There’s something wrong with American higher education today, and Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor who has worked at multiple prestigious U.S. universities, is convinced he’s identified the primary component of the problem: college administrators. His work, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters, is a polemic against the spread of what he refers to as the “administrative blight” that has proliferated throughout higher education in the past several years. Administrators and faculty are engaged in a war for control of the fate of the university, Ginsberg argues, and he makes it abundantly clear which side he believes actually has the best interests of the university at heart.
It’s a stance that will likely seem reasonable to most faculty. Indeed, Ginsberg’s unwavering sarcasm and biting criticism against the armies of what he calls “deans, deanlings, and deanlets,” their self-aggrandizing campaigns and their academically watered-down programs, makes the book quite entertaining to read. And it would have been more entertaining, if one could escape the suspicion that he’s partially right. His primary argument is that administrators exist primarily to promote their own agendas and expand their own influence, and that this often has very little to do with the primary job of the university, which is teaching and research.
The work will resonate (either positively or negatively) with anyone in higher education, though Ginsberg’s vindictive tone (comparing administrators in various places throughout the work to blight, disease, cancer, and even stronger metaphors) eventually wears a bit thin and is in places unfair. But hang around with any group of faculty for long, and much of what he says will start to sound familiar.
Though I don’t go so far as Ginsberg, my own institution has seen a recent proliferation of administrative levels, and we can all name administrators for whom we don’t have a very clear idea of what it is they actually do. The bureaucratic fuzz-speak on efficiencies, best practices, missions statements, and outcomes that is easy target for ridicule in business settings has become more and more a part of university life in my (very short) experience. Things are changing, outside forces seem to be trying to reshape and restructure what happens on university campuses, and people like Ginsberg are taking note (and getting angry).
For Ginsberg though, any new administrative program is an attempt by administrators– career professionals, in Ginsberg’s evaluation, with little research or teaching experience– to expand their realms of influence and undermine the power and influence of the faculty. It’s a conflict between administrators who wish to run the campus like a business (primarily to their own benefit, Ginsberg claims) and the faculty who are actually responsible for the teaching and research that is the university’s true purpose. Get rid of most administrators, Ginsberg argues, and not many folks on campus would actually notice. But get rid of the professors, and the work of the university grinds to a halt.
Ginsberg, using a mix of anecdotes and hard data, begins his case by outlining the recent growth in total number of administrators in higher education, contrasting it with trends in faculty growth, and explores (and explodes) the rationals often offered for these trends, including financial pressures and outside accreditation requirements. He then provides his (rather snarky) analysis of what administrators actually “do,” explains the ways their cross-purposes with faculty actually end up impeding the university’s true mission of research and teaching, and blows the whistle on attempts to use things like diversity and cultural sensitivity as covers for further expansion of administrative bloat. He takes particular pleasure in highlighting the many recent accounts of inside dealing between trustees and university administrators as well as stories of fraud and spending that have come to light in some of the country’s most prestigious universities.
Ginsberg includes a chapter on the rise and fall of the tenure system in the United States, which he (rightly, I think) believes is central to concerns regarding academic freedom. In Ginsberg’s narrative, faculty tenure came about in the first half of the twentieth century through a partnership with university administration and faculty to help build strong universities and shield them against interference from political forces and powerful board members or trustees. Now, however, tenure is seen as an antiquated relic that keeps universities from functioning effectively and prevents administrators from exercising complete power over potentially troublesome faculty.
Finally, Ginsberg ends with an appeal to the university’s mission and ethos and those charged with maintaining it: the faculty. Faculty, he says, have been complicit in the growth of administration and the erosion of their own influence because they’d rather teach and do research and are happy letting administrators shoulder the burden of day to day bureaucratic concerns. However, historically many administrative posts were held by faculty in temporary or part-time positions, a practice Ginsberg believes was healthier for the university because it prevented the bifurcation in values and methods between administrators and faculty that has taken place today. He provides some ideas of what can be done to stem the growth of the all-administrative university, offering a tentative call to arms (tentative because he admits it may be too late).
Before I respond more fully on Ginsberg’s approach, I have a small quibble with his analysis of administrative growth. He tends to be uniform in seeing this growth as a bad thing, but there’s one aspect I don’t think he takes into account, and that is the growth of research centers. Here I’m speaking from my experience as a graduate student, where places like the “Center for Science, Technology, and Values” or the “Center for International and Peace Studies” were major players in supporting and fostering research and teaching at my institution. Each of these centers had to supply a small cohort of administrators to make their work possible. Here, one could make the case that the growth of administration and even bureaucracy helped bridge the divide between development and alumni relations (as each of these centers bore the name of rich donors or administrators) and actual research and scholarship. Likewise at my current (much smaller) campus, similar centers are where some of the most exciting scholarship is taking place. Albeit both these centers are headed by faculty members, but they likely entail some administrative growth, especially if they continue to expand.
Apart from that, I agree with much of what Ginsberg has to say, but where I depart from him is in his evaluation of motives. For Ginsberg, administrators are always the bad guys, and their motive is simple self-enlargement. Perhaps it’s from my own experiences at smaller, faith-based universities, but I see the very real divide between administration and faculty that Ginsberg has outlined less about bad guys and good guys and more about differences in philosophy. At my own institution, for instance, I genuinely believe most of the faculty and administrators have the best interests of the college at heart. Frustration here arises though because we seem to go about pursuing that interest (and understanding it) in different worlds, using different (and often mutually incomprehensible) languages and practices. Instead of the outline of a war, which Ginsberg has provided, what would have been much more helpful to me is an outline that would have helped me understand the world of administration.
Perhaps Ginsberg believes such worlds are simply incommensurate. He touches on some of the relevant differences in his text as, for instance, when he explains in his introductory chapter:
Controlled by its faculty, the university is capable of producing not only new knowledge but new visions of society. The university can be a subversive institution in the best sense of that word, showing by its teaching and scholarship that new ways of thinking and acting are possible. Controlled by administrators, on the other hand, the university can never be more than what Stanley Aronowitz has aptly termed a knowledge factory, offering more or less sophisticated forms of vocational training to meet the needs of other established institutions in the public and private sectors. (p. 3)
What we begin to see are different (and sometimes mutually incompatible) views of the purpose of education, what I’ve referred to as the impossible tight-rope between constituencies and interests that my own administrative team has to walk (and does so largely successfully). The university, some tell us, has to stay relevant to remain solvent. Plus, we’re beholden to our denominational roots and support. So there’s a strong motivation to not do some of the things that college professors sometimes get in trouble for: being critical, helping our students to think and ask difficult questions even when we’re uncertain where the answers will fall. There’s a conflict of interests– a tension– between these two worlds, which is why there needs to be trust but also checks and balances (like tenure).
Another quote from Ginsberg:
As one prominent higher education accreditation official and former college administrator recently put it, though once seen as a route to “personal growth and development,’” higher education today should be understood more as, “a strategic investment of resources to produce benefits for business and industry by leveraging fiscal and human capital to produce a direct, immediate and positive financial return on those investments.” (p. 10, quote from Ronald L. Baker, “Keystones of Regional Accreditation: Intentions, Outcomes and Sustainability,” in Peter Hernon and Robert Dugan, Outcomes Assessment in Higher Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004), 1.)
And here we get back to the discussion of what education should be: whether vocational training, liberal arts education, or (more likely) some combination or balance of both. This is a debate that needs to happen, but it’s not going to happen in administrative retreats, planning sessions, or meetings with consultants. It must happen through dialogue and debate that involves (perhaps primarily) the faculty.
Ginsberg touches on this as well:
Even when their underlying motivations may be questionable, professors are obligated, at least in public, to present strong intellectual justifications for their positions. In turf wars among faculty members, victor is most often secured by those who succeed in framing the issue and offering the most compelling philosophical or scientific arguments on behalf of their cause. The best faculty debates have an educational value. (p. 84)
By contrast most administrative “debates” don’t really ever become debates, as they’re usually top-down directives issued from behind closed doors, even when they purport to be setting the plans or identities for the entire campus. Secondly, as Ginsberg notes, administrative decisions tend to simply be adoptions of “best practices” from other universities or even other industries with little intellectual justification provided. I agree with Ginsberg that the power of the faculty should not be curtailed, especially not the power to be agents in setting university course or policy, because the faculty have the expertise and the vested interest in the research and teaching for which the university itself exists.
I don’t think Ginsberg is fair with his evaluation of administrators as people, but I’m a bit naive and I also tend to give people as people the benefit of the doubt. Plus, I’m at a small institution where I can (for the most part) directly see how administrators work to make my job possible. But I think he’s right when he talks about the different worlds we live in. And this is where the crux of the matter lies.
So what is to be done? Ginsberg offers a few concrete suggestions, which I’ve modified into my own list of modest proposals specific to my own university, outlined below. My academic environment is very different from the ones in which Ginsberg has spent his career, but we share many of the same perspectives and values. We’re part of the same profession, and we both have an ideal of the university we’d like to see preserved, sustained, and developed. To that end, I propose that we:
1. Bring back tenure. As mentioned above, the tenure system is not perfect, but it’s an important balance against administrative authority. Even when the administration is largely benign, tenure is essential to academic freedom. The case could be made that this is even more important at a smaller institution, where personalities and politics have the potential to play a more direct role in conflicts between administration and faculty. The power to dismiss senior faculty members who have been vetted and promoted through due process should rest with the faculty as a whole and not the administration alone.
2. Give faculty representation on the board of trustees. As anecdotal evidence at my own institution supports, the trustees (who carry much of the power of the university, at least in theory) exist in a different world from the faculty. They’re made up of ministers and lay leaders in the community, with backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints that often differ widely from those of the faculty. It’s clear that effective leaders in this environment are those who can navigate between and have credibility with both of these disparate worlds. However, an easy step toward bridging these worlds and increasing faculty agency would be for the faculty to elect a small number of their own members to serve as representatives to this board.
3. Assign administrators some teaching load. This suggestion does not come from Ginsberg’s book but is especially suited to bridging the faculty/administrative divide at my own institution. Many of the faculty feel administrators live and work in a different world than we do as faculty, and many administrators have told me the same thing. This disconnect is heightened by differences in background; even when we want the same things, we don’t speak the same language. As a teaching institution, however, we can all agree that what happens in the classroom is essential. Requiring our administrators to bear some teaching load (or at the minimum requiring that any new administrative position have teaching load built into it) would not only bring faculty and administrators together as colleagues, it would also keep us planted in the same context with the same priorities. Moreover, administrators bearing some teaching load could go a long way to providing limited course release for faculty who wish to pursue research and scholarship but whose current course loads make this impossible.
I think Ginsberg is on to something in his treatment, though his acerbic tone isn’t going to win any administrators over to his side. And that’s not his point: Ginsberg is sure the battle lines are drawn, and he’s articulating a desperate faculty rearguard action. I’d like to think we’re on the same side, just speaking different languages. Unfortunately, I agree with Ginsberg that some of the language and values college administrators have adopted is largely incompatible with what I believe the true values of a liberal arts education actually are, but I haven’t yet given up hope that we can’t bridge those divides and do good work together.
I never really liked the Harry Potter books, and for years I’ve been trying to articulate to myself why. Probably part of it is the determination to be suspicious of anything for which there’s a lot of hype. They didn’t quite take with me when they first came out, even after the girl I was dating made me read the first one. It wasn’t until years later, when I saw the first part of the seventh movie with the same girl (who was by that time my wife) that I decided the story was getting gritty enough to make me curious. I read each book over the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays one year in graduate school, pausing after each volume to watch the movie adaptation. It was fun.
Now we’re doing the same thing with our twin eight-year-olds. This time, each time they both finish a book we’ve been watching the movie adaptation in the planetarium. We had a few of these “Harry Potter Parties” over the past summer and have made it up through Order of the Phoenix. After we finished the fourth movie, I figured I’d jump back in. I hadn’t read any of them in years, and Goblet of Fire had always been my wife’s favorite.
I still don’t get it. Part of me does, sure: it’s fun. Better than anything else, Rowling captures something (I’m not sure what) that makes you want to go back to Hogwarts with the three main characters each year. The magical boarding school aspect is fun. And as the novels progress, the growing threat of You-Know-Who’s return starts to become compelling. Pulling that out across several novels and following the Orwellian machinations of the Ministry of Magic to deny it eventually starts to build nicely.
But so many other books do this sort of thing so much better.
I had difficulty finishing Goblet of Fire. For one thing, I knew how it was going to end, so there wasn’t really anything driving me to finish it. (I honestly don’t understand how people read these books over and over again.) There’s a mystery, but Harry doesn’t really do anything to solve it. In fact, in this book Harry’s frustratingly passive. He spends most of the narrative complaining about how he doesn’t understand what’s going on, and the story plays out around him. This becomes quite a trend in the later books, aggravated by Harry’s growing adolescent angst. Maybe this is one of the reason the books appealed to kids who read it at a time when they were going through similar things in their lives, at least as far as feeling kind of powerless and at the mercy of circumstances.
Maybe Goblet is a good volume to analyze (though I’m really not going to spend much time doing that) because it’s a microcosm for my primary complaint about the series. As much fun as it is, and as much as Rowling has done just enough world-building to make it work, the whole series is stuff happening to Harry. Possibly that starts to change in the later books (which I don’t recall as sharply as this one I’ve just reread), but as far as book four Harry continues to be a fairly self-centered character who bumbles from one near-disaster to the next, shepherded through by people who are either trying to kill him or trying to protect him.
I guess the character I resonate with the most is Snape, because I kind of share his evaluation of Harry. And, though this isn’t directly relevant to Goblet, Snape’s ultimate fate is still my biggest (and in my opinion most credible) complaint against the series as a whole. A single outstanding question runs through the entire series, which is basically: which side is Snape on? And though we get an answer (not in Goblet), we never really get a resolution. Or rather, we get a resolution so pathetic as to not be worth the multi-book build up.
But I’m trying to give a review of Goblet. As far as the series goes, it illustrates that things are getting serious in the most blatant way possible: by killing a character. But as far as a stand-alone book, a tidy little puzzle gets wrapped up through last-minute revelations and Harry’s participation in the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Sure, the movie leaves out a lot of “plot details,” but it captures the essence: stuff happens to Harry. Serious stuff. But his friends help him out. Also powerful wizards.
But come on, give the kid a break. He’s really dealing with a lot of stuff right now. You know how his parents died, right?
To be absolutely fair though, watching my sons read through them and seeing how excited they got has been fantastic. I don’t have to be a huge fan to enjoy their enthusiasm or to enjoy watching them attempt to walk down the stairs, eat lunch, or do various household tasks with their noses in a pair of a five-hundred-page books. If Rowling is a gateway drug to Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, or L’Engle, then a million points to Gryffindor.
Sorry this is a bit late folks, but here’s my local astronomy column for this month:
This month, the skies favor the early riser. As Saturn slips toward the western horizon in our evening skies, Jupiter, Venus, and Mars take center stage throughout October in the skies before dawn. If you are someone who prefers to rise early, you are in luck. If you’re someone who tends to sleep in, set your alarm and treat yourself to a view of these bright objects at least a few times this month to see the steps in the eastern sky. I’ll give you a breakdown of the performance so you know what particular dates to watch for.
First though, a quick re-cap of the biggest celestial event of last month: the total lunar eclipse, which brought the current tetrad of total eclipses to a conclusion. Last year I had to bribe my astronomy students to rise before dawn to see the eclipse, but this time it was easily visible in the early evening sky. We shut off the lights on our side of campus, set up telescopes around the perimeter of the planetarium, and then waited for the sky—which had been cloudy all day—to clear. It did just in time, and we were able to view the duration of the eclipse in clear, dark skies from the heart of Bourbonnais. It was a sight, I trust, that few students will soon forget. (Several took pictures of the eclipse and have been posting them to social media under the hashtag #OlivetAstro.)
Now that the Moon is past full, it’s slipped from the evening skies and does not rise until after midnight. Its display isn’t over though, as it moves to the morning sky to join the planets before daybreak as a slender crescent. And that’s the first movement of this act you should catch these October mornings: set your alarm and rise before dawn on either Thursday, the 8th, or Friday, the 9th (or both). If the sky is clear, you’ll see three bright planets strung out in a line pointing down toward the eastern horizon.
The highest and brightest of these is Venus, which rises at about 3 AM and is high in the eastern sky before sunrise. Mars trails it to the east, and below them both is bright Jupiter. On the morning of the 8th, a thin crescent Moon rides just above Venus. By the next morning the Moon has dropped to join Mars and Jupiter as an even thinner crescent lower in the east. The slanted line of the three planets in the morning sky is a powerful illustration of the disk of our solar system, viewed from our tilted angle on the planet Earth.
Moving forward through the month, Venus falls eastward against the background stars each month, while Jupiter and Mars rise farther into the west. Jupiter passes by Mars on the morning of Saturday, the 17th, for the closest conjunction of this planetary arrangement. The bright giant planet passes within half a degree of the ruddy red planet. That’s about the diameter of a full Moon. At that distance, both planets could be visible in the same field of view through a telescope eyepiece.
It’s that ruddy red planet on which NASA scientists last month found the best evidence yet of running water on its surface. They studied the composition of dark tracts on Martian hillsides that change with the seasons and concluded these formed by briny water seeping out and staining the Martian surface.
Finally, as Venus continues its eastward motion against the background stars, it passes by Jupiter on the morning of Sunday, the 25th. Though the two planets are within a degree of each other (twice the diameter of a full Moon), this may be the most conspicuous conjunction of the month, as Jupiter and Venus are the two brightest planets in the sky. On the morning of the 25th and the following morning, they’ll form a brilliant pair with Mars trailing below them to the east.
Of course, their apparent closeness is only an illusion in our sky, the same way the light from a nearby lighthouse might appear close to a ship passing along the horizon. It’s only a matter of perspective. In reality, millions of miles of empty space separate those bright lights in the night.
This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal.
The art of an insightful, timely, and scientifically rigorous overview is a difficult one. This is compounded when the subjects are as broad as planets and stars, respectively. Fortunately for the educated non-specialists, there two slender volumes succeed where many astronomy texts fail: they provide a comprehensive, up-to-date survey of two fields with enough breadth to be useful and accessible to the astronomy educator while retaining enough technical grit for those desiring more depth.
The first volume (Planets), by an atmospheric planetologist at the Paris Observatory, frames the current state of exoplanetary research and the search for life in the context of comparative planetology, starting with Earth and moving through our planetary system.
Beginning with a brief introduction to observing and exploring planets (including exoplanetary detection), Encrenaz moves into a description of theories of planetary formation and then on to the bulk of the book, treating the physical properties of planets. Using Earth as test case and exploring things like geological activity and the water cycle, she provides in-depth comparison of the atmospheres, compositions, and internal structures of the planets of our solar system, touching briefly on some outer-system moons as well.
All of this sets the stage for the final third of the book, a look at exoplanetary systems– their discovery, their properties, and a quick overview of the status of the search for life in the cosmos. The chapters here remind that this is not a book on exoplanets exclusively: rather, it’s a survey of what we know about planets, which any more must include a detailed exposition of the ways other planetary systems are informing this knowledge.
In some respects, this is more helpful than a book on exoplanets alone, allowing an understanding of our own planetary context in light of these new discoveries.
The second volume is a survey of the physical processes (including a fascinating and detailed analysis of the interstellar medium) governing the life of stars. Lequeux, also of the Paris Observatory, takes a slightly more technical approach. Indeed, it was at times difficult to follow his account of the complex processes taking place within a star at various points in its life cycle.
However, the technical aspects provide a conceptual rigor often glossed over in more popular texts. Topics covered include the birth, physics, evolution, and death of single stars as well as a chapter on the “zoo” of double stars. It concludes with a glimpse of the larger questions of galactic evolution that stellar life and death play into.
Perhaps most importantly, this account discusses the many open questions in stellar evolution, especially star death, and the importance of modeling stellar interiors.
Both books are slender, less than 200 pages each, and filled with diagrams, images, and (especially in Lequeux’s) equations. Both are translations of works originally published in French, and the awkward language at times bears witness to this though never actively detracting from the text.
Neither volume is a textbook (there are no problem sets, for instance), nor are they purely popularizations, maintaining a balance between general survey and in-depth technical treatment. Often I read a survey text and learn nothing new; in contrast, these works are introductions written by active experts in their respective fields, lifting the veil on the physics behind the concepts but keeping a wide and fairly accessible scope, filled with a wealth of new information.
This review first appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Planetarian.
My first research project as an undergraduate was attempting to determine orbital parameters of some asteroids. I remember being fascinated by these obscure bodies and their mysterious classical names. If I had Dr. Hamilton’s slender volume at that time, some of my questions would have been answered.
The minor bodies of the solar system are an eclectic group with interesting histories, and Hamilton’s volume cracks the door onto this subject. The book (under 70 pages) gives a brief introduction to asteroids (nine pages), but is primarily a catalogue of information– physical characteristics, orbital data, and explanation of name and discovery– for select bodies. There is a lot of interesting information here, but unfortunately none of it is referenced. One example: according to Hamilton, asteroids 300 Geraldina was named by Auguste Charlois, an apparently prodigious asteroid-discoverer who was murdered by a former brother-in-law. There’s obviously a story here, but without references the reader is left with no avenue by which to learn more.
Worse yet is the omission of information related to the objects themselves. Dwarf planets are mentioned (and distinguished by bolding their names), but there is no discussion of their distinction from asteroids. Comets are mentioned without any explanation of how they differ from asteroids and dwarf planets and what this indicates about the physical nature of the solar system. The Yarkovsky Effect is mentioned three separate times without an explanation of what it is.
Finishing the book, I was left with far more questions than I had upon beginning it. Why do some asteroids discovered later have lower numbers than those discovered earlier (i.e., 6312 Robheinlein and 6470 Aldrin, for instance)? Why do some have names consisting of only numbers and letters (2012VP113, for example)? Is Quaoar officially considered a dwarf planet?
A simple response to these might be, “Look it up and find out,” but this leads to my major question regarding this book: in a day when I imagine information about all minor planets is available online somewhere (another reference that would have been helpful in this book), why publish a book with limited information about only a selection of asteroids? It might look on the observatory shelf, but as a catalogue it is inherently incomplete and immediately out of date.
This review first appeared in the September 2015 issue of The Planetarian.