When there are too many administrators, which ones do *you* fire?

You know there are too many administrators when even The Nation argues there are too many administrators.* More importantly, though, everyone regardless of political bent is against “administrators” in the abstract but almost no one lists which administrators should be on the chopping block. Too few articles and polemicists say, “These are the 100 positions I’d eliminate at the University of Washington.” If a school decided to fire its “Diversity” department in the name of cost cutting, The Nation would be the first publication screaming about racism and institutional indifference and the betrayal of high-need populations. Everyone rails about administrators, but no one has concrete plans to halt their proliferation.

Consider UC-Berkeley’s “Vice Chancellor’s Office for Equity & Inclusion;” perhaps UC-Berkeley doesn’t need seven “equity and inclusion” teams or 17 employees in the Vice Chancellor’s Office for Equity & Inclusion.** The staff includes several financial analysts and a graphic designer exclusive to that office. California’s public salary database shows that that graphic designer earned $75,800 in 2014. The Development Director earns $109,000. The Executive Assistant earns $91,400. The Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion earns $209,000 a year. And so on. But UC-Berkeley will probably never cut this department (maybe that’s a Good Thing).

One sees this elsewhere. At Marymount Manhattan College, last week I got an email about a “Change of Title IX Coordinator.” That’s another part of one administrator’s job that didn’t exist decades ago. In addition, the email says the school “undertook an assessment of how best to comply with evolving federal and state legislation.” Which is another way of saying, “We spent a bunch of time and man hours.” Followed, since this is a large, modern organization, by numerous email followups. There were also “mandated student, faculty, and staff trainings” (emphasis added). Maybe that work is good and maybe it isn’t, but it’s still indicative of the time and energy and activities that otherwise hated administrators are doing.

(Title IX, by the way, is the subject of Laura Kipnis’s hilarious, expensive Title IX inquisition. I wouldn’t blame you if you left this somewhat dry article to read her funnier, ribald essay.)

I don’t want to pick on any particular school or even the education industry specifically. Regulatory compliance costs are increasing in virtually all industries, including the financial industry (link goes to a PDF) and many others. We rarely consider the systematic effects of regulatory compliance and instead think of each particular regulation / requirement in isolation. Nonetheless, when we get a lot of regulatory and other mandatory or optional costs together, we see the need for more lawyers, bureaucrats, administrators, and other people who all need to be paid and who have to be at least somewhat good at abstract thinking, writing, and statistics.

To be sure, the presidents and so forth making $500,000 or more per year is obscene on its face, but those are a relatively small number of positions, and, while I agree that college presidents should behave more like part of the university and less like corporate titans, I’m not sure that a small number of overly paid people is the biggest problem. I am sure that the next time I see someone announcing that we need to first fire all the administrators I’ll send them this post and get nothing in response.

* But here’s one, alternate explanation.

** Much of this post and its research came from a friend, who gave me permission to publish it.

Bureaucratic Heroism

Merve Emre’s “Bureaucratic Heroism” is among the best pieces I’ve read about contemporary movies and fiction; it’s hard to excerpt because the entire piece feels essential and it makes many subtle points, but I will point to this:

Bureaucratic heroes are not cartoon heroes, heroes for children who do not yet understand that the social world places limits on their actions. Nor are they adolescent, “dark” heroes like Batman, alternately rebelling against and ingratiating himself to lame authority figures. Bureaucratic heroes are “ultrareal” heroes for working, law-abiding adults: beholden to, yet eager to please, the systems of governance in which they operate. The rules they follow are not universal rules of justice, morality, or even common sense. They are rules that only make sense—that are only justifiable—within a particular institutional context, be it the CIA, the CDC, the corporation, or Hollywood itself. They are rules that perpetuate the self-preserving logic of the institutions that articulate them in the first place

The last bit is especially important: the “self-preserving logic” that holds institutions together is also always incomplete and inadequate for dealing with the needs of the complex real world. Everyone in the institution still has to make judgment calls of various kinds, and, because those judgment calls often entail breaking the rules, they leave violators vulnerable to institutional censure later on (here’s one example of an absurd experience that comes from refusing to break the mindless rules; the phrase “Kafkaesque” is surely used in the modern world with the rise of the bureaucratic state and corporation).

Following those rules also often yields sub-optimal or absurd outcomes, as pretty much everyone in industrialized countries has experienced at some point or another. Yet institutions still need those rules, and, as Emre points out in the introduction to his piece, “[Contagion‘s] true hero turns out to be the CDC, a tight regiment of epidemiologists and administrators whose acts of heroism are largely bureaucratic in nature: functional and routine, incremental and hierarchically situated, and keyed to the collection of data.”

San_Francisco-1905Contagion, maybe not coincidentally, is one of the few really good movies I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s taut and plot-driven yet simultaneously thoughtful; too few movies rise above being stupid spectacles. There is a place for stupid spectacle but it’s not in practically every movie, which is the impression I get from most movie ads and reviews.

Novels are better in this respect, but even then relatively few plumb what modern bureaucracies are like; one thing I like about Tom Perrotta’s Election is his subtle but real portrayal of education politics. Francine Prose is similarly skilled in Blue Angel, in which sexual harassment tribunals in universities utterly fail to understand what actual human relationships are like. Automatic, incorrect assumptions about life and sexuality get applied in a way that distributes tremendous power to the potentially unhinged.

Perhaps the best novel I’ve read in the last year also has a bureaucratic, corporate facet: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, in which scientist Anneck Swenson wrangles the funders of her research as a jungle guide might wrangle a python. Most of the novel occurs among a remote Amazonian tribe, yet even there athletic company symbols and university apparel appear on people otherwise living a pre-agricultural existence. Swenson fits into the heroic mode described this way by Emre, as “a ‘cinema of volition’ whose narrative tensions trade on the clean break between the hero’s boundless animus and the inertia that surrounds him.” In this case the hero is a her, but Swenson does experience “boundless animus” and overcomes the bureaucratic inertia that simultaneously enables her by providing money and holds her back by demanding results.

This is what bureaucratic mission creep looks like: the Citizenship and Integration Direct Services Grant Program

The Department of Homeland Security is offering $4,000,000 in the Citizenship and Integration Direct Services Grant Program, which is designed to “prepare Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) for citizenship” by “promoting the rights and responsibilities of citizenship through citizenship instruction and naturalization application services for LPRs.” Those of you who were paying attention in the aftermath of 9/11 might remember that the Department of Homeland Security was created in an effort to focus the government on stuff related to terrorism. In fact, the organization’s website still says that, sort of:

This Department of Homeland Security’s overriding and urgent mission is to lead the unified national effort to secure the country and preserve our freedoms.

Teaching immigrants about citizenship may be a very worthwhile, useful goal. But how it fits with an “overriding and urgent mission” to “secure the country” is an exercise left to the reader. But it’s a very good example of something that political science professors and other political types often talk about: the tendency for bureaucratic mission creep to happen over time.

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