to discover, and publicize, his affiliation from six years before with a blog on which an anonymous contributor—not Kane—made caustic comments. Kane’s contract was not renewed.

Nor are paper guarantees sufficient to safeguard academic freedom from the punitive impulses of administrators, who have appointed themselves as prosecutor, judge, and jury to discipline students and faculty alike. In retaliation for publishing opinions that Princeton administrators disliked, administrators deliberately misquoted prominent classicist Joshua Katz and held him up to the incoming class as the epitome of racism. When a group of faculty led by Sergiu Klainerman requested an explanation and was turned down, they recurred to a faculty appeals committee. That committee unanimously denounced the Eisgruber administration’s behavior, and recommended the administrators tasked with the investigation be removed from it. President Eisgruber has chosen to ignore the findings of the faculty committee, citing a second, secret, investigation of the administration’s conduct, conducted by...the administrators.

Which brings us to the essential question: how can we take back the universities from the administrative inquisitors?

To check the process of relegating tenured and tenure track faculty to adjunct positions, we recommend a basic standard limiting the fraction of courses that can be delivered by faculty not on tenure track, and that there be a ceiling on the number of terms a non-tenure track instructor can offer a course.

To limit the amount of indoctrination that takes place in lieu of education, we recommend that any mandatory attendance event held by residential life administrators, whether it’s a fire safety demonstration or a discussion of civil rights, must be subject to faculty review. If it is mandatory, it is part of students’ educational experience. Moreover, we think it is vital that hiring and firing faculty associates and leaders at residential colleges require approval by a faculty-controlled committee.

To roll back the courts of star chamber appearing on campuses across the nation, we advocate the inclusion of faculty members on any committee that considers faculty misconduct. Likewise, we call for the formation of an all-faculty committee that must approve all senior administrative hires and promotions, while it can review all staff hires and promotions. We also recommend the formation of a faculty-led committee that can investigate allegations of staff misconduct, and that can make its findings public. Any disciplinary procedure against a faculty member must allow for the opportunity to confront one’s accusers, and it must allow the faculty member access to the evidence against her, and it must allow her to present evidence in her own defense. There should also be faculty involvement in undergraduate admissions.

To preserve and protect the freedom of thought of the faculty, and the entire tenor of higher education, we urge that all institutions adopt the Chicago Principles of academic freedom, and implement the recommendations of the Kalven Report to protect the political neutrality of the university.

We understand these measures will require a lot more faculty involvement in the running of the university than is currently the case. But that is the price of freedom, too often members of the faculty prefer to be left alone to do their research, leaving to others the hard work of protecting academic liberty.

If nothing is done to revive universities by recentering their core mission around the faculty power, campus visits may soon differ little in substance from trips to see the T-Rex at the Museum of Natural History.

John Londregan is a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University

Sergiu Klainerman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987.

Michael A. Reynolds is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University

Bernard Haykel is Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Director of the Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East at Princeton Unviersity

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