Who Runs Our Colleges– Administrators or Faculty?


Easy question. Administrators do. Odd as it may sound today, faculties have long assumed the right and duty to set the campus agenda–to establish admission standards, control research and curriculum, run visiting speaker programs, and set the academic and professional criteria on which promotions, prizes and appointments are based.

Historically, the faculty actually did control these things, in part because it was viewed as the natural way to run a university, and partly because there were no countervailing forces to prevent it. The administrative layers that accompanied and facilitated faculty control of campuses were fairly thin. That is, the percentage of professional, full-time campus administrators was small compared to that of the faculty. Furthermore, many of them were drawn from the ranks of the faculty (to which they returned after relatively brief stints in campus administration) and so although these faculty functioned as administrators, they still thought of themselves as faculty and comported themselves accordingly.

The Army of Deans

All of this has changed dramatically over the last fifty years. The number of campus administrators has exploded. Instead of a single dean of an all-encompassing college of arts and sciences, we see a host of deans spearheading numerous units into which the large college has been split. These deans enjoy the support of a gaggle of assistant and associate deans, dragging in tow scores more chairs, heads and directors. This is accompanied by a proliferation of new academic units on campus – e.g., Urban Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies and countless other “Studies” departments representing “compelling” fields of academic study that we didn’t know existed in mid-twentieth century.

These bogus departments are augmented by a slew of “indispensable” administrative support units and positions — especially at the central campus level – all of which has resulted in an explosion of assistants, staff and advisors. The academic pedigree of these lower and mid-level administrators is notoriously weak. They – and, unfortunately too often, their senior-level bosses – are not culled from the ranks of the tenured faculty. Finally, the money has followed the growth in size. The salaries of this new campus human infrastructure are high – in some cases bordering on the obscene.

The net effect is that while faculty often think they run things, in fact they do not. Increasingly, the setting of academic priorities, the discharge of academic responsibilities and the establishment of the overall academic agenda is under the control of a vast, over-centralized bureaucracy of campus administrators – whose allegiance is often not to objective faculty goals but rather to narrow political agendas.

Why It All Happened

How did this come about and what are, and will be, the consequences? Here are the levers of this fundamental transformation of academia:

Societal. The movement toward centralized administrative control of academia mirrors similar trends in other facets of American society. The most obvious is the gargantuan growth in power and scope of the federal government. Americans seem to be losing faith in their society’s ability to solve its problems at the local, community or family level and, over the last 50 years, have been turning increasingly to a powerful, omnipresent, central government to manage the people’s most intimate affairs. Similar trends toward centralization of power can be observed in American corporate life, health care and the media. It’s not surprising, therefore, that a similar movement occurred in higher education. Incidentally, the same phenomenon is prevalent in K-12 education as well.

Specialization. The trend toward specialization in science, technology, even in the humanities has been well documented. The result has been the growth of little fiefdoms all over campus. In order to avoid Balkanization, all of these separate domains have been brought under the control of the all-powerful center.

Universal Higher Education. The American people have come to favor the idea of universal higher education – everyone should go to college and get a degree. It is self-evident how the movement to mass higher education has abetted the dramatic expansion of academic “choices” on campus and the proliferation of specious academic programs – together with the personnel to administer them.

Money. Society has been throwing money at higher education at dizzying rates (large government and corporate grants, rapid and substantial rises in tuition and fees, generous federal and state subsidies, lavish endowments). Well, money always means power. Often, faculty are too busy or too naive to devote the requisite time to gain control of incoming funds. Administrators, on the other hand, are most expert at grabbing hold of and directing financial resources to their own liking.

Politics. It is well-documented that the nation’s faculty are overwhelmingly liberal in their politic outlook – especially, in the humanities and social sciences. Well, a less well-known fact is that campus administrators are even more so. This leads to faculty acquiescence toward central campus control since the overall campus milieu created by central administrators meets with faculty approval.

Secrecy and Duplicity. Campus administrators excel at creating structures, which lend the impression that faculty are in control. Universities commonly sport faculty senates, faculty advisory committees, faculty members on the Board of Regents, and various other official mechanisms, which suggest major faculty input into university governance. It’s all window dressing. The real power runs from the President down through the metastasizing labyrinth of campus administrators who make the critical decisions.

Accountability. Suspicion grew over the years that life-time tenure appointments for faculty could lead to abuses (as it sometimes does). Structures were put in place to mitigate. Annual faculty activity reviews, department and program reviews and periodic academic assessments by both internal and external committees – driven by the administrative contingent – has further sapped faculty energy and power.

Hegemony and Fear. As indicated above, the liberal mindset is pervasive on campus. Administrators have devised clever and forceful methods to ensure that it stays that way. Faculty who buck it are ostracized, sometimes even forced out. More commonly, faculty dissidents are cowed and silenced by the threat to their career posed by the memory of past ostracization of those who flaunted their opposition. Heaven help those, for example, who fail to genuflect to the Diversity regime imposed by campus administrators.

Adjunct Faculty. Another well-documented phenomenon is the startling decrease in the percentage of instructional staff on campus comprised of tenured faculty. Some 70 percent of those who teach on campus are off the tenure track. They  have little interest and virtually no say in campus governance. It is not surprising that the decreasing percentage of regular academic faculty has less influence also.

And Now, the Consequences

So what have been the consequences of this transformation of campus power from the faculty to the administrators? Here are four terrible ones:

  1. Politicization of the campus. There is an almost all-pervasive political bias on campus. Faculty and students who don’t parrot the liberal line – not just on politics, but also in science (e.g., climate and evolution), culture (gay marriage and abortion) and economics (spending and taxes) – are viewed not only as wrong, but often as crazy. It is intimidating, tyrannical and completely contrary to what the nature of a campus environment should encompass. Education has been replaced by indoctrination.
  2. Lowering of academic standards. Because of the spread of meaningless studies programs, abuses of affirmative action, pressure for grade inflation and the silencing of the faculty, the academic standards of the university continue to slip. Campuses have degenerated into diploma mills producing clones of the liberal people who run the place, not independent thinkers with innovative ideas – which is of course what universities are supposed to produce.
  3. Prohibitive cost. The explosive growth of the administrative clan has led to an unchecked growth in the cost of the product. Tuitions have skyrocketed; students graduate (or don’t graduate) after incurring enormous debt; increasingly the supposed payoff in higher income that a university degree is supposed to ensure is disappearing and finally, the worth of the product that the universities are selling is called into question.
  4. Bubble. Which leads to the increasingly widespread belief that higher education is our nation’s next bubble. The situation outlined in #3 above is unsustainable. And as Stein’s Law says: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” A major crisis in higher education is waiting around a nearby corner. One of the outcomes of the budding crisis could be a return to a more prominent role for academic faculty in university governance. Or maybe not.


  • Ronald Lipsman

    Ron Lipsman, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Maryland, writes about politics, culture, education, science and sports at http://ronlipsman.com. Though formally retired, he continues to teach part-time.

8 thoughts on “Who Runs Our Colleges– Administrators or Faculty?

  1. As a campus administrator, I have to say that I resemble these remarks! 🙂 But seriously, I often feel that I’m in the cockpit when it comes to the conflict between bureaucracy and the faculty. It is an important vantage point because I tend to notice how both function.
    Bureaucracy controls through expertise at the top. A Human Resources Director knows all of the procedures surrounding HR activities. A philosopher or a musician (with the exception of this one) cares little for the knowledge of these procedures. Furthermore, when you hire a philosopher or a musician as faculty in their respective departments, you wouldn’t hire a manager. Otherwise the department would suffer a sharp decline. However bereft of managerial skills these faculty might be… they are more than capable of reading a manual.
    What faculty need is an efficient extension of bureaucratic knowledge similar to what we see in private industry in customer service knowledge bases. This is how you bust the “Secrecy” and pierce through “Duplicity.”

  2. I think it is long past time for a very serious discussion about the question of if faculty are management or if they are labor. If faculty are the ones who make the decisions as to how the university is run, then they need to pay the price when those decisions are unwise and costly — they need to loose their jobs and their money and otherwise be exposed to the risk of management.
    It goes without saying that they can’t be unionized — a union can only protect themselves from management, which is themselves anyway.
    Second, I argue that the students are the actual customers of a university, much like the clients are the customers of a law firm, and while there is no question that a law firm works for its clients, many faculty believe that a university should work for them. Hence there is a situation similar to what happened in Detroit a half century ago where labor and management each got what they wanted, at the expense of the customer — who then went to the Japanese imports.
    Students are not happy in college towns today — and I suspect that a half century from now, the large campus university will be a thing of the past.
    Why should students pay for college? Why should their parents? No one is asking this — and the presumption of reward is being shown to be a quite hollow promise. So what is that the customer gets for his/her/its money????
    And if there are no students, then what?

  3. Much of what you say is interesting, but it’s absurd to claim that faculty want more administrators.
    I’m a faculty member and I know no faculty member who wants more administrators. We think they interfere with the academic mission of the university and are taking resources for administration that could be used for students and faulty.

  4. Milton Friedman spoke of this citing Gannon’s Theory of Bureaucratic Displacement. His talk (on Youtube) is on socialize medicine but the trend applies to education.
    But the take over of the university by administrators is, as in society at large, a failure to keep “government” small and restrained. It is seductive to have others take on the tedious but he who controls the money, controls everything.

  5. Just as corporate culture was changed over the last few decades by the forced inclusion of independent (outside) board members, perhaps now would be the time for Boards of Trustees to be opened up to other non-alumni views, and for those Boards to become more active in setting the tone for the Executive and his Administration/Faculty to observe?
    To voluntarily alter the manner in which these educational institutions conduct themselves will be far less painful than the mandatory changes that the coming Higher-Ed implosion will bring.

  6. This is the best narrative account of what a careful study of staffing patterns, cost, and quality during the last fifty years reveals.
    An additional warning might be added, tenured faculty are likely to lose both tenure and shared governance through reform; if that happens, the cost/quality problems we see today will be made much worse. In addition, it could seriously damage what is right with HE, namely research. The point is faculty have not been in control for at least the last three decades — what we see today is the product of out of control administrations and governing boards.
    Robert Martin

  7. I think this overlooks an important factor: the increasing interest of faculty in doing research and the increasing overall emphasis on research prestige as the goal of a university.
    Just as research takes time away from teaching it also takes time away from administration. Better to hire a cadre of professional administrators to take care of running the university than to use the time of research faculty.
    In this scenario, however, faculty mostly have themselves to blame if they do not like the power of administrators.

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