Saving American Education in the 21st Century: Administrators



E. N. Anderson

Professor Emeritus, Anthropology

University of California, Riverside


            In 47 years at UC Riverside, I have seen administrators come and go, and have learned a little about the world of higher-level university administration.  My own administrative duties have been low-level, but ongoing and educative.

            Administrators tend to be of two types.  One hopes for dedicated, competent, academically trained administrators who can and will deal with crises and keep the system running well.  I have served under many such.  Unfortunately, one often encounters career administrators, many of them trained in business or educational administration rather than in an academic subject, who are neither competent managers nor interested in becoming so.  They are driven by ambition to rise in the system, not by desire to help it.

            The two are easy to tell apart.  Administrators of the first type are rarely noticed by the wider public.  They show themselves through new books in the libraries, new labs in the science buildings, new hires who win the Nobel Prize a few years later, new donations from rich alumni, and new computers in the  computer labs.  Above all, they show themselves through making sure that teaching and research faculties are paid decently and not worked impossibly hard (but are not allowed to laze on the job either). 

Administrators of the second type are very visible.  They are seen in expensive suits and flashy ties, or female equivalents, at every high-level meeting, major social event, and public photo opp.  They are featured on all the university’s publicity fliers.  They are seen at sports events and at the openings of new gyms, stadiums, sports fan facilities, and student unions.  However, a university run by them is singularly lacking in new books, new labs, new research, and new (or even old) instructional improvement projects.

            Though some people are intermediate, administrators tend to cluster at one or the other pole of this continuum.  This is because a real scholar or scientist, even if also politically ambitious, finds it difficult to ignore the scholarly side of the university.  Only the academically hopeless or resentful will willingly trash the entire research and education functions of their universities. 

            Administrators of the first type manage the old way:  They allocate scarce resources for maximum overall benefit, and they inspire and encourage their workers, from senior professors to gardeners. 

Administrators of the second type manage according to the latest fad.  Today, that is the “business model.”  The businesses used for a model are Enron, Madoff, and Wal-Mart, however, not Costco, Subway, or even Starbuck’s.  (Lest you think I am exaggerating…one of the people I am using as a model for a Type II actually had us read a book on “successful” businesses that had become “great.”  By the time we finished the book, half the cases in the book were in court for illegal practices leading to financial disaster.)  Put another way, the businesses used are McDonald’s and Burger King rather than Chez Panisse and Spago; we are talking mass consumption with minimal nutritional (educational) value, not specialized top-quality experience. 

The business model is a model in which the goal is to process more bodies cheaper.  We of the faculty are under continual pressure to teach more students and get them through the system faster, and at less cost.  This, of course, drastically impacts the quality of education—but that is not a concern.  The ultimate in efficiency is the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), in which thousands of students can tune in to a single course of lectures—ideally given by a world expert who is also a great teacher.  The rest of us are too inferior to be of use. 

Of course, no one would use a MOOC to teach anything they actually wanted people to know.  No one would be mad enough to teach driving, or nursing, or brain surgery, or the all-important sports by way of a MOOC.  Even administrators know that those things require actual one-on-one teaching, practice, apprenticeship, hands-on training, and feedback.  MOOC’s, like standardized tests, are used only for things nobody cares about, such as literature, philosophy, and basic science. 

Actually, in an ideal world the mindless rote side of driving, nursing, and so on would be taught by some such method, though with thoughtful essays rather than standardized tests as the evaluation tools.  This would leave real teachers free to concentrate on the hands-on side.  Some online courses and universities do teach this way, with great success.  But all that is far too expensive and complicated for the business model. 

The business model, as applied to academic employees, means, first of all, less power and less pay for the teaching staff.  (Ironically, this has led to unionization in many public universities, including mine, and thus to more confrontation and management problems.  But there is really no alternative: without unions, our lower-level teaching staff would be so poorly paid and overworked that they would frequently have to drop out, leaving us with even worse staffing levels than we have now.)  Second, it means more and more highly paid administrators.  My university went from one vice-chancellor to six in a few years, and is moving on up.  UC’s systemwide administration absorbs as many resources as a major campus, but does little to earn it (they do provide useful legal services).  Third, it means not wasting money on such inconspicuous things as labs, computers, or libraries.  Money must go into something visible to the public.  We at my university have lots of beautiful new signs, a lovely student union, all manner of sports activities, and even new and very expensive uniforms for the students who help with orientation at the end of summer…but no new books, no new labs, no instructional improvement, worse and worse faculty/student ratios, fewer remedial courses, more overcrowded classes, fewer classes in total.

This is not to say that universities can’t be cut, but the cutting should be entirely in upper-level management and their folly projects.  Spending on administration has soared in American universities in the last two decades—doubling in many—while everything else has been cut to the bone, and in the case of libraries even the bones are going fast.

For some reason, strange and unimaginable to most of our administrators, measures of quality such as student graduation rates (especially in the recommended four years instead of five or six) remain poor at most universities.  Cheating has increased.  The job market for graduates is not steller; students clearly know less than they used to, and their employment fates prove it.  In short, career administrators using the business model have succeeded as well as did their models in Enron and Lehman Brothers.  Like the latter, university administrators can always count on generous governments to bail them out.  Universities are “too big to fail,” and their administrators always make the case that higher-paid higher-level administrators are the only hope.  Legislators, being what they are, usually sympathize—especially those many legislators who depend on an ignorant and uninformed citizenry to stay in office.

A sure sign of Type II administrators at work is the proliferation of “centers” that accomplish little.  The easiest way for an ambitious but incompetent academic to move up is by starting a center—say, for the investigation of research on centers.  UCR has countless centers that either do nothing or duplicate existing faculties.  It also, to be sure, has some real centers that actually do work.  All the centers absorb considerable resources; they are supposed to get grants that more than offset the cost.  It would be interesting to see how many of our centers do that.

Type II administrators sometimes steal outright.  More often, they have final say over the budget, and can move funds according to discretion.  Thus, one of our chancellors once used the year’s book-buying budget to redecorate his office.  The library, and thus the university’s teaching and research mission, never recovered—but you should have seen the chancellor’s office door.

The problem, however, is not so much the business model as the type of administrator who invokes it.  They are the people who early-on decided that rising in power through social ability and political skill was the way to win in academia.  (A catty writer might say that they tend not to have the intellectual skills to rise any other way…but two of our very worst chancellors at UCR were quite eminent scientists.) 

Probably the biggest problem with Type II administrators is not their laziness—though most of them indeed do little except posture in public—but their constant scheming to get ahead.  A second-string university like UCR is merely a place to polish their vitas and jockey for a better position.  Often, they show their competence the same way that bad CEO’s do: by cutting the work force and shrinking the budget, no matter how much it damages education.  Since they had already risen to their Peter Principle “level of incompetence,” we of the faculty have often wondered how they did in their later postings.  Sometimes we hear, and reflect that our gain is the later postings’ loss.  (Modern readers may not remember Lawrence Peters’ classic work [1969], in which he pointed out that managers tend to rise till they reach a job level they can’t handle, and then stick there—leaving the world mismanaged.)

Since Type II administrators spend their time playing social and political games, they, not the Type I administrators, are the ones that are visible to politicians and donors.  Those politicians and donors who love game-playing, fancy suits, and sports events will be impressed, and will steer some money to the university.  Unfortunately, politicians and donors who actually care about education and research will go somewhere else.  I would like to know how many hundreds of millions UCR has lost this way over the years.  I do know that one gift to UCLA’s medical school in 2012 was almost a third of our entire annual budget.  UCLA’s medical school has competent administration.  (Very fortunately, we have managed to get a medical school with an extremely competent Type I dean here at UCR.  Maybe we have a chance at last.)


Modern universities are incredibly complicated, and face diverse political and legal challenges.  Therefore, they actually do need administrators.  We do not need six or eight vice-chancellors, but we do need one, probably more than one.  We may not need as many deans as we have now, but we need several.  We do not need the “business model,” but we do need some genuine business management: cutting waste (i.e. high-level administrative spending), inviting comments from employees, constantly upgrading quality, allocating resources where they are needed (rather than where they make a show), and attending to the final product above all.

The problem, then, becomes one of finding Type I administrators.  Currently, university administration is so difficult and demanding that people who seriously want to work at it are daunted.  We at UCR used to have a hard time getting competent people to apply for chancellor and vice-chancellor positions.  We had to “wash” a vice-chancellor search a few years ago for sheer lack of qualified applicants.  With rising prestige, we are currently fortunate in having found a number of really good people.  Still, the problem continues, and the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals we are not alone in this.  One important step would be to give “service” a much higher place in promotion.  Encouraging people to rise through the ranks—where their capability can be judged—would produce a cadre of competent, decent administrators, rising within each school.  We could then dispense with the need to hire Type II people from other schools.

A competent administrator will, first of all, listen to what people say: students, faculty, staff, public, everyone.  He or she will then think seriously about what’s the best thing to do—not just take the most widely popular suggestion.  He or she will then thank everybody for their input, whether or not it was adopted!  Nothing is more valuable than input, and if people aren’t thanked they won’t provide it. 

He or she will be perfectly clear about the core functions of a university:  Education and research.  These come first.  Other functions come last.  Sports are an unsavory, wasteful luxury—they do nothing for most universities except waste a lot of money.  (It has been repeatedly shown that only the places with major established programs make money off sports.)   Fine food, beautiful dorms, beautiful student union buildings, and the like have their place—but their place is elite private schools, not struggling public universities that have to starve the library and the computer bank even without such luxury spending.

He or she will recognize that faculty and staff are human beings, and deserve not only fair pay but also respect.  Even Type II administrators usually know enough to be civil to senior faculty, but they have a reflex need to cut pay and resources for teaching and research personnel, and to be arrogant about it whenever possible.  Type I administrators try to get fairer shares of the state’s money and the university’s money for the people who actually do the heavy lifting, especially the overworked and exploited temps, teaching assistants, and junior faculty.  But if they fail in getting more state money, they at least try to soften the blow by being respectful and listening to the faculty.

He or she will work seriously with the community, addressing local needs as well as possible and thus hopefully getting donations.  Type II administrators, if they work with the “town” at all, tend to work only with the high-level business community.

He or she will work with the state and other powers-that-be to focus on quality teaching and research, cut other expenses, and above all not allow universities to become top-heavy with highly paid administrators.

He or she will strategically build on the strengths of the campus, and will also try to fix obvious weaknesses.  Type II administrators, by contrast, often hate and fear strong units and programs.  The most insane thing done by administration in my 47 years at UCR was summarily terminating the agricultural research program and firing the entire research staff—because the chancellor in question “did not want UCR to be seen as a cow college.”  This gutted one of the three or four leading agricultural research programs in the world, a program that was making enormous differences in poorer nations.  Of course, the researchers were not cow tenders, but world-class geneticists, entomologists, plant pathologists, cell biologists, and soil and water scientists.  Quite apart from devastating the intellectual and academic life at UCR—it had depended heavily on the ag scientists—this move, and all too many similar cuts at other universities, contributed to millions of people starving to death in Africa and Asia.  Decline in agricultural research is one of the major reasons why one and a half billion people are hungry and about one to two million die of malnutrition every year.

Make no mistake:  Type II administrators kill.  At thousands of universities, they have run down cutting-edge medical research, agricultural research, environmental research, crime studies, war-and-peace research, and other life-and-death agendas—all to feed their egos by redirecting the money to sports, fancy nonacademic buildings, glossy brochures, country-club dorm facilities, and, above all, lavish parties for each other.  Their natural allies, the legislators and boards of directors who want only to save money in the short term, bear even more of the guilt.  In a world where forward knowledge is the most important way of saving lives, this mischief is murder.

The psychology of leadership is now becoming known, thanks to Mark Van Vugt (see Van Vugt and Ahuja 2010), Paul Pederson, and others.  From my own observations, leaders are naturally good with people, but have perfected their skills and learned self-confidence through leading small groups, and then increasingly large ones.  They have a good intuition about what is important, and they stay on top of that, even if it looks “unimportant” to outsiders; conversely, they know when to stop wasting time on trivia.  They have a real vision and stick to it; they are not just coordinating, keeping the place going, or marking time.  They can prioritize.  They are always courteous and civil, but do not waste time “suffering fools gladly.”  (The best leaders I have known were not always popular.  As Confucius said, “If the good people like him and the bad people hate him, he’s probably a good man.”)  They are fair and tolerant, but not tolerant of immoral or amoral behavior by those that report to them.  They don’t show raw emotions or tip their hand.  Also, they know how to relax.  Two of the very best managers and administrators I knew at UCR tragically died of overwork–they literally dropped dead from exhaustion.  Needless to say, no Type II administrator ever died that way.

Peter, Lawrence.  1969.  The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.  New York: Bantam.

Van Vugt, Mark, and Anjana Ahuja.  2010.  Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why It Matters.  New York:  Profile Books/HarperBusiness.