Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Admin Men" (Part I): Inside the Corporate Offices of Wannabe U.

Warning to deans, provosts and presidents! Be careful what you say; a sociologist may be listening. Sociologist Gaye Tuchman’s forthcoming new book, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University is the latest in a series of faculty-authored offerings that decry a new breed of campus administrators – job-hopping “wannabe corporate managers,” who view students as customers and academic departments as revenue centers, and whose mantra is cost reduction, down-sizing, and “transforming” their schools to move up in the rankings while, not coincidentally, feathering their nests.

Sociologists see the world differently from most folks. They see patterns everywhere. A friendly pat on the shoulder establishes dominance; the celery sticks on an hors d’oeuvres tray mark the lowly status of the retiree. Who speaks first, who interrupts whom, who sits where, who has a wood desk and an office on the second floor – all of these are “tells” about power and status, who’s up and who’s down, and what’s in and what’s out

To sociologists, language is encumbered with portentous meanings. The dean cares about his faculty becomes The dean cares about “his” faculty. The college emphasizes minority recruitment becomes The college emphasizes “minority” recruitment. Sociologists live in a world infused with rituals, symbols and subtext, where hidden agendas and meanings lurk beneath the benign veneer of ordinary human discourse.

In this world, people are motivated by primordial instincts – to compete and dominate, to enhance status, to subjugate opponents, to secure one’s position in the hierarchy. The driving force of the human spirit is all about accumulating power, and in the world of university administration, lofty educational ideals inevitably succumb to the addictive desire to be the alpha dog.

Here is the argument. Public universities are increasingly headed by job-hopping professional managers. Like the “efficiency experts” of yore, these new corporate wannabes seek to root out waste and duplication and shed programs that don’t make money. But they mostly chop the academic side of the enterprise, siphoning off money to expand their empires. They have little loyalty to their university and its principled values. They measure their success not by the advancement of learning and the personal growth of students but by the size of their salaries and the bottom-line numbers on balance sheets. They arrive on campuses spouting banal clich├ęs from the business world (“doing more with less”), and their seldom-justified strategies for transformation are mostly empty rhetoric.

I received an advance copy of Wannabe U. from the Univ. of Chicago Press, where evidently it is seen as a counterpoint to my book, “Saving Alma Mater” – same press, and about the same release date, price, and size, Even the cover designs are similar. (Who says editors don’t have a sense of humor?) In my book I looked at the faculty culture from an administrator's viewpoint, so turnabout is fair play.

However, what sets author Tuchman’s book apart from others in this genre is that it is not an anger-steeped polemic. It is in fact a well-written, scholarly, (and insightful) documentary, told from the view outside the administration building. Yes, her biases sneak into her message, as one would expect, but mostly she just lays out the facts as she sees them.

Here are some facts. University administrators come and go. They always bring an agenda for change, and the change is always resisted, either by the faculty or their own administrative subordinates. There are power plays, wheeling and dealing, back office politicking, deals struck, alliances formed, and compromises made. Sometimes new presidents or provosts or deans succeed and sometimes they fail. But either way, in the background, the faculty are always watching and always interpreting. Even if the administrators themselves do not understand the ebb and flow of power in their domains, or recognize the scripts and patterns that are playing out, there are those who do and who are alarmed by what they are seeing.

Wannabe U. made me squirm at times, because many of the examples paralleled my own experiences. And therein lies the book’s value. I hope my administrative colleagues will read this book, not because they will agree with it, or even because it is, as the dust cover asserts, “an eye-opening expose of the modern university.” They should read it because people in power seldom understand how their actions are viewed by others, and why their good deeds and intentions often provoke suspicion and mistrust.

Where I fault Wannabe U. is that its view of human nature seems too single-valued. Yes, there are money-grubbing, status-seeking, power hungry administrators at universities. (In this regard, and to her credit, Prof. Tuchman doesn’t let her faculty colleagues off the hook either). But there are also administrators who really want to do the right thing (oops, “right” thing): deans of students who care deeply about students, provosts who believe in academic integrity and faculty values, and presidents who stay up nights worrying about the external forces that jeopardize their campuses. Like everybody else, university administrators are a complex palette of strengths and weaknesses, of selflessness and personal ambition, and what they do is an admixture of idealism and practicality. Mostly, in my experience, they are doing the best they can at their jobs, laboring under difficult and sometimes impossible circumstances. Just like their faculty counterparts.

But what about this notion of the corporate university? Are public universities really sacrificing core academic values to the uncaring gods of the corporate marketplace and the unceasing quest for money? Stay tuned. That will be the topic of Part II.

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