Do College Administrators Misappropriate "Diversity"?

Peter Wood

Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins and chair of the confusingly named “Government Program of Advanced Academic Programs,” has advanced an intriguing idea in a new book. It has to do with dastardly college administrators who use the heartfelt ideological commitments of faculty members to circumvent faculty opposition to administrative power grabs. Those poor faculty members who wanted social justice but got speech codes and the Office of Multicultural Affairs instead!

But first, some context. The book’s title, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011), makes a summary of the book a bit extraneous. Ginsberg is mainly complaining that “the character of the university has changed” for the worse in recent years. Once “faculty ideas and concerns” had prominent influence. Now, not so much. “Today, institutions of higher education are controlled by administrators and staffers who make the rules and set more and more of the priorities of academic life.”

Ginsberg doesn’t like this and proceeds to count the ways. One of his recurrent phrases is “administrative blight.” He calls for the “rescue” of the university “from its deanlets,” and he pins his hopes on boards of trustees and regents. He would like to arouse in them some proper alarm over the rise of the “all administrative university.” And he would have them act on that alarm by shifting “spending priorities from management to the real business of the university—teaching and research.” Starve the beast, feed the faculty. To make this work, trustees will have to learn to bypass the administrators and enter into “regular communication with the faculty.” He would add tough “conflict of interest rules” for the board members themselves.

Ginsberg also summons the faculty to do their part in resisting “administrative encroachment.” And the main body of the book consists of explanations of how academic administrators go about sidelining, co-opting, and otherwise limiting faculty members. A great many of Ginsberg’s criticisms run parallel to critiques the National Association of Scholars has made over the years. He decries administrative bloat, the vast expansion of student services, the wall of separation that has grown up between faculty members and student life outside the classroom, speech codes, harassment codes, and the combination of careerist ambition with ideological posturing that dominates the lives of the college nomenklatura.

On the other hand, Ginsberg’s picture of the faculty is distinctly unlike that which generally prevails among NAS members. Where he sees the university as “a bastion of relatively free expression,” NAS members often see the trammels of a narrow political orthodoxy. Where he sees the university as “a natural center of ferment and dissent,” we see an institution that these days operates in a narrow bandwidth of opinion that permits “dissent” only so far as it is in the form of hostility to traditional American values and institutions. This is “dissent” in name only. It is in fact ideological huddling.

I could draw other contrasts, but the short of it is that Ginsberg looks upon the professoriate as benign in outlook, put-upon by administrators who are often ignorant of and indifferent to the higher calling of the university, and far more sinned against than sinning. This is, in my view, a considerable simplification of reality in both directions. Faculty members are deeply complicit in the regime Ginsberg describes, and administrators are in some cases the main proponents of liberal education in opposition to the illiberal views of a significant portion of the faculty.

But midway through the book Ginsberg offers an arresting thesis. In “The Realpolik of Race and Gender” he argues that “on many campuses the political commitments of the faculty have been hijacked and perverted by administrators.” The administrators, he says, have learned to play upon the ideological commitments of the faculty to affirmative action and gender politics by seizing these themes as grounds for building their administrative empires. They do so by “forging what amount to tactical alliances with representatives of minority groups as well as activist groups on their campuses.” The faculty, not daring to utter a word that might be mischaracterized as racist or sexist, sit back and passively watch as administrators “package proposals designed mainly to enhance their own power on campus as altruistic and public-spirited efforts to promote social and political goals, such as equality and diversity, that faculty cannot oppose.”

Ginsberg seems to look on the faculty as helpless in this process since, after all, “Diversity and civility are valued by virtually all members of the university community.” That leaves no room for questioning the motives, let alone the actions, of diversiphile administrators even when their actions patently run against the better interests of the university. Ginsberg, for example, cites Yales’s 2009 decision to create a new Office of LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer] Resources just after announcing “budget cuts in response to a sharp drop in the value of its endowment and a projected $100 million deficit.”

How does Ginsberg manage the trick of shifting the blame entirely to administrators when the intellectual capital for this sort of mischief is donated so freely by the faculty? (Ginsberg also cites the role of the Duke faculty in the lacrosse players’ case, and the firing of Larry Summers when he failed to grovel sufficiently to the shibboleths of the Harvard faculty.) He accomplishes this by dividing the faculty into two categories: the activists, whom the administrators fear and strive to placate, and all the others, who are well-meaning in their “liberal political orientations,” and support “racial and gender equality, social justice, protection of the environment, constraints on the use of force in international affairs, and other elements of America’s liberal Democratic [his capitalization] agenda.”

Notably absent from the equation is any meaningful number of faculty members who could present a cogent critique of the administrators’ PC premises. Ginsberg brushes this possibility aside with the observation, “Faculty generally explain the academy’s ideological imbalance, especially at elite universities, as a natural consequence of the fact that liberals are smarter than conservatives.”

Yes, many do say things like that. It’s arrogant. It’s false. And there is a consequence: The mono-ideological faculty find themselves defenseless against administrators who appropriate the rhetoric of diversity, social justice, sustainability, etc. as a rationale for diverting the lion’s share of university resources to non-academic and sub-intellectual enterprises. If the university had a few more conservative voices, perhaps those administrators would at least have to defend their actions rather than wave the bloody shirt of racism or sexism every time some asks for a bit of accountability.

Ginsberg’s book strikes me as anachronistic in a certain fashion. I just reviewed Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring’s The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, which is a sprawling historical, technological, managerial explanation of how online technology is about to transform American higher education at every level. Part of the Christensen and Eyring thesis is that the tenured portion of the faculty will continue to shrink; the adjunct portion will expand; research aimed at the “discovery” of new knowledge will contract; and administrators will be overseeing institutions that strive in creative ways to cut costs. The Christensen and Eyring picture of our future will strike many as bleak, but it does offer a solution of sorts to Ginsberg’s complaints about “administrative encroachment.” The faculty that is left in this situation won’t be captive to a political ideology or in a position to have its commitments to diversity and multiculturalism appropriated by opportunistic administrators. Those will be distant memories. 

I’m inclined to think that Christensen and Eyring have a better sense of what will happen in the next 10 years than Ginsberg does. Ginsberg is lamenting a bygone era of strong faculty influence on the university and wistfully imagining a path to restoration. But one of the reasons such restoration is unlikely is precisely the public disaffection with what the liberal faculty have wrought. Blaming the consequences of political correctness on the parasitical administrators who learned how to use it to their own advantage isn’t going to persuade very many people to give the authors of the PC university another chance.

This article originally appeared on August 18 at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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