Administrators are the Enemy, but Staff Members Aren't
Brian Rosenberg, the “president in residence of the Harvard Graduate School of Education,” has decided to take some time out of his busy schedule of soliciting billionaire donors and hosting politicians for dinner (paid for by the billionaire donors) to attack David Graeber in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is as willfully misguided as you would expect it to be, filled with paeans to the value of mental-health counselors and financial-aid officers. I’m sure that these low-paid and largely unthanked members of the university community are delighted to have a “president in residence” protecting their feelings from David Graeber, scourge of the common people and defender of privilege everywhere.
The basic premise of the article is that “faculty” are constantly being mean about “administrators,” even publishing academic articles about the worthlessness of “administrators.” Graeber, in his book Bullshit Jobs, argues that most managerial types are rather useless, and that they compound their uselessness by dedicating their careers to growing their own power. And although Graeber gave many examples from academia, his critique was far from narrowly confined to the university. And the argument is gaining steam; here’s a quote from an article in The Atlantic by Ed Zitron:
The United States, more than anywhere else in the world, is addicted to the concept of management...We have built corporate America around the idea that if you work hard enough, one day you might become a manager, someone who makes rather than takes orders. While this is not the only form of management, based on the response to my previous article and my newsletters on the subject, this appears to be how many white-collar employees feel. Across disparate industries, an overwhelming portion of management personnel is focused more on taking credit and placing blame rather than actually managing people, with dire consequences.
Notice the complete lack of financial-aid officers and mental-health counselors, or even academics at all. President-in-Residence Rosenberg is part of a national, if not international, trend of overpaid and unnecessary managers. (Rosenberg, in particular, is famous for being overpaid). But the people who the Residential President “manages” are allowed to write articles about their workplace, so he has to wake up every morning and read articles from the faculty complaining about their administrators. Can you imagine what managers in other industries would hear if their employees had to publish their thoughts? I imagine we’d hear from many more thin-skinned presidents and CEOs about the ingratitude of their workers.
The key to President-in-Residence Rosenberg’s umbrage is that faculty are mean to “administrators” because they think they’re worthless. Perhaps our Presidential Resident is too busy writing for the Chronicle to actually read the Chronicle. Here’s a paragraph from a recent Chronicle article (notice the hateful language of “administrator” which so hurts the feelings of people for whom the President in Residence serves as their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss):
As college endowments continue to balloon, administrators find themselves in the awkward position of defending budgetary discipline on the one hand while trumpeting financial success on the other. This has produced some bizarre spectacles. In October, UNC-Chapel Hill announced $5 million of library cuts — just a few weeks after heralding an endowment return of 43 percent and a total endowment of over $5 billion (yes, that’s billion with a “b”). Down the road in Durham, administrators at Duke University withheld cost-of-living salary increases, increased limits on class size, and raised tuition, citing financial pressures. Meanwhile, Duke’s endowment grew 56 percent, to $12.7 billion. Faculty and staff members have the sensation of living in two different realities at once, absorbing reductions to budget, jobs, and salaries while watching their institutions grow richer and richer.
Such cruelty! How could the Chronicle be so mean to the administrators? They should know that it’s simply the administration’s job to make $5 billion on the stock market and cut $5 million from the library budget. That’s just the kind of hard, necessary work that mental-health counselors and financial-aid officers do, right?
I’ve taken this as far as I can without finally fixing the President in Residence’s terminology. Notice the distinction made in the above quote, between three groups: faculty, staff, and administrators. To elide this distinction, President-in-Residence Rosenberg lumps those latter two together as “administrative staff” or “administrators.” This is an ahistorical grouping done only, it seems, to flatter the Residential President.
Here’s a rough but roughly true history: Once, in ye olden times, there were two main groups of people who worked at the university: faculty and staff. The people who ran the university, the administrators, were largely drawn from faculty. And the staff was much smaller and less powerful than the faculty. Now there are three groups: faculty, staff, and a special managerial class called “administrators.” Administrators can be drawn from faculty or staff, or hired away from the military or lured away from politics. Their loyalty seems to be to themselves and to the school’s endowment. Yes, the faculty tend to hate them (with excellent reason). The faculty also complain, with some good reasons and other petulant ones, about the growth of the staff. The staff also complain, with some good reasons and some petulant ones, about the entitlement of the faculty. But the staff also tend to hate the administrators (with excellent reason). The President in Residence here is essentially trying to convince the peasants to attack the kulaks, so the two groups won’t notice their common enemy. It’s not going to work. Financial-aid officers and mental-health counselors know that they are not “administrators.” I have no doubt their feelings will not be hurt by my attacks on the managerial class.
Let me conclude with President in Residence’s own conclusion, which is even more misguided than the rest of his argument:
"Here is an idea: The next time a student overdoses in a residence hall, call a faculty member; the next time a family pleads for more financial aid, call a faculty member; the next time an institution has to figure out a way to navigate safely through a global pandemic, call a faculty member.
They are, after all, the experts."
Dealing with a student who has overdosed in a residential hall is a staff job, although I’m sure somewhere along the line an administrator will take credit if a life is saved. Dealing with financial aid requests is a staff job, but there wouldn’t be so much pleading if the administrators would just divert some money away from themselves and toward the students. Navigating safely through the global pandemic was the administration’s job.
And they failed.