Prune University Administrators

By Scott Timcke

A person would have to be oblivious to walk around my university campus (Simon Fraser) and not hear the many public gripes from emerging scholars, senior graduate students and junior professors alike. The themes are the same. They are not upset with publication targets or duties. Rather, they are aggravated with a bloated university administration that is being swayed by long discredited lay management theories, perpetuating misplaced incentives insensitive to faculty ends, and focusing on inane superficialities at the expense of cultivating conditions for intellectual excellence.


(Photo courtesy of Eliz Sarobhasa)

This bears itself out in justified complaints against miserable in-house funding packages, the expansion of contingent contract labour, acting as corporate research shills, exacerbating urban gentrification efforts, bulldozing endowment lands for condos, and viewing international students as cash cows.

The chief complaint is that the university no longer exemplifies the aspirational ideals of society. It has absconded from providing public guidance and wisdom on the pressing affairs of the day. And a vocational mandate alone cannot bear these expectations.

This situation has emerging scholars rethinking whether there is scope for them to make a concerted difference in and with the institution. This is hardly a unique local experience, but more or less the case at most universities judging by conference gossip.

This frustration makes me wonder how many of these exceptional people the university system will retain, or whether they will throw in the towel and go ply their trade elsewhere. Despite the prevailing economic conditions, there are many motivated and talented emerging scholars who crave meaningful challenges and responsibilities. With their skill-sets and training, numerous viable career paths are open to them.

Of course those who stay will undoubtedly have an influence. Their research and teaching may well be groundbreaking and I’m sure they will find personal and professional fulfillment. But if making a difference means reversing the corporate-style managerialism currently disempowering faculty and students and driving wide positive social change, well then, good luck. Reform in the university seems indefinably postponed, unless administrators understand that they are part of the problem.

Gripes proliferate when an institution lacks real direction. Personnel don’t know what is expected of them, and to compensate for this they do what they judge is right. But without wider coherence and orientation, people invariably and inadvertently work at cross-purposes, entangling one another with best intentions: ‘horizontal policy inference’ is the politest term.

In these circumstances, any sense of accomplishment is handicapped from the get go. Schools and departments struggle to define and position themselves in an uncertain organizational culture, and too many are retreating into disciplinary garrisons or professional associations hoping to remerge at a yet-to-be-determined date. This is an anathema to the mindsets of emerging scholars, who have spent nearly a decade reaching out to others in an effort to make their research both timely and relevant. One should lament the wasting of this enthusiasm and talent.

One could blame provincial and state governments for drawing the purse strings. But austerity does not absolve senior university officials from their shortcomings. There is room for reform within these parameters.

Many emerging scholars are well aware that governance of any sort is difficult and they appreciate that choices are constrained: they know not to make the good the enemy of the perfect. But they are not asking for perfection, merely fortitude. Emerging scholars are hard on the university because they rightly hold it to a higher standard of conduct.

We all agree that the university needs to change, but it is not by procuring new widgets and gizmos or adopting a generic mission statement. And despite what self-anointed marketing gurus claim, sloganeering merely draws attention to the lack of substance.

Undoubtedly the future of higher education is anything but clear. This makes it even more important that university administrators set meaningful priorities, and address the growing and consistent chorus of concern that university culture is set to serve the administrative class.

I am not expecting all senior administrators to fall on their swords. But I do expect them to eschew the corporate mindset and partially skim their ranks. Moreover, the governance mandate should rest with the faculty and students as these groups are the primary source of intellectual continuity and renewal within the institution. Therefore governance decisions need to accord to these groups’ vision of the institution.

Now is not the time to be timid. Administrators should take stock and understand that they are not political apparatchiks or economic commissars, but stewards of the university. They should act like it.

Scott Timcke is a PhD candidate at the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. His thesis, On Modal Luck Egalitarianism, addresses the egalitarian turn in liberal philosophy and introduces modal conceptions of luck, action, and responsibility into the luck-egalitarian debate. @ScottTimcke /

Eliz Sarobhasa is s a student from Simon Fraser University and (future) candidate design researcher from Vancouver, British Columbia. Other examples of her photography work can be viewed here.

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