Administrators – a parable after Kafka

by Emrys Westacott

ImagesIn the beginning, there were only professors and students, and relations between them were very simple. A student would give the professor half of the fee for a course at the first class, and the remainder after the last class. A few poorer students, who could not pay the full amount in cash, would sometimes bring vegetables they had grown, or a fish they had caught, and the professors accepted these graciously. The widow of a former mathematics professor pickled the vegetables and salted the fish before distributing them among the faculty.

As the college grew, so did its reputation, and as more classes were needed, more professors came to teach. To make things easier for the professors, the widow began collecting the fees and depositing them at the local bank. She also began keeping simple records. At some point, no-one could remember exactly when, the professors agreed among themselves to pay her a stipend for the services she provided.

When the widow died, the professors decided to replace her with an experienced bookkeeper who was given a contract and a salary. This person also took on and standardized a few small administrative tasks that the professors, in an ad hoc sort of way, had previously performed for themselves. The college continued to flourish, student numbers increased, and in time the need for additional administrative assistance became pressing. To simplify things, the professors now agreed to become salaried employees of the college, and the larger decisions about the direction and operation of the institution were put into the hands of individuals who were good at that sort of thing.

The college continued to grow, and so did the administrative work required. More's Law states that in any institution, the closer an employee is to the power center where salaries are determined, the higher the remuneration they receive. True to this principle, the higher-level administrators began to be paid quite a lot more than the professors. As their work became more complicated, they found it necessary to increase the administrative tiers within the college, bring in more specialists and employ more assistants. They also found that they needed bigger, more elegant offices.

Of course, all these changes gradually increased the operating costs of the college. To help meet the rising costs, fees were raised, which led to a drop in the number of students attending. Fewer students meant smaller classes, and unable to justify paying professors to teach a mere handful of students, the administrators felt forced to reduce the teaching faculty. To make sure that the professors who remained had enough work to do, they also added some administrative duties to their workload, most of these having to do with the recruitment and retention of students.

In spite of everyone's best efforts, however, student enrollment continued to fall. Consultants were hired to analyze the trend, and experts were brought in to advise the college on recruitment strategies, but to no avail. In these circumstances, professors who left or retired were not replaced, so the non-teaching duties performed by the faculty fell on fewer shoulders. Some of these duties, to be sure, came with course release time, which made things easier for at least some of the professors; but it reduced still further the number of classes being taught.

And so the pattern continued. Fewer classes offered meant fewer students recruited, meant more professors being assigned administrative duties in lieu of teaching. Eventually, what everyone had been dreading came to pass: an academic year began, and there were no students. The professors who remained were now assigned full-time administrative duties, which they performed alongside the regular full-time administrators (who were, of course, paid more in virtue of their greater responsibilities). Fortunately, there was a large enough endowment to keep the college running as a purely administrative institution. And in this capacity, to everyone's surprise, it began to flourish once again.

Freed from the time-consuming business of teaching students, the college was able to become a leading voice in the national discourse on education. It even hosted three important conferences in a single year: one on the future of higher education; another on leadership in education; and a third on best administrative practices.

Some there were who felt uneasy about the absence of students at an institution that still called itself a college. This unease surfaced one year during heated debates over the college's mission statement, which everyone agreed needed to be reviewed. But in the end most people were satisfied with the new mission statement, which was couched in very general terms, and which expressed a firm commitment to the importance and value of education without actually mentioning teachers or students.