Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed: Bashing Administrators While the University Burns, by Gabriel Paquette (Oregon):
In a recent piece in The Chronicle Review, François Furstenberg, a historian at the Johns Hopkins University, and a former colleague whom I greatly respect, blasts his university’s administration, which recently cut its contribution to its employees’ retirement plans. He diagnoses and denounces this policy as an inevitable outcome of the corporatization of the university and the centralization of authority within it. Norms of shared governance have given way to dirigisme.
Furstenberg joins a venerable tradition of scholars, stretching from Thorstein Veblen to his colleague Benjamin Ginsberg, who decry the misplaced priorities of universities and those who lead them. Infected by the mentality of the marketplace, these custodians of tradition contend, universities have abandoned their lofty (and laudable) mission as creators and repositories of knowledge. They have been reduced to mere finishing schools for the offspring of the One Percent. Their endowments serve as tax shelters for latter-day captains of industry whose philanthropic priorities conflict with, and eventually supersede, long-cherished academic values.
The elegiac tone of Furstenberg’s essay is justified. The following are incontrovertible: the adjunctification of the professoriate; the proliferation of deans; the defunding of public universities; the depreciation of the humanities; the sharp rise in managerial salaries; the comparative stagnation of faculty and staff compensation; the conflation of a university’s reputation with the fortunes of its athletic teams; and the asset-stripping that sometimes accompanies university partnerships with private enterprise.
It is not my purpose to rebut Furstenberg’s critique or to rationalize the injurious slashing of benefits. Yet his essay suffers from a defect that undermines its forcefulness — a false nostalgia for a purportedly lost Golden Age of faculty-led university governance, insulated from and impervious to market forces. This notion is widely shared in contemporary academic culture. It is also harmful, stifling reform when universities can ill afford complacency.
If universities are to survive the present crisis (and, sadly, many will not), a collective drive for self-preservation must replace the internecine jostling between the faculty and administration. Averting a mass-extinction event will necessitate a radical restructuring of the university, which can only succeed with an unprecedented degree of collaboration.
Myths provide comfort but offer little practical guidance. It is easy enough to conjure a vision of a lost academic paradise where philosopher-kings served as presidents, and departments were semiautonomous cantons. This paradise, the myth continues, was decimated by the irruption of centralized authority, the eclipse of academic by corporate values, and the corruption brought by private philanthropy and athletics. The only chance for redemption, according to this view, is a restoration of the prelapsarian idyll. ...
Denunciation, recrimination, and grandstanding are pit stops on the road to oblivion. This is not to say that faculty criticisms of university leadership are unfounded or invalid. But they are a dead end unless accompanied by the constructive aim of collective betterment. The allure of mounting the barricades is almost irresistible, but what’s the point if we all end up guillotined? What use is rehearsing old grievances if students balk at further indebtedness, and our revenue models collapse?
I anticipate one of two scenarios in the coming years. In the first, the familiar feuds persist, and the university edifice crumbles, with old enmities slight consolation for those who remain amid the ruins. In the second, instinctive self-preservation and mutual interest incite faculty-administrative cooperation, institutional moribundity is reversed, and a new university is erected on the foundations of the old. Viva la revolución, indeed.