EDGES BLOG: CSC Interview with Benjamin Ginsberg

EDGES BLOG: CSC Interview with Benjamin Ginsberg

This is an abridged version of the interview conducted with Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, and author of The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011; rpt. 2013). The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Zachary Marschall: A lot of your articles focus on the transition from faculty-led universities to non-academic-led universities. Did the turf war between faculty and non-faculty [administrators] affect how universities were managed, at one time, by professors?


Benjamin Ginsberg: The departmental turf wars are a more recent development. Many years ago when I was an assistant professor in 1972, departments were more fluid and the lines [between them] were more porous. That was reflected in a variety of things. Departmental offices were scattered all over the place. I was assigned an office where my next-door neighbor was chemist, an economist or historian. The next government professor was on a different floor. That contributed to the interdisciplinarity in a very positive way. For example, Paul Samuelson said that the inspiration for his quantitative work came from the chemists next door to him because he would talk about what they were doing. Second, there were a lot of collegial institutions on the campus. At Cornell and Hopkins, the tradition was you went to lunch at the faculty club and sat with all sorts of people. You see the last vestiges of it today: younger faculty don’t belong to the club. People tend to only know the people in their department and tend to be very conscious of departmental turf; and then within the department each subgroup defends its turf. I’m always amused when we hire an Americanist if that slot belongs to the American group. If that candidate has interests in political philosophy or comparative politics, the Americanists are sort of suspicious because the individual may be won over by another group. Interdisciplinarity is good in principle, but in practice it often breaks down. Some of the interdisciplinary programs have become quite disciplinary. I like to say that when I was a graduate student people described the university as the Athenian marketplace, but the reality is the World War I battlefield where different groups have surrounded some piece of turf, defend their turf and occasionally will launch an attack.


As to whether the growth of administration plays into this, I’d say in a completely different way. The departmental structure is a nuisance because it creates a structure of bureaucratic lines of responsibility. Without really thinking it through, faculty have begun to recognize that the department is all that they have left. I’ve heard people say at faculty meetings that we have to defend the department against the interests of the dean and provost because without the department we are atomized and totally at their mercy.


David Zeglen: You’ve talked at length about this notion of Parkinson’s Law. I’m interested in what catalyzed the transition from faculty-led to administration-led university leadership.


BG: It’s hard to point to a single cause. But one factor certainly was the absolute emphasis on publication for promotion and tenure; and that is fairly recent. Sixty years ago at elite schools, there was not a publication standard. For example, when I came to Cornell in 1972, there were a few older faculty members who had been promoted on some different standard. They hadn’t published anything, nor were they expected to. It was thought in the departments that some people published and others taught. For people like me, anything that diverted you from publication was a potential career-ender. In my age-cohort, we were more than happy to give over administrative duties. The publication standard really diverted faculty away from running the university.


Then, there was a change in the character of administrators hired. Boards of trustees kept looking at the schools and thought: these people don’t know anything about business – that we need to bring in people who know about running a business. This happened as schools started to grow their endowments and management of the endowment became a major factor [in running a university]. Schools began to enter financial markets to borrow money at a very large scale. Financialization started to produce a pressure and now it still does. It’s totally out of hand. This changed the [kind of] administrator who was hired. The old-time administrator was a classics professor who wasn’t doing much else.


There were two recruiting devices [before professionalization]. One was to try and persuade some faculty to do part-time administration; deans were part-timers. Again, when I came to Cornell the dean of Arts & Sciences was an economics professor. He did it part-time. No one thought being dean was a full-time job. There were no associate deans or vice-deans. There was a dean and the dean had a secretary. The other kind was the end-of-career academic who did it because people shamed him into it. Those folks were often very good administrators. They were committed to the college and committed to academics. Growing the administration was not just a priority--it was something that never would have occurred to them. In part because of pressure from boards and banks, universities began to hire more professional administrators and the[se administrators] began to replicate themselves. Today, and [the percentage] is growing, 30 percent of college presidents have no academic background.


ZM: In addition to this logic that says we have to hire different kinds of administrators, if the fiduciary responsibility lies with the board, do we have to look at the kinds of people that are becoming board members?  


BG: I don’t think so. This fiduciary responsibility is myth more than reality. Boards generally have no idea what’s going on. But they should. Most boards have one or two people who are major donors or provide access to bond markets. Boards have no real fiduciary responsibility. They’re not covered by Sarbanes-Oxley; non-profits aren’t, only for-profits. Quite a few join boards because they want to do business with the university. On most campuses if you walk around and look at the construction cranes, the crane will have the same last name on it as a board member. My suspicion is at UVa when the head of the Board of Visitors wanted to fire the president, there was some business [interest] at stake. I don’t have any inside dope, but that’s what people have told me. For the most part the board arrives on campus and a Potemkin Village is created. They’re kept away from faculty. I used to always give presentations to the board, but that’s long gone. The president would be hysterical if I called a board member because I might say something inconsistent with what the president had said.


ZM: Sarbanes-Oxley was an act that created legal liability for boards in the for-profit sector that you want to apply to non-profit schools. You talk about hiring practices, ethics and good business practices, but not legality. How does the Sarbanes-Oxley model translate to issues concerning the university?


BG: In a corporate setting Sarbanes-Oxley prohibits insider dealings between the board and executives. In the not-for-profit sector these are very common, almost the norm. Other federal law prohibits a board member from selling goods at a higher price than market value, but that doesn’t cover the real problem--that the board will look the other way because a board member earning revenue from a university doesn’t want to shake the boat. They’re not going to rip off the university by charging more, but they have a stake in the existing officers. That’s step one.


Step two is that Sarbanes-Oxley makes them liable for the misdeeds of their appointees. In the corporate sector, Sarbanes-Oxley has resulted in a fair amount of litigation as a result of turnover in boards and among corporate executives. If you look at the university, universities are filled with ethical and moral problems because there is no one watching. Just around this area, the president of AU was using the university as a personal piggy bank. Just last week two presidents, at CUNY and SUNY, were fired for embezzlement. This is so commonplace because there are no watchdogs. It’s up to the individuals to police themselves. When I talk to faculty around the country, several can point to examples on their own campus where university officials were quietly fired for stealing.


The for-profit sector is policed. The not-for-profit sector is the Wild Wild West.


DZ: Even with top administrative salary reductions, it would still be hard to make a dent in student debt levels. What do you think of proposals in political discourse right now that advocate for free tuition?


BG: The amount of revenue that goes into administrative salaries is shocking. Someone calculated that ¾ of the increase of tuition over the past 25 years has gone to administrative costs. If you reduce administrative costs to where they were 25 years ago, that’s a¾ reduction in tuition. It’s astonishing. You have $1 million presidents and no one has ever shown me that they do better than the $200,000 presidents. If you take the list of America’s highest paid [university] presidents, they’re not at America’s top schools. There’s very little overlap. If schools put a cap on how much they paid administrators, I don’t think they would suffer that much. They pay a huge amount of money and don’t get the best people anyway. There are people out there who  [i.e., the schools] would give up salary to work at the university rather than Lehman Brothers. Why don’t we get those people? If you pay $1 million, everybody applies. But let’s see who applies if you offer $300,000. It might be those that see the university as a privilege.


Closely related to this is the use of search firms for hiring. This is part of the disaster.


DZ: You’ve mentioned the issue of one person speaking up who is contingent faculty and gets fired. What do you think of adjunct faculty unionizing?


BG: I’m strongly for it. I think it’s utterly essential. Adjunct faculty are treated like shit. For the first couple of years, adjunct faculty take their teaching extremely seriously. They’re up to date in their scholarship. I think Hopkins pays $6,800 per course. It’s high in the adjunct business; $2,500 is the average going rate. At Northeastern when the adjuncts started unionizing, an associate dean was quoted in a newspaper saying unionization would interfere in the relationship between the professor and the student. Give me a break!


ZM: Earlier this year the University of Chicago denounced safe spaces in their welcome letter to incoming freshmen. The news coverage reminded me of your characterization of what a university-committee decision looks like. Do you see a relationship between increased administration and the advent of political correctness in our public rhetoric?


BG: There is a relationship. For university administrators, the faculty’s political and social commitments provide an opening. In the most egregious example, presidents and provosts have announced affirmative action plans and have declared that affirmative action is their highest goal. That’s nice, but what does it really mean? Affirmative action for diversity in the sciences can’t start with faculty hires because that requires years of pipeline building. University administrators are incapable of doing anything that requires years because their time horizon is short. Where are black physicists going to come from? They can’t be created overnight. Long before the administrators knew what [affirmative action] was, faculty were making efforts. What is the drive for diversity really doing? I don’t think it has anything to do with diversity per say. I think it’s an effort to take control over hiring and put functionaries – deanlets – on search committees. In every university where diversity has been declared to be the number one goal, the implementation seems to require deanlets on search committees and deanlets taking over the process. In the guise of promoting diversity, you’re seeing a takeover of the faculty. Diversity is a wonderful goal but the means for achieving diversity have nothing to do with putting dumb deanlets on search committees.


ZM: Is the growing power of deanlets a bubble or an irreversible trend?


BG: It’s not a bubble. It’s certainly a strong trend and at many schools it’s irreversible.


DZ: Is this playing out on similar lines at both public and private universities?


BG: Yes. There has been more bloat on the private side because on the public side state legislatures wake up and say that they’re spending a lot of money.


ZM: If you were on the Johns Hopkins budget committee, which offices or committees would you advocate cutting?   


BG: Everywhere the Title IX bureaucracy has grown beyond any purpose. It’s out there making work for itself finding things to police. The student services bureaucracy, which does important things, nevertheless is bloated beyond any reasonable usage and events work for itself. I was amazed to discover one year that our student services bureaucrats had created a committee on traditions. In turned out this committee on traditions was invented in Iowa and everybody copied it because it seemed like such a good thing to do to take up time. In the provost’s office, there will be usually many vice provosts and many assistant-vice provosts and associate-vice provosts. I advocate firing every third one. It’s random. Maybe two out of three because most of them don’t have too much to do. They make work for themselves. The bloat increases as you go up the ladder. Many of these people have nothing to do and go on retreat. Or, I’m sort of in favor of random killing here. It’s the Maoist model.