Saturday, September 22, 2012

Administrators are the new zombies (and it's Apocalypse Now, without so many helicopters)

Beyond the content, the fact that this piece was published in the Vancouver Sun (SunMedia being the Great White North's print equivalent to Faux News, written at a third grade level...with boobs) and penned by a Prof at the University of Calgary (the Neoliberal/Conservative/Petroleum capital of Canadia) is enough to herald (heh) the end of days.

The flava: academics, and the "professionals" who manage them, are locked in a "fundamental conflict" because:

"Teaching, research and scholarship have as their overriding purpose making public new ways of thinking or recovering forgotten old ways. Professors are as competitive as anyone else, and they enjoy making discoveries and introducing superior insights. They see the university as a means to that end.

Administrators see university as an end in itself and teaching and research are just the means. They think that the curriculum, for instance, should reflect what students, their parents, or maybe government bureaucrats want. Faculty know they are better qualified than anyone to determine what students should learn."

The author goes on to state: 

"What do administrators do? They meet, attend conferences and organize retreats. Sometimes they have joint retreats with administrators from other universities. This is how they learn about “best practices,” which seems indistinguishable from mindless mimicry, the very opposite of academic discovery and insight.

They also do a lot of strategic planning. Then they update, develop, and revise it. When they are not planning or retreating, they produce vision statements and slogans.
If you wonder why universities are expensive to operate today, follow the money to the administrators and support persons. I doubt students come to university to enjoy the fine work of well-paid under-provosts and senior associate directors. They are more likely to find whatever educational value exists in the underpaid work of part-time sessional instructors."

Preach, Dr. Cooper...and if you serve bourbon during communion, expect to find a great many of us in your pews tomorrow.


  1. Great post (and linked article)!

    I was, very briefly, and administrator of sorts: I co-directed the Tutoring Center (They had a pretentious title for it; I forget what it was.)at one college in which I taught. I soon realized that my job was superfluous.

    Now I shudder to think of how many position like that one exist in colleges all over the land.

  2. I appreciate the explanation of where "best practices" come from. I'm becoming increasingly suspicious of some educational/pedagogical research, which I suspect is becoming a self-perpetuating loop of funding by interested parties of research to establish "best practices" and production of materials that meet increasingly byzantine "standards" based on said "best practices," a la some pharmaceutical research. I don't think it quite matches the moral bankruptcy of the old tobacco-company-funded research (that stuff was deadly, after all), but it's a tremendous waste of time and money, and the end result seems to be an increasing trend toward standardization, preferably via educational "products" which we peons are supposed to "implement" (either that, or we have to produce similar uselessly complex materials of our own). If I were smart (or at least had a stronger streak of self-preservation), I'd probably find a way to join the people producing the stuff. I'm sure it pays better than actually teaching. And if my job disappears or becomes unbearable, there's a good chance that I could end up joining that side of the industry. Ugh.

    1. If you want to see some serious moral bankruptcy, check out the "Schools of the Future" movement in independent secondary schools. Jean Orvis is bringing good ol' hucksterism to the world of private schools, and administrators can't get enough of her snake oil.

      To Orvis and most of the hacks at NAIS, teachers are most of the problem. If we could just get them out of the way (by means of technology implementation and content standardization, mostly) then schools could be "exciting and innovative" in the ways that administrators think they should be. If teachers would just shut up about academic integrity and whatnot, then admins could administer the "best practices" that look so good in glossy brochures and fattening their vacuous resumes.

      The logical fallacies in the "Schools of the Future" manifesto are enough to make any sensible person weep for the future of education. My favorite is that "we don't know what the future holds for our students, but we know that schools are not preparing students for that future! Pay for our consulting services and we will show you the light!"

  3. I wonder if it was strictly an Administrators meeting that yielded the term "high-impact teaching practices." I refuse to use high-impact anything in my classes; too reminiscent of weapons of mass destruction.

    1. Watch it, you're showing your age. I have reason to mention Olivia in my introduction to quantum physics course: her grandfather was Max Born, one of the founders of the field. (If you don't believe me, check out Olivia's web page: she mentions he had a Nobel prize, but funnily enough doesn't mention normalization.) It's been at least five years since anyone has recognized her name: I have to explain, "She starred in 'Grease,' opposite John Travolta"

    2. "Value added" is also disturbing. I understand and support the idea it represents: that students should come out of college in general, and particular college courses in particular, knowing and being able to do some things they didn't before. But "value added" makes me feel even more than I already do like I'm working on an assembly line, and it also seems to embody what Freire (I think) calls the "banking concept" of education: knowledge is something we provide and students assimilate.

      The acquisition of skills (reading/writing/linguistic literacy, mathematical/quantitative literacy, reasoning/critical thinking, etc.) strikes me as far more important, not only because they will be useful long after many of the things we now believe to be true have been questioned in one way or another, but also because they help students understand why we think what we currently think is true is true.

      P.S. I recognized the Olivia Newton John reference (and not only from aerobics videos, though "high impact" has that resonance for me, too). Ah, well; I don't pretend I'm not getting old.

  4. While the University of Calgary produces the likes of Ezra Levant, there are some small sections of the university that are lonely bastions of rational balanced thought in what is otherwise an Oil Patch intellectual wasteland. What I'm interested in seeing is the response of the university administration to this article. I've got colleagues who engage in climate-related research who've been told by deans and more senior admin "be careful what you publish, because this is a(n oil) company town."


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