Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Administrative Bloat and the Attack on Campus Free Speech

POWERLINE   |  October 28, 2019 by Paul Mirengoff

Almost since the start of Power Line in 2002, we have reported with dismay the descent of American colleges and universities into a leftist bastion of illiberalism. Most of our focus has been on professors, and not without reason. They are the ones who have degraded the teaching of humanities through their obsession with identify politics and disdain for Western Civilization.

However, I came away from this year’s ATHENA Roundtable Conference believing that administrators, not professors, are the primary culprits on American campuses today. The ATHENA Roundtable Conference is a program presented by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). ACTA is an independent, nonprofit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America’s colleges and universities.

The threat posted by the ever-growing ranks of college administrators was pinpointed in an address by Samuel Abrams. He’s a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College who has not only fought courageously for academic freedom, but also studied, as an empirical matter, the threat to it. You can read his AEI article about the subversive role of college administrators here.

Abrams explained that, compared to administrators, college professors exert limited influence on the lives of students. They teach relatively light course loads, have limited visiting hours, spend most of the day on research, and then head home to their family (if any).

Administrators, by contrast, are embedded in their colleges. Some live in dorms where they adjudicate disputes that, in better times, students worked out for themselves. As Abrams puts it in his AEI article:

Today, many colleges and universities have moved to a model in which teaching and learning is seen as a 24/7 endeavor. Engagement with students is occurring as much — if not more — in residence halls and student centers as it is in classrooms.

Schools have increased their hiring in areas such as residential life and student centers, offices of student life and success, and offices of inclusion and engagement. It’s not surprising that many of the free-speech controversies in the past few years at places like Yale, Stanford and the University of Delaware have concerned events that occurred not in classrooms but in student communal spaces and residence halls.

Abrams surveyed the “student-facing” administrator class — those whose work concerns the quality and character of a student’s experience on campus. He found that liberal staff members outnumber their conservative counterparts by a ratio of 12-to-one. Only 6 percent of campus administrators identified as conservative to some degree, while 71 percent classified themselves as liberal or very liberal. On New England liberal arts campuses, liberals outnumber conservatives by a 25-to-one ratio.

The leftism of this cohort is significantly more pronounced than that of professors, which is pronounced enough.

The difference in the attitudes of student-facing administrators and professors is even more stark when it comes to free speech. Abrams told us that somewhere around 10 percent of professors participate in “shout down” style protests or encourage their students to do so. For the administrator class, the number is more than 40 percent. (These numbers are from memory).

Less than 20 percent of professors believe these kinds of protests are a good idea. By almost a two-to-one ratio, student-facing administrators believe they are.

The ATHENA Roundtable culminated with the presentation of the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education to Judge José A. Cabranes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In his speech accepting the award, Judge Cabranes spoke of the symbiotic relationship between administrators and radical students.

Radical students engage in aggressive protests, such as occupying the office of the college president. One of their demands is that the college hire more diversity coordinators, sex harassment specialists, etc. The college complies.

The new hires foment grievances and encourage new protests. The protests result in the hiring of still more agitator-administrators.

The problem of administrative bloat at colleges and universities is well recognized. Our friend the late Joe Asch painstakingly documented the problem at Dartmouth. However, it wasn’t until I attended the ATHENA Roundtable last week that I fully understood the relationship between the problem of bloat and the assault on academic freedom.

Colleges could ameliorate both problems by cutting back on diversity deans and other student-facing staff members. It’s clear, however, that this isn’t going to happen. If anything, the ranks of these grievance mongers likely will continue to swell, and free speech on campus likely will come under even more intense attack.


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