The Disappearing Faculty

02/01/2012 03:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012
  • Robert J. Spitzer Distinguished Service Professor and Chair, Political Science, SUNY Cortland; author of 15 books

Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg is one cranky faculty member -- but not without reason. In his recently published screed, The Fall of the Faculty, he paints a disturbing picture of American higher education. Ginsberg's chief accusation (and complaint) is that while universities were once "heavily influenced, if not completely driven," by faculty perspectives, they are now largely controlled by administrators and staffers who increasingly dictate institutional priorities (Ginsberg's petulant terms for these proliferating miscellaneous managers, administrators and directors are "deanlets and deanlings").

This "managerial inflation" promotes a professional class unto themselves that largely lacks faculty experience and academic values. As a consequence, administrative empire-building eclipses the primary intellectual goals that should animate a university. Ginsberg quotes approvingly former Harvard dean Henry Rosovsky, who noted that an institution's quality is "negatively correlated with the unrestrained power of administrators."

Both a cause and a consequence of this shift is changing personnel patterns on campuses. In 1975, universities nationwide employed almost 450,000 full-time faculty and almost 270,000 administrators and staff. By 2009, full-time faculty had increased by 63 percent, to 728,977, but administrators and staff had increased by a whopping 231 percent, to 890,540. Many reasons explain this "rampant administrative blight," but the net result is that university budget priorities shift from the academic gold standard of tenure-based faculty teaching and research to other activities and burgeoning education bureaucracies that may or may not advance the priority goals embodied in higher learning.

While Ginsberg offers nationwide university data, much of his ire, and most of his cutting anecdotes, are focused at large, research-oriented universities, where he has spent his professional life. Yet nationwide data can mask varying trends at different types of institutions. So how applicable is his analysis to an institution like mine, a mid-sized, resource-challenged undergraduate-oriented state college?

Like most public institutions, SUNY Cortland has struggled for several decades under the twin burdens of declining state support and surging academic programs pushed by increased student demand. But contra Ginsberg, our key campus administrators are bona fide academics who've demonstrated genuine devotion to core academic principles. Even so, Cortland's hiring patterns have mirrored those reported by Ginsberg.

An analysis of Cortland campus hiring patterns, spanning the period of 1991-2005, reported a 3.1 percent increase in full-time, tenure track faculty, a 23.8 percent increase in administrators, and a 70 percent increase in directors and staff. These data pair with another national trend reflected on our campus: the decline in full-time faculty. In 1981, Cortland employed 260 full-time tenure faculty, with a teaching ratio of 22.5 to 1; by 1991, it was 226; in 2005, 233 (and a teaching ratio of 31 to 1). Today, it's still 233. During this period of time, student enrollments have increased by over 1000.

Compared to our sister institutions, we're not doing that badly. In 2010, our campus bucked the trends of many institutions by hiring 28 full-time tenure-track faculty (most of these vacancies arose from an early retirement incentive). Still, that hiring failed to fully cover the even larger number of lines left vacant from the previous several years. During the same year, the number of administrative and staff lines filled was roughly quadruple that of faculty.

In the current academic year, the college has filled or recruited to date over twenty administrative and staff positions -- over $900,000 in salary -- including secretaries, janitors, keyboard specialists, an admissions advisor, maintenance helpers, an assistant vice president a moving crew laborer -- but only three full-time, tenure-track faculty positions (owing to special-circumstance reasons) and none in the schools of arts and sciences, or education. As our department has a full-time vacancy, I compiled and presented this data to the relevant administrators. How could the college mount any sane argument that these staff positions, taken together, were more important than any full-time faculty position? The response was two-fold -- that more full-time faculty hires were coming, but emphatic rejection of any notion that institutional personnel priorities were askew -- an assertion plainly at odds with the numbers.

If all this seems depressingly inevitable, it's not, as a recent study by the non-profit Delta Project reports. Even Ginsberg chronicles many institutions that have effectively managed education bureaucracy drift, and Cortland does better than many. As long as an institution remains focused on its core academic and intellectual mission, there's hope. Ginsberg's "all-administrative university" isn't here yet. It's up to you, gentle reader -- students, faculty, staff (yes, staff) and parents, to see that it doesn't by looking to your campuses to remind its institutional leaders why universities exist.