Bad Administrators


Bad Administrators and the Corporatization of Higher Education

In recent months, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released several reports outlining alleged violations of academic freedom and tenure by administrators at four institutions: the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Southern Maine, and Felician College.

These institutions of higher learning stand accused of transgressing the widely accepted standards set forth by AAUP in its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. That statement begins with a series of important assertions, increasingly ignored today and therefore quoted at some length, regarding the fundamental non-profit mission of higher education:

“Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning. It carries with it duties correlative with rights.

Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society.”

In summation, AAUP insists that full freedom in research, publication, and classroom discussions be protected by tenure, and that dismissals of faculty follow due process.

By contrast, let us consider the fiasco at Felician College, where sixteen full-time contingent faculty members received notifications of termination (effective the following semester). When pressed by them, administrators cited ““the exigency of the college’s financial status” as justification for the non-renewals, but AAUP found that “despite the college president’s assertions to the contrary, the college’s own policies regarding termination of appointments had not been followed; and that their efforts to obtain an account of the process by which their appointments had been selected for nonrenewal had been fruitless.” In addition, the administration at Felician College refused to cooperate with the AAUP inquiry or allow investigators onto campus.

In the lead up to the firings, president Anne M. Prisco held a series of meetings with faculty and staff members concerning declines in enrollment at the college—and the dire fiscal consequences that might result from them. Yet, according to the AAUP report, one of the deans at the college “confirmed to the investigating committee that the financial picture at the beginning of fall 2012 did not differ significantly from earlier situations that the college had weathered successfully.”

So, what gives? Unfortunately, Felician College provides another example of the corporatization of higher education in the United States by which the methods of business are deployed into a traditionally non-profit sector. This influx of corporate models of institutional governance sanctions a hierarchical corporate culture ill-suited to the non-profit enterprise of education.

For example, consider the tactics employed by president Prisco to warrant the terminations of sixteen long-serving fulltime faculty members: she hired a consulting company to initiate an “academic program prioritization process” by which departments were ranked against each other on a scale. Next, a cadre of administrators and complicit faculty members took just four months to conduct their survey and issue their findings. Those academic programs placed “in the lowest quintiles were to be candidates for reorganization or discontinuance.” Effected departments had only six weeks to file reports in response to the so-called “findings.” Ongoing institutional assessment of campus operations provided cover for these shenanigans.

AAUP asserts that following these mass dismissals at Felician College, a palpable fear assailed the entire faculty, and many of its members were too afraid to communicate with the AAUP investigative committee at all. That trepidation was particularly pronounced among faculty members “seen by the administration as dissenters.” AAUP singles out the denial of “emeritus status to a top-notch teacher and productive scholar with a record of speaking out against what he found wrong” as “punitive and petty in the extreme.”

Due to the corporatization of higher education, a similar culture of fear now flourishes at many American colleges and universities suffering the twin misfortunes of administrative bloat and incapable leadership. In seeking an understanding of that phenomenon, we do well to remember the Peter Principle—a management theory that suggests corporate culture promotes individuals based on their past performance, until they ascend to positions for which they are unfit. That incompetence compels such leaders to cling to the social hierarchies by which they preserve and augment power, and to find ways to dismiss talented junior employees—both courses of action which work to the detriment of the institution.

So, if you work in higher education in any capacity, have a look around you. Have you witnessed bad administrators leave your institution—often for higher-ranking positions at other universities? Do you feel sorry for the institutions that somehow managed to retain these individuals and promote them to another level of incompetence? Or, maybe you have held high hopes for an incoming administrator, hired after a lengthy national search, only to discover later that you’ve been passed a “bad penny”?

The idiomatic expression, to “turn up like a bad penny,” dates from the eighteenth century when one cent (just one hundredth of a British pound or US dollar) was a coin of worth. To discover that one had been passed a counterfeit was more than a nuisance—it meant taking a real fiscal hit. Today, when a college or university hires a bad administrator, students and faculty members stand to lose much more than the equivalent of a hundredth of a dollar, as salaries for some executives are now unconscionably high.

Frank Bruni of the New York Times describes “shockingly lucrative deals that have become almost commonplace among college presidents.” He notes, for instance, Yale University paid former president Richard Levin an “additional retirement benefit” of $8.5 million following his departure. Likewise, Gordon Gee depleted the coffers of the Ohio State University with a pay package worth more than $6 million during his final year as president.

Annual presidential salaries such as these are no laughing matter in an era of rapidly rising tuitions, which students and their parents often struggle to finance. Bruni reports that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president Shirley Ann Jackson recently accepted a remuneration package worth over $7 million, John L. Lahey of Quinnipiac University brought in approximately $3.75 million, while Lee Bollinger of Columbia University settled for a meager $3.4 million.

Administrative bloat, and the fiscal recklessness of high management salaries, are draining the American academy of its intellectual capital. The majority of faculty across the nation now serve as adjunct professors (who fat-cat presidents deign to pay only $3,000 per 16-week course, on average).

Therefore, we must reject the administrative overreach exemplified by the leadership of Felician College, along with the infusion of mercantile values into the academy, and return administrative remuneration to levels commensurate with those of the full-time faculty. Thus, suddenly finding academe hostile to corporate salaries, many of these bad administrators will scamper off to find more lucrative opportunities in the corporate sector—where they belong.

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