Saturday, April 4, 2009

That Huge Sucking Sound

If you’re on a university campus and listen carefully, you can hear a sucking sound. It sounds kind of like an industrial toilet flushing. That sound is the sound of hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent. This spending does nothing to increase the quality or quality of a university’s “output”, research and education.

Don’t get me wrong, universities will never be cheap to run. This is particularly true if the quality of education experienced by students is a concern. It gets even worse if academics actually have outside options. Education requires intensive personal interaction once one passes beyond the basics. If a low student/faculty ratio is required there is no way universities are going to be cheap.

There are a number of things that are making universities much more expensive than they need to be. There is a lot of money being spent on personnel who do little or nothing to support either of a university’s true functions, teaching and research. Moreover, the salaries these people receive are increasing. Consider this story in the national post. More and more university dollars are being spent on administration. This article doesn’t even consider all the other forms of “administration” taking place at university. I’m talking about all the PR, HR, and whatnot.

It is not a question of whether or not it is happening, the real question is why. I’ll suggest a few – feel free to contribute your own.

The first and most simple reason is the “Peter Principle”. This is the idea that it is the incompetent who get promoted. Who is likely to pursue administrative positions with the most vigor? If you are really interested in your research or running classes, you are unlikely to campaign for extra time in administration. Put a slightly less cynical way, if a group is truly interested in instruction and research, optimal allocation of administrative duties is to the individual with the lowest output in these areas. If this is correct, those with the least understanding of what drives research and education end up as the ones making the “strategic” decisions for the institution.

Another possibility is those who pursue and succeed in administration are those who are driven by a need to climb. These are the individuals in every organization that seek power, be it the title of CEO or the membership on the church council. These people might also have become the top researchers or instructors in their field. One of the measures of power in any bureaucracy is the number of people under you in the org chart. Thus, to improve one’s position, one needs more underlings. We then observe an increase in the number of people at a university that do not teach or perform research. We also see an increase in the number of retreats, strategic planning exercises, and whatnot. Such activities are a method of proving the usefulness of administrators. These also cost a lot of money. For a classic telling of the tale consider Yes Minister’s “The Compassionate Society Episode”.

There has also been a “professionalization” of university administrators. No longer is the university president a professor who sets aside their regular duties for a period of time for the greater good of the institution. At one time administration could have been seen as a noble sacrifice. Administration is now seen by many as being a separate career path. A career path that is clearly better paid than the being a standard faculty member. We further see evidence of this with the rise of university administration referring to itself as management or *shudder* executive management. The last link in the logic chain is that executives need executive pay.

These are just a few possible explanations. There are a lot of others, many of which are not as hard on administration as I’m being here. I don’t admire most administrators their jobs. Dealing with large numbers of academics is like trying to herd arrogant cats (more arrogant than normal that is). Maybe I’m jealous of the pay. Still, I hear a sucking sound.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good fill someone in on and this mail helped me alot in my college assignement. Thank you seeking your information.