Meetings upon meetings: The administrative mindset in academe

In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, “Ms. Mentor” Emily Toth (the Emily Post of academe) opines on meetings:

Meetings can chew up your life, eviscerate the blocks of time you need for writing and thinking, and mentor you into oblivion.

They can be good if they’re focused, and the best ones can build community….

But good meetings are rare.

Toth nails a lot of the standard-brand personality mixes that can make academic meetings so exasperating. But she misses an opportunity to tie the proliferation of meetings to more fundamental shifts in academic culture.

It is a well-documented trend that American colleges and universities increasingly are dominated by an “administrative class” that has been growing by leaps and bounds, even at schools that have cut, or sharply slowed the growth of, their full-time faculties.

The addition of administrators is not, per se, a bad thing, especially when specific programs and initiatives require staffing and direction. However, the accompanying power shifts have gone too far in many institutions, leading to a diminution of faculty voice, along with soaring budgets that often are paid for by students via higher tuition.

The administrative mindset

In a mundane yet significant sense, the addition of administrators usually means more meetings. After all, calling meetings and creating committees help to justify one’s position and provide ways to keep busy. Such efforts frequently generate endless exchanges of e-mails & memos and painful exercises in group “wordsmithing.”

All too often, these activities culminate in tepid reports or wholly predictable recommendations that are less than the sum of their parts. At times, the consequences are worse, with “groupthink” producing ideas that are downright batty or ill-informed.

Impact on faculty

Perhaps there’s a case for all these meetings to be a chief activity for administrators, but they shouldn’t be for faculty. Nevertheless, if anecdotal evidence is accurate, this is a growing occurrence on many college campuses.

When faculty are drawn into these spider webs of chatter, they often experience a huge drain on time and emotional energy, both of which are premium ingredients for successful teaching, scholarship, and (real) service. It means that the most important aspects of faculty work sometimes are lost amidst a sea of meetings and committee assignments, usually at the behest of senior administrators.

Think about it

For full-time faculty who might be reading this, here’s the question: Are there weeks during a typical semester when you spend more time in meetings with other faculty and administrators than in classes and meetings with students? If so, then there’s a good possibility that the administrative mindset has taken over your institution.


Related post

“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011)

2 responses

  1. “However, the accompanying power shifts have gone too far in many institutions, leading to a diminution of faculty voice, along with soaring budgets that often are paid for by students via higher tuition.” I would suggest that the expansion of the administrator role is a principle cause for the transition to the adjunct-faculty model. There isn’t much left to pay new faculty once all the administrators — and their respective administrative staffs! — have been paid, and once the senior faculty have been paid. I don’t mean to suggest that the senior faculty aren’t earning their keep. Easily two-thirds of my richest experiences, at both the undergrad and grad levels, were with senior faculty. But at today’s community colleges nationwide, adjuncts already comprise 65% to 85% of faculty OVERALL. In my state, which is known for its tradition of excellence in education, they’re hardworking, talented and devoted instructors. Yet an obscene percentage make very little, either with no benefits or with precious few that take years to earn. I know many who commute all over to patch together a regular schedule. Meanwhile, the teachers’ union in my state has, from every indication I’ve seen, thrown the adjuncts under the bus. The union seems committed to protecting the few “surviving” senior faculty at the expense of the people who are doing most of the teaching at these institutions. Our union remains silent in every significant way on the adjunct-majority trend. Incontrovertibly, their occasional lip service does nothing to slow the “extraction machine”. For a real eye-opener, I recommend looking at The Adjunct Project’s Website. Its description reads, in part: “The goal of this website is to identify universities that set the standard for best practices with regard to adjuncts. … The project is also designed to promote transparency in higher education employment practices for the sake of teachers, students, and parents.” Faculty at all institutions of higher learning are invited to contribute to the national spreadsheet, and people from different schools nationwide have anonymously posted comprehensive, point-by-point descriptions of their jobs’ criteria and terms, as well as personal suggestions for policy improvements. Here’s the link:

  2. Optimist-Realist, I worked as an adjunct and everything you said is what I experienced / witnessed.

    Regarding the meetings-upon-meetings mindset, it isn’t just endemic to academe. Other large organizations have the same problem. I’ve worked with people in non-academic settings who never seemed to do anything but attend meetings.

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