The bean counters are coming! At the March 2014 national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Dallas, the title of the Graduate Student Symposium is the provocative, Elements in Transition: Is Chemistry Facing Revolution or Recession? It’s a great question, especially if you are just beginning to embark on a 40–50-year career in chemistry. Of course, there’s going to be changes in that time-frame; simply appreciating that 100 years ago ‘Big Pharma’ didn’t exist, and many universities didn’t have chemistry departments (or indeed departments period) reminds us that a lot can change during the average length of a career or two. In large part I suspect that the topic chosen by the organizing committee has its origins in the deep economic recession that, depending on your metric and point of view, we are either still mired in or are climbing our way out of. Important though pecuniary matters may be to the state of affairs of chemistry, however, there are many other contributing factors that influence its health and direction. Without doubt, the most important factor is how the science itself is going to change, but a frequently overlooked factor — the proverbial elephant in the room — is how chemistry is going to be taught in universities around the world. Appreciating this point raises the simple question: who controls universities? Most undergraduates, and indeed graduate students, are of the opinion that the faculty controls a university; those stalwarts of learning — with the help of an able-bodied administration — shape and guide the university through good or bad days. The students are of course utterly incorrect. Rather, it is the administration that controls the university. Some time ago it was indeed the case that faculty ran institutions of higher learning. When universities were small enough that they didn’t have much use for departments, the faculty and the administration were the same thing; faculty members would combine their teaching, research and service with part-time administration. Now it’s sad to say, but for faculty, administrative duties have never typically been high on their favouritethings-to-do-on-a-day-to-day-basis list. And so full-time administrators were hired to take on some of the bean counting, paper pushing and other ancillary jobs that ‘got in the way’ of serious research.


Bruce Gibb laments the bloated administrations that are damaging universities.

But somewhere along the way a tipping point was reached; the administration started to hire people on its own and grow in size, and with more and more administrators on-board, new and interesting ways to count beans or push paper were devised. As the administration grew to previously unimaginable proportions, the administrators realized that they couldn’t think of any new ways to count beans or push paper, and hence meetings, retreats and commissions were conceived and implemented because new ways were needed to think about how to think about bean counting and paper pushing. And as this morphing mass of administration became more and more alien to the faculty, so they became less and less interested because they couldn’t tell if it was the beans that were being pushed and the paper being counted, or the other way around. Formally, the modern university is usually controlled by a board of trustees or board of regents. (These boards are easily recognizable because they seldom, if ever, contain anyone with an academic background.) However, as the majority of board members spend very little time actually working on university duties, and all are spoon-fed administrative propaganda,


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they are more often than not figure-heads. They only get to see the top administrative brass, never peaking behind the curtain. If they could, they would see some dedicated faculty reaching out to them to open up lines of communication, but administrations work hard to ensure that this doesn’t happen. And why would they, most people resist giving up power. Naturally, considering this state of affairs, it is rare to find universities where the faculty has any say on who is appointed to the board. It’s an odd situation because presumably the faculty know about education and who might best serve it. And so the contemporary university is a rather perverse institution; politically appointed and politically motivated business leaders and lawyers as figureheads on top, faculty pushing the boundaries of knowledge and thinking on the bottom, and in between a large, powerful administration pulling most of the strings. The asymmetry in the degrees of power wielded by the faculty and administration result in many things. At the principle-investigator level, it means that when I spend my hard-earned grant money I have to justify every expenditure to the last cent. Over-spend in the travel or graduate-support categories by a 83

thesis few dollars and you are in trouble. I complain, but in the grand scheme of things I acknowledge that checks and balances are important. Yet the overhead generated from a grant (read taxation from the researcher to the administration) disappears into a general fund never to be seen again. I’m told that this overhead is for infrastructure support, but I doubt much goes into anything that directly concerns my research; and I’ve never met an administrator who could actually tell me precisely where my taxes go.

From 1993–2007 spending on administrations at major US universities rose almost twice as much as funding for research and teaching. Another sign of this power asymmetry is that as a principle investigator I’m not allowed to have duel-use items. No I’m not talking about wheelbarrows as a means to synthesize chemical weapons, I mean that, strictly speaking, I can’t buy batteries for my laser-pointer using money from one award, and then use that laser pointer to give a presentation on my research funded by a different award. The origin of this comical oddity is at the federal level, but if there were power symmetry between the administration and myself, it would take fewer than four attempts to clear mundane purchases. Power asymmetry is also evident at the departmental level; just ask any department chair. At my old institution, our department had to put together a multipage document to justify why it needed a secretary. No, I’m not talking about a new, additional secretary. I’m talking about one secretary; for two years the department struggled without any secretary whatsoever. And of course, every few years — often shortly after the arrival of a new president of chancellor — most administrations require that departments come up with a grand (oversized) ‘Strategic Plan’. Something that reflects our values, global vision, gender and racial inclusiveness, entrepreneurship… (add in-vogue administrative nomenclature ad infinitum). As a colleague once told me…


New building or renovated labs (rather than a shiny new sports centre)… more faculty… new instruments… more support staff… better students… and of course less time devoted to producing strategic plans so that we can focus on doing the best teaching and research we can. Et voilà! One strategic plan! All this power-asymmetry would be funny if it wasn’t so damaging. But here’s the really worrying thing for chemistry (and any discipline) — it’s getting worse! I don’t mean that administrations are getting worse or that more and more evildoers are filling these positions. The vast majority of administrations function excellently by the metrics of most baseadministrative functions such as student admission, administration and graduation. In addition, they are mostly populated by honest, hard-working and admirable people. No, things are getting worse because the power asymmetry between faculty and administrators is increasing, and because — to paraphrase Benjamin Ginsberg in his caustic The Fall of the Faculty — the faculty wants the university to teach what they believe ought to be taught, but the administration wants the university to teach what they think will maximize immediate and future financial return on the investment made1. As a result, the balance between producing forms of knowledge that benefit mankind, and producing forms of knowledge likely to be useful in the marketplace is shifting towards the latter. The modern university is not a steady-state system. Why is this shift occurring? The most likely answer is the out-of-control increasing size of administrations. Consider Purdue University, which received some negative coverage last year for its (actually below average) administrative bloat 2. In the decade prior to the report, Purdue saw a 54% jump in the number of administrators (60% was the US national average), a rise of almost 8 times the corresponding faculty increase (the US national average was 10 times). Putting these numbers into a slightly broader perspective, Greene examined the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) sponsored by the US Department of Education and found that in 1993 the leading universities had 6.8 full-time administrators for every 100

students compared with 6.0 full-time faculty, whereas by 2007 there were 9.4 full-time administrators per 100 students compared with 7.0 fulltime faculty 3. Underlying this worrying trend are some examples of good news. For example, Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine actually cut their bureaucracy in 2009. But the flip side of this story is that esteemed institutions such as Vanderbilt University now need 64 administrators for every 100 students. Not surprisingly then, from 1993–2007 spending on administrations at major US universities rose almost twice as much as funding for research and teaching. And whilst administrations continue to grow, more and more tenure-track faculty positions are replaced with untenured instructors whose lower salaries often force them to take on multiple jobs at different institutions. The stats are all out there1,3, but to finish on personal experience, in the mid2000s my old department had 18–19 faculty and two instructors; now it has 8 faculty and 4 instructors. And you can be sure that the administration didn’t shrink 50–60% over the same time period. And so, the way things are going universities are morphing from hot-beds of new and radical ideas that foment societal change, to knowledge factories that churn out trendy diplomas. Curricula that instill critical thinking and a deep, broad understanding of society are slowly but surely being replaced with life-skill courses. In chemistry we are relatively shielded compared with the liberal arts, but the CBS TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation led to a large increase in forensic science classes around the US. Should we be teaching what the students want, or what they need? And if it’s the former, what courses are we going to drop? Alas, chemistry is not immune from the academic race to the bottom. ❐ Bruce C. Gibb is in the Department of Chemistry at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118, USA. e-mail: [email protected] References 1. Ginsberg, B. The Fall of the Faculty (Oxford Univ Press, 2011). 2. Hechinger, J. The troubling dean-to-professor ratio. Bloomberg Businessweek (21 November 2012). 3. Greene, J. P., Kisida, B. & Mills, J. Administrative Bloat at American Universities: The Real Reason for High Costs in Higher Education Policy Report (Goldwater Institute, 2010).


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The bean counters are coming!

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