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The Yellow Admirals of Academia

As a fan of nautical writers CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian* I do like reading the rollocking adventures of the intrepid Captains of His Majesty’s Navy avasting their mainsails and hoisting their topgallants against the scourge of Emperor Napoleon’s forces. In these books I discovered a new nautical term, a “Yellow Admiral”.

When naval captains of the 18th/19th Century achieved seniority they were promoted to the ranks of admiral. There was no promotion on merit, it was simply a case of surviving until a position opened up. There were three ranks of Admiral (rear Admiral, Vice Admiral and Full Admiral) for each of the main naval forced: the Red, White and Blue squadrons, which were patrolling key strategic areas of the world’s oceans. However, there were some captains that you really did not want to be in charge of a single ship, let alone a naval battle group. These individuals were dubbed “Yellow Admirals” and were given administrative positions on land. As a result, a lot of naval logistics in the Napoleonic wars was mired by incompetence, ego-driven power plays, and financial irregularities. We have something similar in academia: instead we don’t call them Yellow Admirals, we call them Associate Deans.


Personally I love working in academia – where else can you talk at length about what interests you, and get to exercise your curiosity, and get paid (reasonably well) for it. There are two draw backs though: the rather large number of toxic faculty  and bungling administrators. It is not a surprise that Delores Umbridge in Harry Potter is actually more hated than Voldemort because not everyone has met an evil wizard, but many have encountered a noxious administrator in an educational establishment.

Now I have to declare that there are some administrators who are fantastic and do everything they can to better the lot of students, faculty and the university at large. But there are far too many in academia who are more Delores Umbridge than Albus Dumbledore.

Across the US and Europe, the number of academic administrators is on the rise. Likewise the power that they wield over students and faculty, and the resources that they control. For example, while the ratio of faculty to students has remained roughly the same, since 1975 the ratio of university administrators and staffers to students has increased by 24% and 42%, respectively. Moreover, between 1998 and 2008, the budgets to administrators in private colleges in the USA were increased by 50% more than the budgets for instructional faculty . In addition, between 1987 and 2012, the number of university administrators and professional staffers more doubled, at twice the rate of the increase in the numbers of students .

To give an example, in a certain nearby University just over a year ago (I can neither confirm nor deny whether this might be a university I am linked to – you might think that it is, but I couldn’t possibly comment ) while the increase in departmental faculty salaries was 3%, the average salary increase for science administrators was nearly two and a half times higher (7.36%), with the Dean’s salary increasing by six times as much as faculty (18.8%) – just the amount of the Dean’s raise alone was more than the annual salaries of most  instructional assistant professors. That wasn’t a one off event however. Across the University the increase in administrators’ salary over the past 5 years was been nearly double that of faculty on the whole. Moreover, between 2012 and 2013 the while number of enrolled students increased by 2.9%, the number of full time instructional faculty only increased by 0.9%. However, over the same time period the number of administrators and managers increased by 4.1% and 4.5% respectively – thus the hiring rate of administrative positions increased by more than four times the rate that full time teaching faculty were employed.

With this increase of University resources going towards administration, and a higher proportion of students’ tuition going to support those that neither research nor teach, are we getting value for money? Do these administrators increase the efficiency and the functioning of the essential roles of Universities (i.e. research and teaching)? Universally my academic colleagues complain about how pointless paper work and incompetent administration is actually making their ability to conduct research and teach more difficult. Students likewise complain about the increasing number of administrative hoops they have to jump through, with a noticeable lack of support of help on how or when to jump through these hoops. Thus, it seems not to be the case – if anything more administrators lead to more people trying to justify their existence by producing unnecessary administrative structures, thus reducing efficiency.

To reduce this insidious shift from funding faculty who teach and research to funding administrators, would require University Presidents to cut down on hires of, and to reduce budgetary allocations to,  administrators. But will they do that? Unlikely, as they are, after all, highly paid administrators themselves…


*For nautical adventure book muggles, one of Patrick O’Brian’s books was turned into a pretty good (and close to the books) Russel Crowe movie: Master and Commander: Far Side of the World

Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) for nearly a decade and also served two terms as the president of the SCB Marine Section. and he's currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society, the Society for Marine Mammalogy and the SCB Contravention Marketing Working Group. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 135 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation and co-edited a book on marine wildlife conflict resolution.

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