Of Competence and Cabrera, Continued

In response to a recent post of mine, Mark Pulliam asks: “How and when did higher education administration in America become completely captured by knaves, fools, and cowards?” Great question.

“Completely” doesn’t quite capture it: Purdue and Baylor and Hillsdale are run by responsible, courageous people. Conversely, Mark’s question doesn’t quite capture GMU. “Just last evening,” GMU President Cabrera breathed in his missive to the GMU “community,” a “racially offensive” picture was found in a residence hall that was “demeaning, dehumanizing, and unfit for our community.” That picture appears nearby. Nobody at GMU—not any students’ association, not nobody—has been able to discern its politically offensive content, before or after the president’s missive and investigation.

So: in a hyper-charged environment, the president of a major university invents a racial incident where none exists; falsely suggests that it’s the latest of many incidents, none of which exist; and sics the campus police on unknown parties (all his own students) over a non-existent offense. That is not cowardice, or foolishness, or even knavery. It borders on racial incitement. In my book that’s a firing offense.

In the Regents’ view, alas, it’s probably called “getting ahead of the curve.” Or so Mr. Cabrera will say, and he’ll get away with it. The flight from responsibility is not just a higher ed thing; it’s the way of the world, and there ain’t nothin’ nobody can do about it.

How did this happen? I’ll try an answer in later posts.

Reader Discussion

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on November 16, 2015 at 20:53:03 pm

Is it King Kong? I used to draw similar images when I was a kid. That was then... But where does it end? Mass hysteria was behind the Salem Witch Trials. Will history judge us as harshly?

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Mark Pulliam
on November 16, 2015 at 21:35:58 pm

The picture looks like a snake strangling a saskwatch. How may dorm rooms did they have to bust to find this flimsy excuse to claim allegiance with the Mizzou miscreants?

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D B Johnsen
on November 16, 2015 at 22:18:44 pm

Mark, you're unfit for the GMU community: we're economists. The thing around King Kong's head is a demand curve. A bit funky, I admit; but it does slope downward, They're learning.

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Mike Greve
on November 17, 2015 at 08:58:15 am


I have wondered the same thing--how did this happen?

Public universities in Virginia are structured on a top down model, akin to most other corporations. The charter of incorporation vests all authority in a governing board, appointed by the Governor of Virginia. The board then hires a University President, and delegates to that office the authority to run the university. The President then delegates authority to a series of Vice Presidents, who exercise administrative authority over various "silos" within the university.

At least at JMU, where I teach, these silos constitute distinct functions of the university, are hierarchically arranged, and generally have little contact with each other--they are all pretty much autonomous. The academic silo, within which almost all of the faculty work, is headed by a Vice President who carries the quaint academic title of "Provost." The other five VPs are just VPs.

There are thus six administrative units that report to the President. In addition to the academic unit, they are: Acess and Enrollment Management, Administration and Finance, Student Affairs and University Planning, University Advancement, and Intercollegiate Athletics.

Each of these units is broken down into departments, each of which reports to their respective VP. The exception is the Academic Unit, which is divided into "Colleges" that in turn house the various departments. The officer in charge of a college is called a Dean, and the academic departments are headed by AUHs--Academic Unit Heads. Authority runs top down, however. Regardless of the silo in which one works, authority is exercised in chains of command that all culminate in the Board.

I would venture that to some degree the answer to Mark's question has to do with the incentives to which administrators respond, within the bureaucratic structure of the modern university. To my eye, anyway, The university is prone to all of the same bureaucratic maladies as I experienced when I worked in other corporate bureacracies. A friend of mine, who works as a Project Manager for a major financial corporation, reports managerial dysfunctions that are very much similar to those I witness at my university. The major difference--and this may be one key to answering the question--is that the university is a public corporation, wheras the bank is private. So officers at the top of the hierarchy respond to political pressures in a way that officers in private corporations are somewhat less susceptible.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on November 17, 2015 at 10:39:33 am

Thank you, Kevin !

What you point out is that, in the most common cases, the "head" (President or whatever) of administration is NOT a Chief *Executive* officer, but rather a Chief *Operating* Officer - if we are to use the corporate metric (as Jefferson proposed and Virginia adopted). Of course Jefferson did not propose "administration" but a self-regulating faculty under the authority of the Visitors.

JMU is to be congratulated on its recent status recognitions; quite some above Yale and even GMU, as I recall.

It is altogether possible that its Board of Visitors has maintained its authority and meets its responsibilities as the *Executive* authority.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on November 17, 2015 at 11:03:19 am

To repeat:

It began (and continues as) the function of academic “administration” changed (and changes) to serve “clients” rather than learning objectives.

Governing authorities of institutions have been selecting "Officers" for functional capacities (funding, political liaison, publicity, etc.) resulting in those officers establishing their own forms of relationships and clienteles.

The public, in general, even alumni, do not comprehend the failures of the governing bodies, whose compositions have often become essentially political. The organizational structures have been perverted to perceived sociological ends, rather than maintaining learning provisions whereby individuals develop capacities for selecting their own objectives and the means to seek them.

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R Richard Schweitzer

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