Commentary Magazine

A Professor’s Revolt

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Peruse the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a publication geared toward “people in academe,” and you will be confronted primarily with issues affecting the journal’s core audience: college “faculty members and administrators.” But administrative issues are rarely of interest only to administrators. On Friday, May 11, for example, those issues ranged from the fallout at Michigan State University, the institution that convicted child molester Larry Nassar called home, to a snowballing scandal over the unfair dismissal of a campus barista following a complaint about the profane rap music playing over the coffee shop speakers. From the tremendous to the trite, these are the day-to-day affairs that consume not just bureaucrats but the professorate and student body, too.

The journal is obliged to focus on occupational issues related to academia, so the publication doesn’t have much space left for the examination of complex ideas. When Chronicle does devote some room to the exploration of the product that higher education churns out, the results are often fascinating reflections on the culture that typifies the higher-education industry. London School of Economics Professor David Graeber’s essay on what he calls “the bullshitization of academic life” is no exception.

In the essay promoting his forthcoming book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, the professor advances a provocative idea: The bloating of administrative departments in colleges and universities isn’t just wasteful; it’s soul-sucking. What’s more, as university administrators become central to academic conduct, so, too, have their parochial concerns begun to dominate the life of the mind.

In most universities nowadays—and this seems to be true almost everywhere—academic staff find themselves spending less and less time studying, teaching, and writing about things, and more and more time measuring, assessing, discussing, and quantifying the way in which they study, teach, and write about things (or the way in which they propose to do so in the future. European universities, reportedly, now spend at least 1.4 billion euros [about 1.7 billion dollars] a year on failed grant applications.). It’s gotten to the point where “admin” now takes up so much of most professors’ time that complaining about it is the default mode of socializing among academic colleagues; indeed, insisting on talking instead about one’s latest research project or course idea is considered somewhat rude.

This is a relatively recent paradigmatic shift in how the academy views the role of administrators in higher education. Graeber observes that, in the 20-year period from 1985 to 2005, the number of administrators increased at universities by 85 percent while the number of students and faculty increased by only 50 percent. In that same period, the number of administrative staff ballooned by a staggering 240 percent.

Graeber attributes this condition to “managerial feudalism,” and the label has not been misapplied. The aristocracy he describes is barely distinguishable from seigneury. Department heads and faculty deans are beneficiaries of a modern form of Manorialism. After all, what is a lordship without vassals? As Graeber outlines, reputation demands that every administrative staffer of sufficient rank retain at least four or five subordinates. “Office workers are typically kept on even if they are doing literally nothing, lest somebody’s prestige suffer,” Graeber wrote.

Payroll costs are expensive. It is no coincidence that in nearly the same period that Graber identifies as the point at which university administrative staff began to expand exponentially the cost of achieving a higher education exploded. Between 1985 and 2011, the cost of a four-year degree increased by 498 percent while consumer inflation rose by just over 100 percent. American incomes have only just about kept pace with inflation in that same timeframe, so the cost of college has for many become a prohibitive expense even if it is increasingly a necessary one.

As Americans have become concerned that education is becoming a prohibitive expense, the American political class has stepped in to promise them deliverance. Democrats, in particular, are keen to promise miracles: “tuition-free” college at state and community schools and debt forgiveness for students who attend private institutions are the most popular solutions. But these efforts only mask costs by hiding them from consumers, ensuring that they will continue to grow and at a speedier pace. Thoughtless appeals to public sector intervention in the education market will only make the problem worse because the public sector is largely responsible for the problem in the first place.

Graeber is surely speaking from experience when he claims the serfs toiling in administrative fields are performing rote and unnecessary tasks, but he’s perhaps painting with too broad a brush. In 2013, longtime Johns Hopkins University Biostatistics Professor Roger Peng noted that the administrative staffers he’s observed aren’t busying themselves with make-work. They’re performing a vital service for the university: compliance.

For example, provosts and the battalion of staffers in their command are responsible for ensuring that the university meets federal standards on issues like “Title IX, accreditation, Americans with Disabilities Act, and many others.” Among the federal regulations with which universities and colleges must be compliant are guidelines involving age discrimination, animal welfare, anti-trust and anti-corruption laws, hazardous materials training and containment, lobbying restrictions, preserving parental and privacy rights, ensuring student security and adjudicating on-campus offenses, ensuring compliant meal plans and cafeteria spaces are available, meeting UNESCO standards, preserving trademarks, and complying with financial-disclosure provisions. And that’s just the federal level. Any school that provides online classes, for example, must run a gauntlet of state-level regulatory mechanisms. All of this costs money, which makes alumni relations and donor maintenance even more pivotal to a university’s operations. And none of this happens without a general counsel’s office sorting through all of it.

Peng observed that all this was, perhaps, suboptimal, but it’s just the way things are. What can you do about it? Graeber’s response is to rage against the new normal. Intellectual pursuits should not be reserved for a privileged few, while most in a university’s employ are relegated to desks and transformed into paper-pushing robots.

Graeber’s complaint about the higher-education industry is novel insofar as is devoted to personal fulfillment, which those who pursue a career in higher education are inclined to undervalue in service to the mission of shaping young minds. Self-interest isn’t sordid; it’s the foundation upon which civilizational advancements are built. Graeber’s breakthrough is to say out loud the inescapable conclusion that haunts his industry: The unsatisfying work of the administrative class on campus fails to nourish the soul. There is a way out, but government won’t guide anyone to that promised land.

In many ways, the conversation over how to reduce college costs is an intramural liberal debate with solutions ranging from more regulation to more taxpayer-provided offsets. If, however, Graeber’s attack on the left’s bureaucratic mindset takes root among liberal academicians, the prospects for significant and lasting higher education reform could be considerably less bleak.

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