The rise of the administrative university

By Glen Martin, for the RU AAUP, Oct. 2012

Books are beginning to appear about the nation-wide conversion of universities away from institutions dedicated to truth and knowledge and into a business model of education.  One such book is by Benjamin Ginsberg called The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters (2011). Ginsberg chronicles the demise of academic freedom, tenure, and the traditional faculty-driven conception of a quality curriculum and the independent pursuit of truth.

He also chronicles the leadership of the AAUP, since its founding in 1915, in the struggle against forces destructive of these values. The new American university is run on a business model and run by administrators. Administrators are concerned with numbers, cost-effectiveness, and PR: promoting departments, programs, and the university in a competitive, profit-oriented world of the education business. Under this model, student evaluations are just part of the same PR process.

Administrators want to convert every dimension of the university to this resurgent business model, but perhaps the most recalcitrant aspect of the university to this conversion process are faculty who often continue to persist in the outmoded views that their work is central to education and deals with dimensions of education not conformable to PR and the business mentality. How can administrators penetrate into the autonomy of the classroom to ensure that an atmosphere compatible with their business ideology is being maintained?  In this endeavor, student evaluations appear as a godsend.

It may be often be the case that some teachers, at this university and elsewhere, illicit reactions on anonymous, written student evaluations such as “This class was a complete waste of time. This teacher should be fired.”  Administrators, feigning concern, respond to such comments by quoting them in the faculty member’s annual evaluation in an ostensibly helpful way directed toward assisting the professor to improve his or her teaching by not eliciting such reactions. However, some (more jaded) faculty may see such student comments as intentional lies about their teacher likely generated because the students’ deepest ideological loyalties have been challenged.  Some of the more jaded may indeed see the focus on such isolated and off the wall student comments as an attack on academic freedom.

Students who write comments like “This class was a complete waste of time. This teacher should be fired” are very likely reacting ideologically to an emphasis on critical thinking that exposes and critiques their deeply held prejudices. Administrators (who are very likely intelligent enough and perceptive enough to see through such probable lies) preserve a system in which such remarks are attached to the permanent record of the faculty member, serving as a lever for the suppression of classroom thought and speech. In this they may well have much in common with the students who write such comments in that both wish to preserve the dominant ideology unquestioned (favorable to PR and business) and preserve a superficial propaganda model dedicated to covering up the deeper issues of university complicity in imperialism, war, environmental destruction, poverty, and death on a global scale. RU just proudly announced, for example, that it has been recognized as a “military friendly” campus. Indeed, RU has been in the war business for many years, proud and unapologetic of its complicity in the destruction and death of human beings around the world.

In the U.S. university system, part of the unspoken obligation that administrators have (resulting from their exorbitant salaries) is their silence (under the name of university PR) concerning the multiplicity of moral issues within which the university is embedded from the promotion of war, to the teaching of exploitation and dehumanization (capitalism), to the destruction of the environment.  The job of every administrator is PR, from Chairpersons promoting academic departments to the promotion of the university itself. In a society as deeply problematic and morally corrupt as the U.S., it is not possible to do PR for a university or an academic department without lies – the covering over and ignoring of the horrific reality beneath this superficial ideological cover.

It order to do this effectively, it is necessary to suppress academic freedom even while appearing to support it. A sure fire way to do this is through anonymous comments on student evaluations. Students, the majority of whom have been acculturated in the same dominant ideology promoted by the administrators (militarism, economic exploitation, and rabid nationalism), serve as an infallible barometer to monitor faculty classroom use of academic freedom. The anonymous character of the evaluation comments frees students to react ideologically rather than having to defend their statements before the court of the dialogical, critical reasoning that informs the teaching and classroom context of many professors.

Comments that they would never say in class because, if examined, would be exposed as irrational and thoughtless, get put into the anonymous record, which the students can be sure will be picked up and quoted by administrators whom they understand are concerned with PR. The administrative strategy for the suppression of any faculty persons who dare to exercise their academic freedom is to counsel them on how to improve their student evaluations and enhance their teaching. The argument is not intended to suppress classroom content, we are told. It is to help empower teachers to get their message across. If what you analyze and critically evaluate as an educated professional in the classroom elicits this kind of negative reaction from a few students, we are told, then clearly your teaching strategy (i.e. teaching them critical thinking which is a goal administrators share) would be more effective through modifying the content to bring all the students on-board.

The real motive is to dampen the critical edge of rigorous careful thought in the classroom in the name of a public image that does not challenge the dominant ideology.  The real motive is to attack the academic freedom of faculty in the service of not upsetting students and not generating any discord between the classroom and the happy university “family” experience.  But if intellectual integrity is served, such a conflict will be a natural and welcome part of university life. The university experience should force students to grow and confront difficult issues in ways that inevitably will make some angry and willing to lie on anonymous evaluations. If faculty are doing their job then such posts will be a routine part of their student evaluations. If the university supports their doing their job, administrators will commend them for their integrity and critical honesty.

However, the recognition of such student comments as indication of excellence rarely happens. Rather, faculty are threatened, and those who resist the professional advice designed to help them “improve” their teaching have their teaching evaluation scores lowered. In a number of cases nationwide, anonymous student evaluations have been used to deny tenure or to persecute and harass tenured faculty. In today’s university, PR is everything. The unhindered and empowered pursuit of truth on the part of faculty means very little. The capitalist model has triumphed over the educational model articulated by great educational thinkers like John Dewey. Numbers, selling the product, bringing in grants, alumni donations, and tuition dollars require generating the imbecile-illusion of a happy and harmonious university community not pursuing truth but pursuing a public image. PR has replaced educational philosophy. It is Coca Cola and McDonald’s as educational philosophy, not truth, the pursuit of knowledge, and intellectual integrity. Welcome to RU.  Welcome to the future.

Some references:

Ginsberg, Benjamin (2011). The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Palmer, Parker and Zajonc, Arthur (1010). The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. Transforming the Academy through Collegial Conversations. San Francisco: Josssey-Bass.
Schrecker, Ellen (2010). The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University. New York: The New Press.
Wilshire, Bruce (1990). The Moral Collapse of the University: Professionalism, Purity, and Alienation. Albany: SUNY Press.
Two articles on student evaluations on the national AAUP website: