The New American Dream: Becoming An Academic Administrator

Go West, young man; or perhaps, go into plastics. And now, go become an academic administrator.

The City University of New York’s new chancellor, James Milliken, will soon be drawing upon his $670,000 salary. When he does so, he’ll be able to entertain guests in style at his $18,000 a month apartment on the Upper East Side in Manhattan–paid for by CUNY (they did set aside 3.7 million dollars for his housing budget). His predecessor, Matthew Goldstein, is still making $300,000 a year in his emeritus position; perhaps offering sage advice to future presidents on how to make sure they come away with a really good retirement package.

Meanwhile, tuition rises, our classrooms continue to decay, faculty remain jammed into small offices, often four at a time. Our network connections remain glacial; journal subscriptions are cancelled every year for lack of funds; book budgets shrink; travel funds for conferences are routinely denied to even those who make presentations.  Full-time faculty are being steadily replaced by part-time adjuncts who make slave wages, receive no health benefits, and do not have an office or a phone. And there has been a freeze on wages for four years–at CUNY–because the contract expired that many years ago. (At Brooklyn College, I share a two-room office with three other faculty members; we ask for staggered teaching schedules so that we can, when needed, conduct conversations with our students in private. A dirty pool of reddish liquid appears to have seeped into our office and despite two calls to facilities to clean it up, the stain remains. Meanwhile the Dean for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences works in a three-chamber, wall-to-wall carpeted office, complete with attached conference room and multi-person secretarial staff).

There is an old joke about private universities which continues to make the rounds: they are real estate companies and investment houses that award degrees on the side. Their rent-seeking disease appears contagious: public universities want in on the act. They want to raise tuition and hire ever more administrators, who delight in walking into meetings with faculty, armed with the latest anti-tenure, anti-liberal arts education screed penned by a management consultant wanna-be, and telling them what time it is.  They want to hobnob with the rich and famous; sometimes they invite those who only recently strode the corridors of power, hoping that they will build networks of influence that will secure them well-paid lectures on the speaking circuit.

The new career path for those looking to make some serious bucks in academia looks something like this: get tenure; slowly work your way into administration, taking on one of those responsibilities that grant you release time from teaching and research; build up a portfolio of administrative accomplishments; indicate your desire to do this work full-time; work your way up to becoming a provost or a dean, ideal springboards for more senior positions; make a lateral move to accomplish this if necessary; the big prize, a university presidency will hopefully soon be yours.

Normally, this state of affairs would be a scandal. But this is a new America: bloated and bureaucratic and too-big-to-fail.

Sweatshops below; swank above. USA! USA! USA!


8 thoughts on “The New American Dream: Becoming An Academic Administrator

  1. Students come and go, professors less so, but administration endures forever.
    When Mary Vojtko, long an adjunct at Duquesne University, died because she lacked medical care, a pension and a proper home, Duquesne administrators, law school professors and a few lumpenlibertarians rushed forward to defend the University and the academic job market. But their unsophisticated casuistry failed to convince their audience that the University acted ethically with respect to Vojtko. Their failure was unsurprising since Professor Vojtko’s death provided prima facie evidence showing that the superexploitation found in the adjunct labor market can be deadly and thus unethical nearly by definition. The University broke no laws, of course.

    As George Akerlof once wrote:

    “Our theoretical analysis shows that an economic underground can come to life if firms have an incentive to go broke for profit at society’s expense (to loot) instead of to go for broke (to gamble on success). Bankruptcy for profit will occur if poor accounting, lax regulation or low penalties for abuse give owners an incentive to pay themselves more than their firms are worth and then default on their debt obligations.”

    Akerlof wrote about those predators who looted companies. University administrators do not bankrupt their institutions. They do, however, extract rents from the students and faculty. These rents do not refer to the enormous contribution these administrators provide to their university. They refer to their institutional positions, to their local powers and to the lack of adequate controls on their behavior. The upshot: Their salaries, benefits and perquisites consume funds which would be best used to provide a quality education to the students whom they govern and a decent form of life for the many individuals who teach those students.

  2. Have you seen the AAUP 2013-14 report on the economic status of the profession (university professor)? (Link:

    From 1975/76 – 2011 the number of full-time tenured/tenure-track faculty on university campuses has grown by 23%, while during that same period the number of full-time non-faculty professionals has grown by 369%. (Graph:

    Similarly, the salaries for key university administrators (president and VPs) have skyrocketed in comparison to far more modest increases for faculty during that same period. (Graph:

    Bottom line: As administrators become more both more numerous and better paid than faculty, the quality of American universities will reflect that shift in values.

    1. Katherine,

      These are excellent links, and I thank you profusely for providing them. Next time I write on this topic, I will use them for sure.

      Your pessimistic conclusion is entirely warranted.

      1. It does seem out of the reach of even the middle class, and with the rising tuition not being spent on teaching, I have to wonder … parent of an 11th grader that I am … exactly what are we buying for all that money?

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