February 17, 2018

Educator or Administrator: Who Do They Think We Are? | From the Bell Tower

If there’s a problem in higher education, someone will usually find a way to blame it on administrative bloat. Though they may see themselves as educators, others perceive academic librarians as part of the problem, not the solution.

Read just about any article or essay discussing higher education’s current challenges, and the odds are strong that one or more comments will point to “administrative bloat” as the primary cause of whatever problem is being discussed. In the ongoing Us vs. Them conflict between academic administrators and faculty, it is convenient to blame the hiring of unnecessary administrators as the simple cause for complex problems. For example, if there were fewer administrators, more adjunct faculty could get full-time jobs. And if there were fewer administrators, tuition would be more affordable. Those types of problems can hardly be attributed to a single factor. Just exactly how many administrators is too many?

Two economic researchers sought to find the exact right ratio between faculty and administrators, and determined that one administrator for every three faculty was the optimal ratio.  What exactly colleges and universities are supposed to do with that information is a mystery, but it could certainly lead to some head counting to find out what those ratios are right now. While it’s true that the number of administrative positions is up 63 percent from 1993 according to Education Department data, it’s less clear who is being counted as an administrator and what those administrators actually do.

“What do these people do?”

When you see a headline like “Soaring College Administrative Costs Pit Bureaucrats Against Professors” you know that administrators are going to get blasted. That’s pretty much what you get in this article, which visits several institutions to get faculty opinions on administrative growth. It starts off with a faculty member questioning what the administrators in his building are even doing. He doesn’t know, but he knows that it’s wasting money that could be spent on more faculty. Spending on administration has been rising faster than funds for instruction and research at 198 leading U.S. research universities, according to a 2010 study by Jay Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas. Greene is quoted as saying, “Administrative bloat is clearly contributing to the overall cost of higher education.” It goes pretty much downhill from there, with additional reports of outrageous administrative salaries and expenditures for office renovations and other extravagances. Articles such as this puzzle me, because they do little to provide real solutions to what ails higher education, and the main purpose they serve is to fan the flames of faculty anger toward administrators.

The alternate career

Administrators are not all bad, especially if they are former faculty who decide they might be able to make more of a difference helping to run the institution. For some PhDs who are unable to land a faculty position, academic administration is a potential alternate career. In her essay “Who is This Admin You Speak Of?” Liana Silva attempts to dispel some of the myths about administrators that lead to faculty misconceptions about their administrative colleagues. What are some of these myths about administrators? Anyone who isn’t doing what faculty do is one of them. They’re evil. They don’t teach. They don’t do research. They work 9 to 5.

The small number of comments from faculty amazed me. Perhaps they accepted Silva’s argument. The one aspect of this piece I was uncomfortable with was Silva’s suggestion that administrative jobs were desirable or justifiable as an alternative career for graduate students. Is the takeaway that those who go into administration strictly because that’s what they set out to do to do, as opposed to escaping the professorial life, aren’t covered under Silva’s exceptions? Maybe these administrators are evil after all.

Neither here nor there

Dean Dad made the point that in debates over administrative bloat, skilled workers, such as database administrators or digitization specialists, are thrown in with administration although they are not supervising anyone or administering anything other than their own work. He goes on to say that these “not exactly” administrators are doing the work universities need to function. How, he poses, can you call it bloat?

Academic librarians are a good example of university employees who fall into that gray area. Technically, they may be excluded from the “instruction” category that includes faculty (see the Delta Report, page 20, for definitions). The article reporting the research of the two economists discusses the challenge of establishing who exactly is an administrator. It reads “When researchers talk about “administrators,” they can never be sure exactly which employees they are including. Sometimes colleges count librarians, for example, as administrators, and sometimes they do not.”

We could all agree that most deans and directors, along with their assistants, are primarily administrators. What about reference librarians, metadata specialists, archivists, and many others who may or may not be doing instruction at the same level as faculty but clearly spend little time on the type of administration the assistant senior associate vice provost for assessment is doing day to day. So exactly which side are academic librarians on when it comes to the Us versus Them debate?

We must change perceptions

The answer really matters little, and it’s best to avoid getting wrapped up in the debate about administrative bloat. We need to take every opportunity to connect with our faculty colleagues so they’ll have a better understanding of what exactly it is we do. I believe those faculty who invite librarians to work with their students or request help with their research are much less likely to lump them in with administrators. We should be sensitive to how perceptions will be shaped if our libraries do add additional administrators, who clearly will never engage with students or faculty.

We can’t change how federal agencies or educational organizations may choose to classify academic librarians. What we can change is how we are perceived on our own campuses, and we do that in our interactions with faculty and other colleagues—or when we actively engage in their disciplinary programs or conferences. These days it helps to have thick skin if you want to be a librarian. However they want to classify us or whatever they want to call us, if you know that you make a difference on your campus, then you are doing good work. And it’s like my mom always said, when you do good work people will know it—and that’s what matters most.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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