In contemporary philosophy and economics, a central paradigm is the idea that rather than put our trust in people’s virtue, or overburden them with laws and regulations, we should provide them the correct incentives for them to guide their own actions. In particular, we seek to align interests, so that decision-makers, workers and the public at large all aim toward the same set of goals, despite having different goals. For example, if your money guy receives a percentage of what you make, then the theory says that his interests aligns with yours, and that lessen the risk of bad management, since both of you nowhave a vested interestin you making more money.
Obviously, there are plenty of ethical, psychological and economicissues with this theory, however, in many cases, the problem is not so much due to the theory itself; it is simply a matter of having failed to correctly align the interest in a given situation, which then predictably leads to conflicts between actors.
Being an academic, my fear is this: What if this was exactly the situation we face in the case of university administrators?
In the past decades, Canadian universities have vastly turned to non-academic professional administrators as a way to manage our academic institutions. Not only are we under the impression that they might have higher expertise in management than academics, we also believe that professional administrators have a particular interest in good governance. After all, they do not have a tenure job to go back to after their mandate, the rest of their careers rely on their current management successes.
Many have challenged that trend under the banner of academic freedom, or more broadly against the commodification of higher education. Those are fair points, but let us put them aside for the sake of argument, and ask ourselves if, once we have decided (or resigned ourselves) to employ external career administrator, their interests truly aligns with those of the public, professors and students.
Now, I think that, explicitly or not, most people involved in administrating a college or a university would say that it is indeed the case. Administrators have their bonuses, recognition and career advancement tied to the successes and growth of their establishment. They have a vested interest in the university doing well. Isn’t that a clear case of successful institutional design?
Well, call me cynical, but after only a year of teaching in a Canadian university, I see many cracks in this conclusion. And by that, I do not mean that administrators are incompetent or have bad intentions (most are dedicated and hard-working), but rather, I believe that they might be incentivized in the wrong way, which leads them to disappoint the rest of us even as they are themselves succeeding.
In particular, I see a deep problem in how administrators are facing a disproportionate incentive toward “bold leadership” (vs. responsible leadership). As it stands, they experience incentives toward big real-estate projects, opening of new campuses, creation of new programs and vast marketing campaigns, while experiencing surprisingly little push toward the main roles of universities, in terms of the long-term quality of teaching and research.
Again, it is not that these big and ambitious projects are bad per se, but rather, they bring benefits to the individual administrator in magnitudes more than they do to the academic bodies or the public as a whole(when it is not at a loss for us). And thus, we are facing a predictable situation, in which the best administrators (because many of them are in fact very good at this job) are incentivized to spend most resources in “high risks, high rewards” projects, over maintain boring sustainable long-term academic activities.
- Around me, in the span of a few months, I witnessed a mad dance of new programs being pushed forward by administrators, as proofs of their leadership and vision, at the very same time that other programs, some created just a few years ago by their predecessors, were frenetically being closed due to low enrolments. This ruins the prospects of students halfway through, but also the careers of professors, who are then relegated to departments outside of their expertise. And on a wider note, there are doubts to be raised on how employers and grad school will value diplomas in some “interdisciplinary cultural competency” programs that will have existed only for a few years, in one institution, before disappearing. My own diplomas in philosophy might incite some laugh in a job interview, but at least it is a recognizable field (we have had a good long run, with togas and papyruses). Unfortunately, the real quality and sustainability of programs is not visible in the timeframe of a particular administrator’s list of achievements.
- Another, more problematic trend, is the dash toward real estate projects, including campuses. This is in part due to declining financing of universities, but also due to how such projects stand as visible accomplishments for administrators. In just a year, Laurentian university has opened with great pride a new million dollars architecture school (which does look great), while at the very same time, another flagship campus project, launched only a few years ago, was being closed (with the nightmare of the repatriation of tenure faculties to a main campus already in deficit, notwithstanding the professors’ anger at relocating twice over 5-8 years). At this time, it is that I am predicting that our new building will be a financial hole (although 40+ million for 200 students in a field with little local prospects…), but more importantly, that no amount of real-estate and new campus failures can suffice to alter the frenzy of new constructions in any way. Administrators simply do not pay the price when such projects fail, leading to a situation in which even bad project are still “low risk to them, high reward to them”.
- Finally, a third example I have witnessed is the urge toward new marketing campaigns, every time a new administrator comes in, without any inquiry on whether or not the previous one had achieved successes. At the time of their hiring, it seems every administrator promises to solve the financial crisis through higher enrolments, and thus launches a new and expensive market strategy, only to leave for the next job before any assessment of the results can be made. We professors tend to complain a lot about how vapid and “buzzwordy” these marketing campaigns are, but here, my main worry is that the measurements of the success of such a campaign do not actually involve effective results, on the side of administrators, who only need to lengthen their list of bold initiatives.
Those are just the examples that I have witnessed first-hand this year, but every colleague probably has his or her own similar examples. However, what matters here is not so much a litany of complaints, but rather to bring us closer to a rational explanation for why all these energies and resources are spent in so many directions with so little long-term results. In particular, how is it that we reliably hire and reward administrators on promises of decisive actions, higher enrolments and substantial return of investment, despite very mixed results?
At this point I am led to think that this would be due to a systemic failure rather than a sum of personal vices and mistakes. We simply provide a structure of incentives that overvalue bold moves, and undervalue maintaining teaching and research units sustainable over a long period. Administrators simply can’t afford to say, in their next interview, “over 50 years, of which I was an administrator for 5, these activities and programs have continued doing well”, even though this is what we need from them. Administrators need big numbers, big expenses classified as investments, noticeable short-term cuts, visible changes, new buildings, new slogans, and so on.
And through all this, I come out thinking that my interest, as a humble philosopher who hopes to still teach philosophy to students in 10 years, is not well aligned to those of my administrators. And nor is the public’s interest in sustainable research and transmission of knowledge to the next generation. But rather than just blaming individual administrators, or becoming jaded about all management, perhaps we should start looking for ways for our interests, as a society and as a professional body, to become concrete incentives for the administrators we hire. And this probably starts in how we value the past accomplishments of our next candidates for hire. As long as we look for boldness and promises of a silver-bullet against declining enrolments, we will have the administrators that we do.