'Wannabe U'

Want to know what faculty members really think about administrators these days? You may want to check out Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (University of Chicago Press).

October 6, 2009

Want to know what faculty members really think about administrators these days? You may want to check out Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (University of Chicago Press).

The book contains a discussion of the way faculty members look down on those who lead the university's divisions and colleges, viewing them as "corporate administrators" and not scholars. The professors check out the publication records of new administrators and gossip about how sparse or old they are. "When he wants to discuss research, he has to talk about his dissertation. He apparently hasn't done any research since then," quips a faculty member of one administrator. Another says of an administrator: "I don't know how many times I have heard him mention that he is a biologist. It's as though he mentions his field when he talks to [a group of faculty leaders] so that we will know he is intelligent."

Welcome to Wannabe University, an unnamed, but not terribly well disguised, state university that is the subject of Gaye Tuchman's new book. Tuchman, a sociologist, spent six years interviewing faculty members and administrators and observing campus life -- from presidential addresses at convocations to the most mundane of faculty meetings.

Under the terms approved (and in some cases insisted upon) by her institutional review board, no real names are given for those at Wannabe. In fact, she said in an interview that she "promoted and demoted people" and changed personal details to hide their identities. She told those she interviewed about the nature of her research, and took steps (such as typing loudly on her laptop) when observing public events to draw attention that someone was documenting the events.

At the end of an interview on the book, she went out of her way to stress that she believes Wannabe is emblematic of many institutions, and that her aim is not to skewer it.

Photo: U. of Connecticut

Gaye Tuchman

"The people who work at Wannabe University are like the people who work everywhere else in higher education and a lot of them are very fine and decent people," she said.

But that doesn't mean the picture is flattering -- for Wannabe or its peers. In her concluding chapter, she calls Wannabe "a conformist university," with an emphasis on "doing what must be done to elbow its way up the rankings." She writes that the administration is imposing "an accountability regime" on faculty members. And she notes that while professors still have much more freedom than most American employees, "as the decades pass, working at a university will become more and more like working in the corporate world" and administrators will be hired for their ability to carry out corporate-style management. (While the book's barbs tend to find administrators as targets, it also criticizes professors, particularly for their lack of interest in teaching issues as compared to research agendas.)

The examples in the book portray an administration much more concerned with making the university look outstanding than actually becoming outstanding. And measures that Tuchman writes are of dubious value (U.S. News & World Report rankings, for example) appear to count much more than the vibrancy of intellectual life or the student learning experience.

For example, an increase in enrollment leads to meetings not about how to meet the need for students to interact with professors, but how to prevent the student-faculty ratio from going up in a way that would affect the formula used by U.S. News. The solution? Hire adjuncts, who could keep the student-faculty ratio under control while not having the job security or support from the university to provide continuity in the educational experience. (An administrator is quoted as saying that these adjuncts would likely all get jobs at liberal arts colleges within a few years, and keep being replaced.)

Or there is discussion of a one-credit course on how to be a freshman, a course started in part to teach study skills and thus to keep retention rates high (also important in U.S. News rankings, administrators were quick to note). The course sections are kept small (generally not even 20 students) and some faculty question the priority given to a course that they aren't sure should be counted for academic credit. The answer they hear back is that U.S. News gives points for every section that doesn't exceed 20 students, so Wannabe is getting credit for these courses, even though they don't represent how students are experiencing academic disciplines, and the time involvement (befitting a one-credit course) is quite limited.

Relations between faculty members and administrators are described as frustrating. Wannabe's leaders want more emphasis on teaching (for U.S. News), more students (for the revenue their tuition dollars bring) and more research (to earn prestige for the institution). Professors are described as split on the research/teaching balance that would be appropriate, but in wide agreement that they are seeing more demands on their time (without commensurate support) year after year.

Beneath discussions of everything from how academic programs are selected to how faculty members are evaluated, Wannabe is described as a place focused on the bottom line. Administrators talk over and over again (and the book covers periods before the collapse of the economy in the last year) about revenue streams, bringing money into the university, efficiency, etc. "Business-like concerns" dominate the life of the mind, Tuchman writes.

All of these trends shouldn't be viewed simply as a sign of economic challenges, but as a historic shift, Tuchman argues. "Here's what matters: These and other treatments of grand trends insist that higher education is one of the last revered Western institutions to be 'de-churched'; that is, it is one of the last to have its ideological justification recast in terms of corporatization and commodification and to become subject to serious state surveillance," she writes. "Universities are no longer to lead the minds of students to grasp truth; to grapple with intellectual possibilities; to appreciate the best in art, music, and other forms of culture; and to work toward both enlightened politics and public service. Rather they are now to prepare students for jobs. They are not to educate, but to train."

In an interview, Tuchman said that she has not been heavily involved in campus governance issues and didn't pay much attention to higher education policy before starting to work on the book. Nor did her academic work focus on academe -- she is the author of Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality and Edging Women Out: Victorian Novelists, Publishers, and Social Change. But she said that she started to notice change in the university environment and wanted to explore what was going on.

She also said that she recognizes that administrators at Wannabe and elsewhere face fiscal realities that reflect the (misplaced) values of American society. "Higher education should be seen as a public good" and supported accordingly, she said. When states spend so much money on criminal justice, and when the health care system is so flawed, she said, it's not surprising that there's not enough money to adequately fund higher education.

"It's not simply a question of how you fix the universities, but what happens in the country that has put the universities in this position," she said. "It's a combination of factors, including the assumption that everything can be fixed by market forces."

In discussions about the project with her IRB, Tuchman said that the key issue was protecting identities of her informants. She said that as she started her research, she asked those who spoke to her not to mention the project to others. But after a while, she said, she didn't worry about that, and assumed that senior administrators at Wannabe knew what she was up to.

An abundance of evidence points to Wannabe's identity as UConn, Tuchman's employer. UConn and Wannabe's size and history are consistent, and a number of the points match. Wannabe is described as having a rural location (UConn is in Storrs), with its law and social work schools in one urban area away from the main campus (UConn's are in Hartford), and its medical and dental schools in yet another city (UConn's are in Farmington). Wannabe has five regional campuses (UConn has five). Wannabe is also described as having the unusual distinction of being a land grant that was not originally its state's land grant but had to "wrest the status" from a private university. (Here's the story of how UConn obtained its land grant status from Yale University.)

Asked about all the similarities, Tuchman stated simply that she would not confirm Wannabe's identity. But asked if she could name another university with the qualities she describes in the book, she declined to do so.

The book comes well blurbed, with praise from Troy Duster of New York University and Gary Rhoades of the American Association of University Professors, among others.

Most administrators haven't seen it yet.

But one who has -- James C. Garland, the retired president of Miami University, in Ohio -- gave it a mixed review in two posts on his blog. He praises the perspective Tuchman provides as one who is not a decision maker on campus. "Wannabe U made me squirm at times, because many of the examples paralleled my own experiences. And therein lies the book’s value. I hope my administrative colleagues will read this book, not because they will agree with it, or even because it is, as the dust cover asserts, 'an eye-opening expose of the modern university.' They should read it because people in power seldom understand how their actions are viewed by others, and why their good deeds and intentions often provoke suspicion and mistrust," he writes in his first post.

In the second post, he challenges Tuchman on attitudes that he believes are common among professors, and that he thinks unfairly characterize as "corporate" some policies that may well help students and promote research.

"I fear Professor Tuchman and her faculty colleagues may have it backwards. Increasing productivity and efficiency are ways to reduce class sizes, teaching loads, and busywork, not increase them. When productivity goes up, it means the quality of the institution can be maintained by fewer people, none working harder or longer than before," he writes. "Efficiency and productivity improvements can’t solve all problems, of course, and when money is running out, a university has few options but to make cuts in services that lower quality and put additional stresses on faculty and staff. But successful efforts to make an organization more efficient and productive can moderate undesirable changes."

And administrators, he writes, have valid, education-related reasons to focus on metrics. "Like it or not, the fundamental responsibility of all senior academic administrators is to improve their institution, by which is typically meant emulating more highly regarded institutions having a similar mission," Garland writes.

"However, benchmarking one university against another naturally invites metrics of comparison. For example, if Berkeley chemistry professors publish more research articles, win more awards, garner more federal funds, give more invited papers at conferences, write more textbooks, and serve on more national commissions than do chemistry professors at Wan U, then tabulating changes in these measurable quantities is a way to see whether the chemistry department at Wan U is becoming more or less Berkeley-like."

As for UConn, the reaction there is restrained. Michael Kirk, a spokesman, said that the university has made "tremendous advances" over the period of time Tuchman describes. "Some people prefer things be the way they used to be," he said. "They are entitled to their opinion." (Kirk also did not dispute that UConn is Wannabe.)

One piece of evidence offered by Kirk would actually fit right in at Wannabe U: He noted, as UConn's Web site boasts, that U.S. News has declared it the top public university in New England.


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