• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Friday Fragments

Provosts, debunking the idea of "administrative bloat," more.

June 13, 2019

The IHE piece on Thursday about treating provosts as COO’s, and as potential presidents, struck some chords with me.  

One was around typecasting. When I went for the Associate Dean position at DeVry, the knock against me was that I was a fuzzy-headed academic who couldn’t do “operations.”  A year-plus later, when I went for the Deanship, the knock against me was that I was a pure “operations” guy who wouldn’t be able to relate to academics.  I was still the same person.

Provosts (or vice presidents, depending on local naming conventions) who want to move up are in the awkward position of wanting to look presidential without competing with their president.  It can be done, but both parties have to be willing. An insecure president who resents attention going anywhere else can make the role impossible. Some presidents even use provosts as shock absorbers, which is the exact opposite of succession planning. 

Anecdotally, I get the impression that the provost/vpaa route to the presidency is becoming somewhat less common.  That’s because an increasing number of Boards -- the folks who hire presidents -- see faculty as the problem. To the extent that the folks who came up on the academic side have the whiff of faculty about them, some Boards will find them suspect.  That’s really about Boards, rather than provosts, but the issues are connected.

The rate of turnover in these jobs is about twice that of presidents, which is saying something.  In my fourth year back in NJ, I’m already among the senior cohort at the statewide group. I’m not sure what the optimal rate of turnover is, but it’s probably a lot lower than it is now.  To the extent that we’d like to reduce turmoil on campuses, giving some thought to the contradictory demands of this role probably isn’t a bad idea.


Robert Kelchen reposted this piece this week, again debunking the myth of “administrative bloat.”  “Administrative bloat” is one of those zombie ideas that just refuses to die. I think it’s because it serves the useful rhetorical purpose of creating a common enemy around whom to rally against.  Hero narratives require villains. Besides, they’re safe targets, since they lack the protection of tenure and unions.

Aside from the general frustration of being falsely accused, the real problem with the zombie idea is that it distracts from the actual issues.  

Getting rid of people doing certain kinds of work doesn’t mean getting rid of the work.  It means spreading it among the people who remain. Faculty who decry (phantom) administrators are also typically the first ones to refuse to pick up any new tasks themselves.  You don’t want us to hire academic advisors anymore? Okay, I’ll expect to see you here in June, July, and August, advising students. And during the year, you can use that non-teaching day to work in the financial aid office, right?

The narrative of internal villains just gets the story wrong.  The issues are structural, and they reflect a political economy far beyond anything that some assistant director of financial aid can control. 


Last week, when I picked up The Girl from a music lesson:

TG: I hope you didn’t have to wait too long.

Me: Not at all.  They were playing some Motown, so that was nice.

TG: I’ve heard that word.  What is Motown?

Me: Technically, it was a record label.

TG: What’s a record label?




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