Administrators, authority, and accountability



The battle over who should lead colleges and universities has been raging since the inception of higher education. It is most often, and stereotypically, cast as a fight between administrators and faculty members. Supposedly both interested in what students need, those parties are alternately said to be effective governors of higher education and major impediments to effective leadership.

On Monday, William Bowen and Eugene Tobin jumped into the fray with an excerpt from their new book, Locus of Authority, about governance and the role of faculty members in the future reform of education.

This book appears to be written at least partly in service of Ithaka’s and Bowen’s promotion of online education. (Ithaka, a nonprofit organization that claims to help the academic community use digital technologies, is a co-publisher of the book. Bowen is the founding chairman of Ithaka and a self-proclaimed advocate of online learning.) As Bowen noted in his last book, Higher Education in the Digital Age, efforts to make online learning a more central aspect of higher education have repeatedly faced challenges from faculty members at shared-governance institutions.

Now he and Tobin take on the issue directly, though under the guise of a concern about productivity and cost-effectiveness.

In fact, their argument is an unfortunate distraction. Now is the time for a serious and open discussion about the purpose, financing, and governance of higher education going forward—not a fight over who will possess the “locus of authority.” Bowen and Tobin would seem to agree, and they claim to be above that fight, seesawing back and forth as they suggest that faculty members and administrators need to find new ways of collaborating if institutions of higher education are going to successfully adapt to changes in the world around them. They are careful along the way to offer equivocating olive branches to the various participants in this longstanding conversation, but, when push comes to shove, they are quite clear, writing that “… Final decision-making authority … in our view, needs to be located unambiguously in the hands of senior administrators with campus-, university-, and sector-wide perspectives who can be—and should be—held accountable for their decisions.”

That statement cuts to the core of this difficult discussion and illustrates why data, not convictions about who knows best or myths about accountability, must be used in developing new approaches to governance. The claim that occupants of administrative positions possess salutary perspective superiority is unsupported. The administrative career ladder is not designed to develop or ensure those perspectives.

One need not engage in stereotypes about administrator-brain; we know from organizational science that this sort of assumed wisdom is easily dominated by bureaucratically local imperatives (extreme examples come easily to mind). A recent study by Robert E. Martin, a professor emeritus of economics at Centre College, for example, shows that college costs continued to grow even as administrator say in institutional priorities grew and faculty say declined nationwide from 1987 to 2008. Bowen and Tobin, by virtue of their long careers, may well have acquired such wisdom, but projecting that wisdom onto college administrators in general is “going beyond the data.”

The second part of their argument is also flawed. In an age when “accountability” for classroom teachers is trumpeted, and in a world where research is subject to peer review, where is the equivalent for administrative performance? How many university administrators are really held accountable for their decisions in the manner implied by Bowen and Tobin’s statement?

While they do counsel administrators to be less dismissive of faculty input, and while they urge faculty members and administrators to deal with one another with less cynicism, Bowen and Tobin would have been much more provocative if they had noted that administrators need to recognize that they often don’t get it. Administrators need to seek and use the expertise and insight of faculty members not because of shared-governance considerations but because doing so reduces their likelihood of error, as well as the penalty for such errors. The same, of course, goes for faculty members.

In fact, done right, shared governance accomplishes what Bowen and Tobin appear to desire: It helps faculty members work across departmental lines and even across campus boundaries. At Penn State, shared governance leads faculty members on all campuses to come together in meetings. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the Faculty Senate meets as one, irrespective of department. But many reforms being pushed by administrators, including new budget models that devolve responsibility for budgeting to schools and colleges, work against that sort of horizontal approach to organization. Instead, these approaches create incentives for faculty members to work only within their departments and units, and to refrain from collaborating. In doing so, they generate more inefficiency (picture the Shakespeare courses taught in business schools that David Kirp famously invoked), not less.

We agree with Bowen and Tobin: Shared governance today is a pale shadow of what it once was or in the future could or should be. Where, for example, are the students in discussions of shared governance in the “student centered” university? But we also think that in the interest of students and the public, a data-driven discussion is required in order to develop effective and durable new forms of leading higher education. The interplay of faculty members and administrators may be messy, but it is far from clear that such interplay is the source of the challenges facing higher education.

Indeed, leadership in a democracy is inherently messy—that is partly of its charm and partly by design. We need not abandon it simply because it is inefficient. There is no reason that final decision-making authority should reside with senior administrators, especially given that estimates indicate expected turnover rates as high as 50 percent—far higher than those for faculty members and most businesses. Faculty members are primarily responsible for doing the academic work of institutions; it is remarkable to suggest that they should be so quickly dismissed as also being responsible for governing that work, or to suggest that administrators need to be coaxed into considering seriously their input.

In the introduction to their book, Bowen and Tobin write that “these challenges have to be addressed on the basis of a deep understanding of faculty roles, and how they have evolved over time.” Why not also include a reassessment of administrator roles, and how those have changed? As Benjamin Ginsberg has noted, administrators have taken over—though they might say taken on—responsibilities faculty members once held, and in many ways that has introduced more distance between students and their educators. Does this serve students’ interests? Given the closer relationship between faculty members and students, it would seem important to ensure that more faculty members move into administrative positions and, even more important, then return to serving in faculty positions, helping to blur the line between the two and to enrich the information available to both.

Contrary to accusations that professors believe that strategic thinking and shared governance are antithetical to one another, scholars have a long history of developing smart, new solutions to difficult problems, including those involving governance. They should be empowered to lead, not told to get out of the way.

Author Bios: Dan Ryan is an adjunct professor of technology and social science at the Iovine and Young Academy at the University of Southern California and an associate professor of sociology at Mills College. Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.