Is the Academic-Administrator an Anachronism?

by Lionel S. Lewis - 1969

The author judges academic-administrative talent to be—for good and sufficient reasons—generally poor. To solve the administrative problem, he says, universities will have to be fundamentally restructured.

Professor Lewis, who teaches sociology at Buffalo, judges academic-administrative talent to be—for good and sufficient reasons—generally poor. To solve the administrative problem, he says, universities will have to be fundamentally restructured. When that happens, there are likely to be two possibilities: that professional administrators replace the present-day academics; or (one Dr. Lewis much prefers) that the scholars and scientists on the faculty delegate the administrative job to salaried assistants. The proposal made here is daring; but it is made with an image of democratic community in mind. We recommend it to all who are concerned with the campus crisis—and those interested in -finding models for democracy.

The graphic change and unrest that have characterized American society in recent years have become so pervasive that even the sociologist cannot help but take notice of them in his analysis. Whether this sociological sensitivity is due to specially developed skills for observing social phenomena or to the facts that sociology is for the most part an academic pursuit and that the academic world has been particularly convulsed by this change and unrest cannot be easily ascertained. In any case, academic-administrators, those academic men who have taken to managing universities, are as aware as any sociologist that the American university is coming unglued.

There was a time when the academic-administrator could hope with some confidence that his reign would end naturally and peacefully: from old age, death, senility, or a budget crisis. This, of course, is no longer true, as there is now too much tumult on campus for even the most ingenuous academic-administrator to anticipate natural obsolescence. It is not surprising that institutions whose fundamental mission (research and teaching) is productive of change should be particularly beset at a time when so many in the country are questioning the very foundation of social order, the distribution of power and authority.

Campus unrest is usually diagnosed as a morbid condition of a slightly unhinged society that has fostered young anarchists, nihilists, artless idealists, embittered blacks, and syndicalists who have been unable or unwilling to leap the generation gap into suburbia. Disorder on campus can be seen as mostly a reflection of disorder in society, and those academic-administrators who are precipitously and dramatically sacrificed can be seen, for the most part, as victims of circumstance—sort of modern day Neville Chamberlains. Yet, this is not the total picture. Granted that Clark Kerr might still be craftily evading the reality of his 21st Century Babel and that Grayson Kirk might have ended his suzerainty in a more elegant fashion if social conditions in the country had not impinged upon the university, who would deny, nevertheless, that elements within universities have contributed to student discontent? It is au courant to point to careerism and moral corruption on the part of the faculty and intransigence and concern with bureaucratic detail on the part of the administration when specifying the conditions within academic institutions which make students unhappy and restive. Much has been written about these conditions, and some have even tried to explain why professors are what they are said to be—the most frequent constructions being early impoverishment, mild dementia, and/or inadequate socialization. However, too little attention has been given to understanding why the response of university administrations to what students feel are their needs and rights has been so clumsy. And the criticism that one does find of academic-administrators is usually wide of the mark.


It is not infrequently heard, for example, that academic-administrators lack intelligence. The fact that they are where they are seems sufficient evidence to reject such a generalization. Any investigation of the subject would probably reveal that for the most part they have active minds and are abreast of national and foreign affairs, the world of letters and arts, etc. When they are not administering, they are likely busy absorbing a wide assortment of knowledge which they feel will help them do this well. Even when there is little time to read a book review, let alone a book, there is always time to talk to someone who might have.

All of this cerebral ingestion, combined with active managing, however, has not helped, and may have precluded academic-administrators from cultivating the facility for critical thinking. Some may have little time for this, some may lack the inclination or patience to acquire the facility, or some may be too much the men of action to see this as a problem. Kingman Brewster's observation that "I get more stimulation by talking to people than by retreating to the library—it's out of the hurly-burly that I get my ideas" is the view of many academic-administrators.

Academic-administrators may know a great deal, but it would appear from some of their actions and statements that they have not given much thought to what they know. Three examples: While academic-administrators attest to the need for adequate facilities to produce a well-educated public, academic-administrators throughout the country over-burden their campuses with a wide assortment of nonacademic activities such as facilitating vocational recruitment for business and government, explained by one university president as having "a large educational component." While academic-administrators call for the national goal of excellence, academic-administrators throughout the country develop and support educational programs that cultivate a uniform mediocrity. While academic-administrators deplore the lack of competent and dedicated faculty, academic-administrators throughout the country dissipate a disproportionate amount of their limited resources pursuing and catering to a handful of celebrated, and sometimes aged, scholars, non-scholars, and scientists. The ideas that academic-administrators have to offer the university, and the nation, may be full of erudition, but they are empty of reflection. Although in the past few years the cliches of the academic-administrator have taken on a liberal cant, they are still only a recitation of conventional wisdom. Thus, in 1966 a university chancellor was able to offer this foolish celebration of the Great Society to an assemblage of the Association for Higher Education: "This [the disbelief that poverty exists in America] is at least in part because no other organized society in the history of the world has so effectively overcome poverty as has the United States. We earn more, possess more, consume more, and live better than any other people on earth."


The primary function of all administrators is to coordinate work activities in organizations to assure a high degree of effectiveness. There is no way, however, of organizing either of the two essential tasks of university faculty—research and teaching—in order to maximize success. Much research is an individual endeavor, not subject to extraneous control; for that research carried out by teams, outside direction can help increase input, but has not been shown to have much impact on output. The activity of teaching itself cannot be regulated, and all that can be done with reference to it is to make sure that there is a wide selection of courses available to the student, that these are not all offered at the same hour, and that there are well-ventilated classrooms, with ample seats, blackboard space, chalk, and other teaching aids, so that distractions are minimized. Yet, even these simple requirements are often not fulfilled. Perhaps the acid remark that "the principal function of a university administration is to cut the grass" would be heard less often if academic-administrators could show that they were able to carry out basic responsibilities capably.

Academic-administrators, then, have only to provide faculty with space and equipment to enable them to pursue their activities. Although these are sometimes inadequate, studies have shown that the morale of at least half of the faculty is moderately good, and one is obliged to give academic-administrators passing marks for their service to faculty.

On the other hand, academic-administrators must also satisfy the needs of students; they must order campus life so that the greatest amount of learning can take place. Since few would dispute the contention that not as much education occurs during the undergraduate years as ideally might, academic-administrators cannot be judged as successful with regard to students. This is not to say that they alone are to blame for the paucity of learning that takes place in universities; surely faculty have done as much and probably more to bring about this depressing condition. Yet, if one were to hold faculty totally responsible for this, then one would also be obliged to accept the tenet that academic-administrators should not have authority; it would make little sense to confer this on individuals for control, which they do not and cannot have, over a process which occurs only sporadically. Like many faculty, academic-administrators do not appear to be overly concerned about what goes on in the classroom. Last year, when asked about the preparation of teaching assistants, an associate dean of a graduate school replied indifferently, "You say a few prayers."


Some academic-administrators, and some others, are of the opinion that universities should provide more than formal and scholarly learning to students, that they are doing this, and that universities are consequently meeting their obligations. First, it is doubtful whether universities should take on these additional activities, particularly in light of the fact that they have had such poor results in attempting more basic duties. Second, they are probably failing here too. Given the low morale of students as manifested in what has been called discontent, defiance, and insurrection on innumerable campuses in recent years, it would be difficult to make a case for administrative accomplishment. Further, the standard measure of low morale is high turnover, and in spite of sanguine interpretations of statistics showing that many university dropouts eventually return to school, an alarming number of students do disrupt their program of studies. In addition, the finding of Professor Philip Jacob, after reviewing a massive number of research reports, that the long-range effects of higher education on students' values is almost nil, should be considered here. At most, university education is preparing a small proportion of young adults to fit into a ready-made, but far from perfect, society. This is a dubious achievement. In sum, academic-administrators really have little to do and, although they spend a good deal of time at it, they do it rather poorly.

It might be argued that the reason academic-administrators frequently flounder is that they are not trained as managers. This is a valid point. As a corollary, it is thought that it is really a blessing on two counts: universities do not become overly organized, and an arrangement exists whereby scholars and scientists are in influential positions to guard the interests of other scholars and scientists. Both of these propositions are probably false.


That there is less bureaucracy in universities than in other organizations is due to the nature of its functions, not its leadership. It would not be an easy matter for anyone to establish hierarchical control over the actual process of teaching and research. Where it has been possible to introduce routine, this has been done. Students must attend so many lectures a week for so many weeks for so many courses so that they may earn a certain grade point average to graduate. If they wish exemption from this standard, they can petition by filling out a form, obtaining the required signatures, and submitting it to an invisible committee. Faculty must also make so many appearances in the classroom, must teach a uniform number of courses, and are expected to give some distribution of grades. In addition, they must generally have an appointment well in advance to see a higher administrative official, can rarely induce the university to provide extraordinary equipment or facilities that might be necessary for a teaching or research program and must practically undergo trial by ordeal in order to obtain even the smallest sum of money needed to conclude some research. Pre-recorded televised lectures and scheduled reports demonstrating progress in research are the most recent innovations in the bureaucratization of universities.


It is foolish to believe that academic-administrators, because they have an academic background, are useful in protecting scholarship and science. If this were the case, then faculty-administrative relations would be more equable than they are at present. There would be no violations of academic freedom, nor would there be such a large disparity between administrative and faculty reward and privilege. In recent years, the condition of faculty has improved, but this has been mostly due to a labor shortage rather than to administrative solicitude. That this progress is but a surface condition was exemplified last year when the president of a state university explained his infringement on a faculty member's academic freedom, the denial of tenure after a letter of intent to grant this had been sent, as an act of "academic responsibility." (It would really be surprising if those who open up their campuses to the munitions industry, espionage agents, and political propagandists of both the right and left could grasp the meaning of either academic freedom or academic responsibility.) Many academic-administrators were not faculty members long enough or have been administrators for so many years that they have never known or have forgotten the faculty point of view, which, among other things, does not embrace the notion that institutional needs take precedence over those of the individual.

Thus, the "muddling through" that is the mark of university decision making is not a cute idiosyncrasy or a small price that must be paid for democratic rule, but a cover-up for administrative ineptitude, duplicity, ambivalence, or fear, which result from a lack of executive ability. The incompetence of one administration was highlighted this past Fall when in a university which boasts a president, four presidential assistants and two advisors, an executive vice-president with two assistants, seven other vice-presidents, a score of provosts and deans, and an assortment of directors and coordinators, several large departments were in the process of removal to a partially constructed "interim campus," where there were not even telephone facilities, during registration and the first week of school. Needless to say, the semester began with some confusion.


Universities undoubtedly need someone to lead and guide them. Yet, it is not primarily administrative leadership, but intellectual leadership, that is needed. This would require that present-day administrators be completely removed. Those now managing universities are too highly trained in other areas to perform the clerical functions that would still demand attention. On the other hand, they have not shown the capacity to think and do not have the scholarly accomplishment to provide an appropriate and acceptable example and inspiration to younger or more moderately endowed academics. Although in recent years there have been a number of exceptions like Columbia's Jacques Barzun, Chicago's George Beadle, or Stonybrook's Bentley Glass, academic-administrators are at best competent in their field of study. If they had been making significant, or even insignificant, contributions to scholarship or science, most perhaps would have continued in these fruitful pursuits and would not have readily opted for positions of power. And if they had had the ability of original thought, the institutions in which they have been conducting affairs might have attempted to follow new directions, reducing the emphasis on vocational training, applied research, continuing education programs, and other services for commercial interests, who can well afford to provide these for themselves. Is there a need for any university to expend effort to offer instruction in "Retail Merchandise and Management," "Introduction to Supervisory Skills," "Seminar for Widows and Divorcees," or even "Advanced Municipal Accounting," to use examples from the current continuing education listing of one large state university? Through only the most Byzantine reasoning could it be maintained that the teaching of such subjects contributes to the public welfare. On the other hand, the public welfare would be served if those business and governmental organizations which most directly benefited from the teaching of such courses were responsible for providing them. Now one dean's despairing explanation for all of this that "teaching the young to be intelligent, imaginative persons of high character is simply not a high priority among our national goals any longer," is unhappily valid. But do he and his colleagues realize the significant role they have played in bringing this about? And how many of them readily assume that this is how it must or should be?

There are some who contend that the faculty need more than scholarly models, that they are incapable of handling their own affairs, such as recruiting and promoting colleagues or developing curricula, and, in fact, require some structure to contain their impulsiveness, guile, and petulance. If the faculty cannot manage their affairs, it might be because they lack experience in doing so. Many times apathy about such matters on the part of faculty has resulted from years of disappointment and frustration at trying to sensibly affect their own affairs. Paternalism, whether practiced by racists, colonialists, or university royalists, seems only an implausible explanation to dignify existing conditions.


The poor quality of academic-administrative talent can be traced to the process of selection. Those reaching the pinnacle of authority arrive there by being deemed capable by those who make such recommendations, i.e., those already there. The surest way to be judged fit for a high administrative position is to carry out secondary administrative and committee assignments with enough fanfare to gain wide recognition. High visibility and some resemblance to those in high positions, then, are necessary conditions for moving up the administrative ladder. This helps promote the advancement of the faithful, the person with long service, and the sycophant. These, of course, are the same attributes sometimes necessary for recognition in large business organizations. In businesses, which aim for a tight-knit structure, the detrimental effects of a gerontocracy and favoritism may be minimal; in universities, which presumably attempt to create a milieu in which contemplation, imagination and creativity will thrive, this condition is wicked.

From years of deprivation, deference, and habit, faculty seem fairly well adjusted to the distribution of authority in universities. Many are aware that languor in research and publication, which might be penalized under an administration of scholars or scientists, is not a distinct disadvantage under present conditions, and may even be rewarded if enough time (that should be spent in the library or laboratory) is devoted to exaggerated compliments, social amenities, and gratuitous entertainment. In fact, only dedicated scholars and scientists who are not exhibitionists may be neglected or undervalued by institutions as they are now managed.

To correct the problem of leadership in universities, it will first be necessary to change their organization. Given the fact that structures of any institution are not easily modified, university reform may have to wait for more opportune times. Further, one cannot overlook a more basic consideration that, after almost 110 years since Yale University awarded the first Doctor of Philosophy degree in this country, everyone in the university does not yet understand its social function: the refinement of human sensibilities through discovery (research) and transmission (teaching) of that which is true, good, and beautiful. If they did, universities would not be offering instruction and degrees in what is euphemistically called management science, which is mainly a program to train experts in human manipulation to manage and give expert advice to organizations so that they might lull their employees, their constituents, or the public into believing that what is, must be and what is not, cannot be.

It is likely, nonetheless, that change will come, as there is a real possibility that Americans will lose interest in supporting institutions in which there appears to be an inverse relationship between building and expansion programs and the concern with education. Surely numerous suggestions for improvement will be forthcoming. If the advice of persons who advocate tightly organized bureaucracies is followed, then universities will have to turn to professional administrators. If persons who favor the collegial principle have their way, then scholars and scientists can delegate administrative tasks to salaried assistants. Since this alternative would increase the possibility that those who are engaged in cultivating qualities of the mind which would promote a more decent, humane, and liveable world would be successful, it seems to offer the most promise. As noone would be in the ascendancy, it would also make it less likely that anyone would use the university to further special interests, whether they were of labor or business, black or white, those in power or those out of power, liberal or conservative, radical or reactionary. If the concerns of university administrators were narrowly defined and non-academic, if leadership on campus were a function of academic qualification, and if the force of power were moral persuasion, higher learning might approach a millennium, and America's future leaders would have been part of a democracy upon which they would be able to model other institutions. Faculty, students, and the citizenry must continually work for such a community. It will not be attained easily, as many from both inside and outside the university see it as only a Utopian dream. In dismissing such an idea, one highly-placed academic-administrator wrote in 1967 that what is referred to as the company of equals "is, in fact, more likely an apathetic pseudo-democracy dominated by a few responsible individuals discussing trivial issues endlessly." Such derision will not miraculously vanish, and can only be neutralized by success in collegiality.

All things considered, the blending of the academic and the administrator has produced a hybrid which has been of little use to the university, and society, and which may pass away as surely as the Minotaur or, more accurately, the satyr.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 70 Number 8, 1969, p. 739-746 ID Number: 1875, Date Accessed: 12/5/2021 6:27:22 PM

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