This essay by Cal Newport proposes that, since the work of a professor should be to engage in deep thinking, universities should take a stand by reversing the fairly recent (forty years?) trend to burden professors with administrative tasks, since those displace the more valuable work professors are being paid to do, and they aren’t very good at them anyway. It’s a strange piece of thinking, well executed and reasonable and, I think, delusional. Newport proposes that the administrative work should be offloaded onto people who are good at it and paid appropriately—fair enough in itself—but never asks whether the work is worth doing, or where it came from in the first place.
By ignoring the question, I assume he assumes that this is what it takes to run a university—or maybe he just chooses not to dig deeper as a way of staying focused on his particular goal, since he does say this in passing:
Another factor driving the professoriate’s drift into middle management is a significant increase in administrative demands. In part, this is due to the growth of university bureaucracy, which, once established, inevitably consumes the time and attention of its subjects to justify its existence.
I can understand that Newport would zero in on the more achievable (though still pie-in-the-sky) goal of shifting the burden to assistants rather than dismantling the machinery that creates the burden. But I can’t imagine that his proposal would work even if universities embraced it, since it isn’t clear to me that universities put much value on having their professors think deeply—and to the extent that there’s value in it, the appearance of deep thinking is probably sufficient.
Perhaps I’ve just read too much David Graeber. His book on the nature of modern work is excellent, and you can get the gist of his argument from the essay which inspired the book. It gives a good solid answer to a question that occurred to me early in my corporate days, as I was walking through a large open-plan office in the vast research building of the vast central campus of the multi-campus Texas Instruments. I knew more or less what Texas Instruments produced, and had a rough idea of how many and what sort of people it would take to make those things, and walked by row after row of people sitting at desks who were clearly not making those things, and wondered: what do these people do all day?