The Edges of the Absurd in Academia

Yesterday, I suggested that the basic way in which administrators and faculty talk about academia creates moments best described as absurd or even the theater of the absurd. In these situations, both sides use laughter to reinforce the fundamental incommensurability of the two perspectives on the academic project. 

This view, of course, is reductionist and there are many and frequent spaces where administrators, faculty, students, and staff find themselves on the same page or negotiate meaningful understandings and compromises. After all the, university does function.

At the same time, these negotiations always entail certain risks. Adopting the language of the administration may open space for compromise, but it might also compromise certain aspects of the faculty position. Recently, I’ve noticed the depressing frequency of faculty claiming that some of their colleagues, generally, but not always nameless, don’t pull their weight. Usually the faculty criticize their peers for their lack of commitment to service, poor or apathetic teaching, and The solution to this depends on the situation and ranges from the drastic to the mundane. At the drastic end, there’s immediate termination; at the more mundane end, there tends to be more administrative oversight. I had long thought that this kind of statement by faculty was relatively harmless and reflected a commitment to higher education, the institution, the spirit of collegiality, and our students.

Recently, though, I’ve started to wonder. As we increasingly work on a campus where oversight, assessment, evaluation, and surveillance have become commonplace, suggesting, out loud, that a faculty member isn’t doing their job takes on a more ominous cast. Not only is this asking for more oversight, but it’s also confirming a perception of faculty as privileged and undisciplined workers who require constantly monitoring to stem the temptation to abuse the freedom of tenure.

In my experience (and in a growing number of public reports), the tools used to increase oversight at the university – particularly those that seek to quantify faculty performance – are not neutral. They not only reproduce biases present in academia more broadly, but introduce new biases linked strongly to priorities that seek to use data “to disrupt” traditional practices closely tied to tenure and academic freedom, on the one hand, and the growing role of contingent faculty, on the other. 

I’m increasingly of the opinion that this is a line that shouldn’t be crossed.  

Faculty, for their part, are only too quick to complain about the cost of administrators, procedures, and bureaucratic inefficiencies on campus as well. We’ve all heard and maybe even indulged in a bit of complaining about administrator salaries. It’s common place in academic conversations and low hanging fruit. At the same time, we should be cautious particularly those of us at state institutions. It’s easy enough to cite administrator salaries as contributing to the increasing cost of higher education (despite significant evidence to the contrary) or to complain about the proliferation of Associate Vice Presidents. At the same time, this is echoing certain attitudes that the public sector cannot be trusted to use public funds responsibly. Moreover, critiques of inefficiencies and over-staffed, bureaucratized processes contribute to a similar discourse. In the past, these critiques have served as a rhetorical base for folks who want to reduce funding to higher education (and the public sector more broadly). 

Once again, these are lines that we as faculty should not cross. 

The desire to find common cause with administrators and even public critics is understandable, of course. We all have shared frustrations when we encounter faculty who are struggling to do their share (or who seem to be coasting on the system). We also know that there are parts of the university – like any complex institution – that can be run for efficiently or in ways that more directly benefit the goals of students, faculty, and staff. The issue isn’t whether we should work to make the university a better place. 

Instead, the issue is, in part, the rhetoric that we adopt when we offer these critiques.  

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