Sunday, September 29, 2013

UC Administrators, the Universities' Own Worst Enemies

Since protests and direct action emerged on University of California campuses as the only tool at students’ disposal to resist soaring fees and diminished funding in 2009, one of the key criticisms of the administration has been its own bloat.  This was both the weakness and strength of protests on campuses.  They identified what seemed like a serious misuse of funds: massive salaries for administrators, whose numbers were growing, at the same time that students were facing higher fees and departments were being told to tighten belts.
This criticism rang particularly true because it mirrored the cleavages at other levels of our society.  Services for the working and middle classes were cut back drastically as the recession took its toll, but tax levels for the wealthy remained largely fixed in place, and the financial criminals whose profiteering and irresponsibility engineered the crisis parachuted from their Wall Street towers flush with cash.  That the already wealthy should be given a reprieve when the poor struggled was bad enough.  That people guilty of criminal behaviour should be bailed out at the taxpayer expense was too much to bear.
Similarly, as UC struggled to weather divestment by the state of California, administrators who had not to all appearances done much to prepare for the crisis, and who simply passed the burden down to students, were rewarded for their lackadaisical performance.  So in the eyes of students, they became corrupt Fat Cats, and the target of virtually all protest and ire on campus.
At the time, I was very critical of targeting administrators for protest—not because I disagreed with any of the injustices and inequities pointed out by their critics, but because I believed then (and now) that they were the wrong targets.  After all, with the best will in the world and fiercest belt-tightening by the administrative class, the savings from administrative bloat would not have corrected the real problem, which was that, held hostage by a fundamentalist Republican Party, the state was unable to raise funds for the university, forcing administrators to turn to students and their families to shoulder the burden.  State politics, rather than campus offices, in other words, should have been the real target.
Now, several years down the road, I don’t disagree with my initial assessment.  But I do see the importance of taking on administrators, their salaries, the inequities they create on campus, and their false sense of their own importance. 
Late last year, John Hechinger wrote about “the troubling dean-to-professor ration” in an article of the same title.  He was not writing about the University of California in particular, but rather about the nationwide trend towards spending increasing money on administrators at the expense of faculty and students.  These bureaucratic officers are often charged with making the university leaner and meaner (Operation Excellence was Berkeley’s version of this ruthless cost-cutting exercise).  From administrators’ lofty offices, this means increased “efficiency”.  At the departmental level, where students, staff and faculty operate, this means heavier loads, service gaps, and more hardship on students in the form of restricted class offerings, larger class sizes, and fewer resources for navigating the expanding university bureaucracy.
In effect, administrators are expanding the ranks of their own, namely the people on campus who make no discernible contribution to the traditional mission of a university: the education of students by faculty.  They are expanding the ranks of the people charged with transforming the mission of the university, reducing its commitment to the public good, regarding students as “customers” instead of community members, seeing education as a “market” rather than a mission, and focusing on the short-term desires of industries rather than the long-term demands of our society.
And a growing caste of administrators is making a tidy bundle in the process, their mode of self-enrichment mirroring that of the irresponsible sectors of the private sphere.  I was somewhat baffled to learn that executives of UC’s healthcare and financial investment programs get bonuses “if they achieve certain goals, such as reducing patient infections or substantially growing the endowment”.  
In other words, the UC Regents pay other administrators bonuses to do their jobs.  To me, it is wrong and offensive that this occurs at a public, state-owned institution, and that the bonuses go to the people ultimately least important to UC’s mission.  Faculty see their salaries stagnate, and students see their tuition rise, and the people presiding over these worsening conditions get bonuses!
It is no wonder many Californians are irritated when UC’s administrators come to them complaining about divestment, but hand out bonuses to their compatriots and award massive compensation packages to campus Chancellors and the system’s President. 
As students look for new ways to make the case for their relevance as a constituency, the unjustness of record-high tuition, and the importance of the University to California, they should make it clear that these leech-like bureaucrats who drain UC of resources while degrading its character are not part of the vision we are defending.  I still think the focus should be on securing funding from the state to remake UC as a truly public institution by revisiting the state’s constitution which is weighted down by initiatives like the undemocratic Prop 13. 
But critiquing the excess of UC’s bureaucratic elite, the indifference of its administration, and the undemocratic character of its governing structure is also of great importance if Californians want to reclaim their University over the long-term.

A round up of recent commentary from this blog on the plight of higher education in California:

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