The Administrator’s Dilemma | Higher Ed Gamma


Ready to be provoked, infuriated or exasperated, depending on your vantage point? Just read an article entitled “Stanford’s War on Social Life,” a sardonic, scornful exposé of the ways that the Farm’s administrators succeeded in curtailing that institution’s raucous campus culture.

Or as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes it in a tweet: “Striking piece about how Dean Wormer finally defeated the Delta guys.”

The author, Genevra Davis, who studied symbolic systems at Stanford, served as business manager of the Stanford Review and now writes on technology and youth culture, offers a rather gleeful takedown of administrative overreach that has eliminated the free-for-all culture that was Stanford’s secret sauce in the name of safety and inclusion.

Scraping names off buildings and replacing them with letters and numbers, eliminating many cultural theme houses, abolishing much of Greek life and, God forbid, draining Lake Lagunita not only neutered the campus’s social life but undercut Stanford’s motto—“Die Luft der Freiheit weht,” “the winds of freedom blow.”

The effect: to leave many students lonely, frustrated and isolated on an increasingly atomized campus.

As the author observes, it’s not an accident that the pivotal leader in this effort to rein in the campus’s unruly, rowdy (and sometimes sexist, elitist and exclusionary) culture was the former assistant dean for equity and diversity at Harvard, who was responsible for implementing that institution’s bias-reporting system and whose office released laminated place mats meant to guide students through family conversations about race, diversity and social justice over the 2015 Christmas holidays.

As The Washington Post put it: those place mats “offered a script for answering questions about some of the more controversial topics of the year, from ‘Islamaphobia [sic]/Refugees’ to ‘Black murders in the street.’”

Just as no fan pities the referee or umpire, those of us who have made our lives in the classroom rarely commiserate with academic administrators. Instead, many of us regard administrators as the enemy and decry administrative bloat, express fury at the “big bucks” they’re paid and dismiss most as paper-pushing meddlers.

In a recent article, Brian Rosenberg, Macalester’s past president and now president in residence at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, cites numerous examples of what he terms the “unjustified and destructive” contempt faculty feel for college’s nonteaching professionals, who are dismissed as autocrats and widget makers.

In an even more recent opinion essay in The Atlantic, staff writer Conor Friedersdorf declares, “Professors need the power to fire diversity bureaucrats. Scholars should drive out overzealous administrators, not vice versa.”

The fact is that today’s university administrators face a series of quandaries. The “take risks,” “learn on your own” culture of the late 1960s no longer cuts it in today’s litigious environment. If administrators are more zealous about protections, safety and equality, which they are, this is due to an unending series of lawsuits involving campus responsibility for suicides, shootings, harassment and sexual assault.

Just imagine what would happen if fraternities were free to do what they’d like in an age of easy access to drugs and alcohol.

Not only have court rulings increasingly restored, in modified form, institutions’ in loco parentis obligations, but many students themselves demand a safer, more supportive college experience.

It’s students who have been most vocal in calling for safe spaces where they can be themselves, free from parents, relatives and communities that aren’t supportive of their lifestyles or aspirations. It’s students who demand that faculty be more are respectful of their values, learning needs, anxieties and pronouns.

Student expectations about what college should provide have risen sharply. Many expect college to provide wraparound services. Many also assume their campus’s policies should reflect their politics, whether this involves removing racist iconography, increasing hiring from underrepresented communities, divesting from fossil fuel producers, contributing financially to community organizations or instituting graduation requirements focusing on race and diversity.

Even undergraduate unionization drives can be viewed, in part, as a yearning to feel protected, belong to a supportive group, have formal ways to complain and ensure that campus administrators are responsive to their needs and opinions.

I am surely not alone in hearing colleagues say something along the following lines, using coded language: “Back in my day, everyone just lived through the suffering/firehose approach … and it made us better doctors, engineers, lawyers and professors.”

Perhaps that’s true. But those were different times, with different students and different parents.

In those days, most students were cut from the same cloth (or appeared to be). There was no hidden curriculum, since most everyone at particular institutions came from roughly similar financial, academic and social backgrounds.

Higher education now serves as the infrastructure that American society has refused to build. Colleges and universities are not just educational institutions, but providers of health services, psychological services and disability services. They are expected to take steps to ensure housing affordability and food security. Our institutions also serve as sex education centers and food pantries—and providers of college prep for high schoolers and, just wait, of abortion services.

These responsibilities absorb huge amounts of attention from administrators. As a result, less time, effort, attention and resources are focused exclusively on education.

It’s never been easy to be an academic administrator, but it has never been harder than it is today, as expectations about what services institutions are to provide escalate, stakeholders become more demanding and intrusive, and budgets grow ever more constrained.

The pandemic, of course, has contributed greatly to the challenges administrators face. They not only faced tough decisions about testing, masking and vaccination requirements, but intense pressure to address student depression and anxiety, expand mental health services, and encourage faculty to become much more flexible in issuing accommodations.

The pandemic also deepened the disconnection between faculty and administrators, as many of the everyday interactions and banter that humanized campus leadership have vaporized.

Meanwhile, unionization efforts are profoundly altering the relationship between administrators, faculty and students, since student workers differ dramatically from other university staff in term of job requirements, hours, deadlines or disciplinary practices.

Administrators must strike an uneasy balance between a host of competing demands. They must:

  • Give students a high degree of autonomy, protection and a bigger voice in campus affairs, yet restrain and, where appropriate, punish inappropriate behavior and provide landing pads to ensure that no students get hurt.
  • Balance faculty members’ academic freedom, free speech rights and control over the curriculum with a respect for student sensitivities and students’ legal right to an educational setting that doesn’t limit or interfere with their ability to participate in or benefit from any campus program.
  • Dedicate a growing share of campus resources to support services and diversity initiatives without eroding the existing academic experience or failing to develop new initiatives.

Much administrative work is essential but invisible. In many ways, that’s a good thing. As a faculty member, I’m glad not to have to question a student’s request for an accommodation or deal with a dorm dispute, negotiate a contract with a graduate or undergraduate student union—or provide highly specific, wholly accurate academic advising.

But as feminist scholars have long pointed out: work that is invisible is inevitably undervalued.

I know this is hard advice to accept, but do find a place in your heart to pity today’s unfortunate, hapless administrators.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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