Ron Srigley writes a powerful indictment of the administrative class of the modern university. “Whose University Is It Anyway?” is a long, worthwhile, well-researched piece. And it resonates with much of my experience and frustrations of a decade ago at Penn State, and with the secondhand experience of my friends and family within college and university life. Places that were founded for the wide-ranging pursuit of knowledge as a good in itself, and the ability to recognize truth, virtue, etc. are now places run by an administrative class that’s less concerned with those inevitably unordered aims and more concerned with a culture of efficiency that brooks no critique that would threaten its own growth and development:

Administrators control the modern university. The faculty have “fallen,” to use Benjamin Ginsberg’s term. It’s an “all-administrative” institution now. [1] Spending on administrators and administration exceeds spending on faculty, administrators out-number faculty by a long shot, and administrative salaries and benefit packages, particularly those of presidents and other senior managers, have skyrocketed over the last 10 years. Even more telling perhaps, students themselves increasingly resemble administrators more than professors in their ambitions and needs. Safety, comfort, security, quality services, first-class accommodations, guaranteed high grades, institutional brand, better job placements, the market value of the credential — these are the things one hears students demanding these days, not truth, justice, and intelligence. [2] The traditional language of “professors” and “students” still exists, though “service provider” and “consumer” are making serious bids to replace them. The principles of collegial governance and joint decision-making are still on the books, but they are no longer what the institution is about or how it works.

The revolution is over and the administrators have won. But the persistence of traditional structures and language has led some to think that the fight over the institution is now just beginning. This is a mistake. As with most revolutions, open conflict occurs only after real power has already changed hands. In France, for instance, the bourgeoisie were able to seize control of the regime because in a sense they already had it. The same is true of the modern university. …

Personally, I’m less strident than the activists but more active than the pessimists. My own proposal is thus old-fashioned but also mildly seditious: I suggest we think about this change in the university in order to reach some understanding of what it means. Then we can act as we see fit, though without any illusions about consequences.

In order to do this I propose a test. A favorite trope among the administrative castes is accountability. People must be held accountable, they tell us, particularly professors. Well, let’s take them at their word and hold them accountable. How have they done with the public trust since having assumed control of the university? …

In the traditional university, professors were “unaccountable.” The university was a sacred space where they were at liberty to pursue with students and colleagues their fields of inquiry without coercion or interference. This doesn’t mean they were free without qualification, of course. Professors were deeply accountable, but in a sense that went far beyond the reach, ambition, and perhaps even the interests of the administrative caste — they were accountable to discover and then to tell the truth, and to encourage their students to do the same. Assessing their abilities and accomplishments in this regard was a matter of judgment and so could not be quantified; it could be exercised only by those capable of it. A mechanism was therefore introduced to ensure this judgment was reached before the university committed to a faculty member permanently. After roughly 15 years of undergraduate and postgraduate study, and then a long period of careful professional observation and assessment, in most universities lasting five to six years, only those professors who proved themselves worthy were granted tenure and allowed to continue their teaching and research in pursuit of this beautiful goal

Administrators, on the other hand, were always held accountable precisely because their responsibilities were administrative in nature and therefore amenable to measurement and regular public audit. They were responsible to ensure the activities of students and professors were not interfered with and to manage the institution’s financial affairs. They were, in this sense, stewards of the sacred space, not its rulers.

In the contemporary university these roles have been reversed. Faculty members are the ones who are now accountable, but no longer to their peers and students and no longer regarding mastery of their subjects. Instead, they are accountable to administrators, who employ an increasingly wide array of instruments and staff to assess their productivity and measure their performance, all of which are now deemed eminently quantifiable. In place of judgment regarding the quality of their work we now have a variety of “outcomes” used as measures of worth. Student evaluations and enrollments (i.e., popularity), learning as determined by “rubrics,” quantity of publications, amount of research dollars, extent of social “impact” are the things that count now. In other words, only things you can quantify and none of which require judgment.

The administrators who protested so vociferously the lack of accountability of professors have now assumed the position themselves. Administrators are virtually untouchable today. Their value to the institution is assumed to be so great that it cannot be measured and cannot be subject to critical assessment. This explains in part their metastatic growth within the institution. …

Ask about virtually any problem in the university today and the solution proposed will inevitably be administrative. Why? Because we think administrators, not professors, guarantee the quality of the product and the achievement of institutional goals. But how is that possible in an academic environment in which knowledge and understanding are the true goals? Without putting too fine a point on it, it’s because they aren’t the true goals any longer. With the exception of certain key science and technology programs in which content proficiency is paramount, administrative efficiency and administrative mindedness are the true goals of the institution. …

When it comes to the real mandate of the modern university, boards of governors, government, and industry are all in agreement. That mandate is well known to all of us who live and work within the non-ivied walls: more industry partnerships, more technology, more STEM subjects, more money for research and development in these areas, more administrative review bodies and measures, more students, more student services, and more student satisfaction. And because the administrative university is a zero-sum game, there is a reverse side to the mandate: fewer tenured faculty, less faculty control over curricula, fewer humanities and pure science programs, less support for humanities and pure science research, and the erosion of collegial governance.

There is no serious debate about this mandate among the key players in the university administrative hierarchy, so the assertion that administrators are accountable to it in the way they insist faculty must be is a red herring. The administrators are the mandate. …

If you think I overstate the consequences of this erosion of the university curriculum, consider the 2016 US presidential debates as barometers of the culture. Many people were horrified by the debates, regardless of partisan interests. But if you want to appreciate the full extent of the horror and understand just how far we’ve fallen, watch the first ever televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. The extent of our new barbarism becomes immediately apparent in the contrast and it’s quite a shock, and this without even claiming that Kennedy and Nixon were themselves in any way high-water marks of political culture. If you think this decline has nothing to do with the decline of genuine liberal arts education, through which students are taught to think deeply and meaningfully about the real human problems of government, justice and reason, and the rise of the all-administrative university in which they are not, think again. As one Canadian university president I know said to a colleague who had expressed an interest in Montesquieu’s political thought, “Why study him? He’s dead.” So much for history. So much for political wisdom. And so much for magnanimity and breadth of understanding. We now have intellectual philistines settling the matter of what our children need to know. Where in this miasma of deculturation will they ever find an image of a genuine statesperson or citizen or of a truly just human being? Nowhere, if the modern administrative university has its way. …

Four areas of the all-administrative university stand out for comment: students, the university curriculum, university governance, and administrative salaries.

If you speak with university officials, you’ll tend to find that the ones who speak with the most confidence and least apprehension are administrators. And that’s how you can tell where the real power resides in that university, because those with power tend to be confident and self-assured. Right up until they’ve lost it.