As an academic, what has struck me most about the Claudine Gay debacle is not her mealy-mouthed testimony before Congress. It’s not the allegations of shoddy or fraudulent research. It’s not the paucity and poor quality of her scholarly work, compared to others of her “stature.” It’s not even the dozens of proven instances of blatant plagiarism.
No, what struck me most is just how typical Gay is (or was) as an academic administrator. I’m not talking about the alleged fraud or the plagiarism or the lack of publications or the mealy-mouthedness. Okay, I am talking about the mealy-mouthedness. But what I’m really referring to is her naked careerism and apparent ruthlessness.
That’s what makes her so typical—an archetype, if you will—of those who rise through the ranks of administrative power within academe.
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, administrators existed to serve the faculty—to handle the recordkeeping and the endless paperwork, to wade through the miles of red tape so faculty members wouldn’t have to. Faculty would be free to do what faculty are meant to do, which is pursue knowledge and then write and teach about what they’ve learned.
Usually, under that model, the administrators were faculty members themselves, who took time away from teaching and researching to handle those pesky administrative tasks on behalf of their colleagues. And that is still generally the case at some smaller institutions and among the lower ranks of administrators, like department chairs.
But at most institutions, and at practically every level above department chair—associate dean, dean, vice-provost, provost, vice-president, president—the old collegial model has morphed into an authoritarian, top-down model. Rather than essentially working for the faculty, administrators now “supervise” them, with all that implies. If you’re a faculty member, administrators are your “superiors.” You “report” to them—about everything—and, ultimately, they get to tell you what you can and can’t do.
This top-down approach—as opposed to the original idea of the university as a community of relative equals—is of course reflected in the pay structure. A mid-level administrator typically makes half to twice as much as even an experienced, tenured professor. And at the upper end, administrators can make five to ten times the average faculty salary. Unless you’re a truly brilliant researcher, with a bunch of patents to your name, or else you write a bestseller, the only way to make a lot of money as an academic is to hop on the administrative elevator as early as possible and ride it to the top.
I’m enough of a free-market enthusiast not to begrudge anyone their salary. Indeed, as a former administrator for more than 20 years, I benefited from this system. But it’s also clear that it has created a perverse incentive structure: The higher you rise on that administrative elevator, the more money you make. Ergo, if your primary motivation is to make as much money as possible, it behooves you to rise as high as possible.
And how does one rise in academia? In pretty much the same way people rise within any bureaucracy: not due solely (or even primarily) to competence, but by consolidating their power, which involves sucking up to the more powerful while rewarding supporters and punishing opponents.
All of this, in turn, has produced a strain of flagrant careerism within the administrative class: people whose raison d’etre is to advance through the ranks and who put all their energy and effort into that endeavor rather than devoting themselves to the pursuit of knowledge or the instruction of the young. At smaller, less prestigious institutions, this often takes the form of people acquiring credentials that serve no purpose other than to advance their careers, like doctorates in “educational leadership.”
But even at the most prestigious institutions, we frequently see comparatively mediocre scholars like Claudine Gay parlay whatever advantages they might possess—whether race or sex or connections or just knowing where the bodies are buried—into administrative appointments, which they then protect with a ruthlessness mafioso might envy.
That certainly appears to be true of Ms. Gay. We know that, as dean, she tried to destroy two black members of the Harvard faculty who refused to bow to her feminist, racialized vision of how the world ought to be. One was a law professor, Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr., who agreed to represent Harvey Weinstein of “#MeToo” fame, the other a distinguished economist, Roland G. Fryer, Jr., whose research showed that black suspects are no more likely than white suspects to be shot by police.
The specific weapon that Gay used to attack her enemies was “diversity, equity, and inclusion” ideology, commonly known as DEI. The deeper problem, however, is not so much the weapon itself—although that is problematic enough—but the fact that she wielded it so mercilessly and efficiently.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Under Gay’s leadership…the mandate of the administrative state of the university continued to expand and shift from serving faculty to monitoring them.”
To be fair, not all academic administrators are like Queen Cersei—excuse me, I mean Claudine Gay.
Harvard physics professor Ari Loeb put it this way: “The message was, don’t deviate from what they find to be appropriate. It became more of a police organization.” Loeb also indirectly accused Gay, in a recent Medium post, of “[compromising] scholarly excellence…on the altar of a political agenda” and fostering a “self-justifying bubble” within the university.
Again, the precise mechanism she used to prop up her tyrannical reign is less concerning to me than the tyranny itself. I’ve worked in higher ed for over 38 years, and I saw this same sort of behavior from administrators long before DEI became the flavor of the month: If you weren’t with them, you were against them, and those in the first category got the lion’s share of the raises and promotions and cushy assignments, while those in the latter routinely had their lives made miserable.
(I wrote about this phenomenon years ago in an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “A Song of Vice and Mire,” in which I compared the inner workings of academic administration—particularly at two-year colleges, but also in general—to the machinations of the Court at King’s Landing in George R.R. Martin’s marvelous Game of Thrones novels.)
To be fair, not all academic administrators are like Claudine Gay. I’ve worked for a few that were quite good. I once had a rather powerful dean—we’ll call him Bill—tell me that his job was to make sure all the classrooms had chalk. (That gives you some idea how long ago this was.) What he meant was that his job was to make it as easy as possible for faculty members to do their jobs. And that is exactly right. Bill got it.
Unfortunately, in my experience, his type is grossly underrepresented among the ranks of high-level administrators. There are a lot more Claudine Gays and would-be Claudine Gays in academia than there are Bills, people who exist not to serve but to acquire power and then weaponize the latest orthodoxy—whether that’s DEI or whatever follows—against those who pose the greatest threat.
I don’t mean to downplay the rapidly metastasizing cancer of DEI, which I firmly believe we must eradicate from our campuses, as I have argued elsewhere (for example, here and here). But getting rid of DEI will not rid academia of its Claudine Gays.
To do that, we must have faculty members who first re-embrace their traditional role as seekers and disseminators of truth, instead of pushing politicized, anti-Enlightenment rubbish like critical race theory and “transgenderism;” and who then wrest back the levers of power from the toxic Claudine Gay clones by demanding and participating in meaningful shared governance.
But since neither of those things will ever happen, we’re probably stuck with Claudine Gay and her ilk for as long as academia survives—which, come to think of it, with the Claudines in charge, might not be very long.
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