As a number of the symbolic trappings of higher education have come to a screeching halt — including convocations and graduation ceremonies — the value of many high-level administrators is increasingly unclear. With ivory towers and ivy-covered walls long out of reach for many students in any case, universities are now being confirmed as symbols not only of contagion, but of excess and elitism. In some cases, the move to virtual communication has breathed new life into a question that’s been smoldering for years: How many of the expensive administrators populating our campuses are actually necessary? Though they may be taking great pains to continue to publicly perform their roles, so-called virtual dialogues — “town halls,” “forums,” and the like — place them under the microscope of traumatized constituents who also happen to be visually savvy consumers. Not surprisingly, faculty, staff, and students are demanding much more from these astonishingly well-paid leaders than the usual feel-good claptrap.
In the past, presidents, provosts and deans (together with their “vice,” “assistant,” and “associate” versions) have often served as a reassuring presence on campus, especially in difficult times, even if we didn’t always know how they could possibly be earning their exorbitant keep. When we see them up close through webcams, though, in these volatile times, struggling to stay on script in a format that invites and demands authenticity and responsiveness, some are revealed to be poorly performing politicians rather than competent leaders. These glimpses of our elite administrators — some of whom, like Nixon in 1960, seem to be shifting and fidgeting before the camera’s gaze — help peel away remaining illusions about the glory of public higher education. Campus talking points are revealed not just to be idealistic, but, in some respects, a downright lie, especially with respect to fundamental values such as “we’re all in this together.” Assured that the royal “we” will permanently be transformed by the COVID catastrophe, the actual “we” bearing most of the suffering reflects racial and gender inequity, and a basic lack of parity across employee groups.
Many have been aware of the astonishing gap between rhetoric and action on the part of university officials for years. There is, for example, the shameful open secret of many universities’ failure to attract and retain faculty and staff of color (in direct contrast to their high flown, self-congratulatory diversity rhetoric). There are the entrenched patterns of salary inequities between women and men, as well as between supposedly “masculine” and “feminine” academic disciplines. There are the whole segments of poorly paid gendered staff labor according to which women may be treated as disposable. There are the appalling labor conditions imposed upon legions of adjunct instructors on whom most universities have long been dependent. At the same time, there has been the creation of an elite administrative class of variously titled (e.g., vice, associate, assistant) deans, provosts, presidents and the like with salaries that have come to rival those of greedy corporate fat cats. The hype about universities as hotbeds of liberalism or radicalism notwithstanding, most campuses have been quite content to mirror the stunning inequities of the corporate world.
The pandemic crisis is not itself responsible for shattering the support beams of our public universities. It is, rather, laying bare some fundamental rottenness, and some of this is occurring before the watchful eye of our teeny tiny computer cameras. To take just one example, high level administrators at my university recently participated in an eight-person panel discussion on diversity that appears to have included only one non-white participant. Even though the national call for Black voices, and the outcry against white obliviousness, has perhaps never been louder, it appears not to have occurred to these white administrators to have raised their privileged voices to help proactively create a genuinely multicultural, inclusive event. Though these administrators were almost certainly well-meaning, a resulting impression is that they care more about performing their own racial virtuousness than about facilitating an authentically self-reflective moment for themselves and for higher education. Would such a colossal miscalculation of racial optics have occurred if the event had been of the usual face-to-face variety? Would it have been as visible to so many people?
As I watch some of these “televised” appearances of university spokespersons desperate to manage the growing discontent of faculty and staff, I am reminded of a caricature of the most decadent years of the French monarchy. Here, nobles attempt to make good will gestures towards the starving masses but end up inadvertently flaunting their privilege and aloofness instead. They aim to appease the masses in the usual ways, but woefully underestimate the discontent, and also fail to appreciate how closely they are being watched. Of course, the populist uprisings that marked the end of this system were, literally, revolutionary, with global reverberations. There is, it seems, only so much people will tolerate once they’ve become hungry enough, and glaring inequalities and obliviousness have been revealed to their frustrated eyes. How might things have played out if French peasants had been able to scrutinize kings and courtiers up close through their own personal webcams, capable of seeing each nuanced facial gesture and of hearing every word of rationalization and excuse?
Despite the new democratizing power and pressure of webcams, the wealthiest and most privileged universities will, of course, continue to be able to hold out, resisting the inexorable forces that are ravaging and rewriting the rest of higher ed. We might recall how some social elites in England continued to enjoy the anachronistic comforts of the Victorian era well into the 20th century. They did not regard them as luxuries, of course, but as utterly necessary to the natural order of things. This is very much to the point as we consider the leveling forces that will continue to sweep through higher ed as the national political tide turns (please!), as demands for racial justice remain urgent, and as more of “university life” is pushed online, much of it permanently. The elite administrative cadres that have come to operate at some universities like aristocrats, strolling across campus in a perfumed cloud of noblesse oblige, are suddenly revealed as obsolete. Exposed before a merciless camera in virtual “forums” that reveal them dancing from one trusty cliche to another, whatever mystique they once projected is being unceremoniously stripped away.