Could we abolish the UConn administration?

Former UConn President Susan Herbst speaks at a meeting with Governor Malloy. Herbst earned $711,000 in her final year as president. Courtesy of Wikimedia

How often do you find yourself thinking: “Why on Earth does this person earn so much money?” 

If it’s at least once a week, hi there Husky! Welcome to the University of Connecticut! 

When I say “this person,” I’m mainly referring to high-level administrators such as the university president or chairman of the board of trustees. Former UConn President Susan Herbst, for example, earned $711,000 in her final year as president according to the Courant. Furthermore, Herbst received an amount equal to this during a one-year sabbatical, in addition to a $319,000 salary for teaching at UConn Stamford. 

How did this number get so high? Former Chairman of the Board of Trustees Larry McHugh provided some insight when he said that it’s “not that Susan Herbst is being overpaid.” Rather, “Our situation is to make sure that we keep Susan at this university and to work all we can to do that.”  

It’s thoroughly evident that the lure of being president is deeply rooted in financial incentives. After all, universities are responsible for billions of dollars in financial, human, research and development capital — why should you try to aim for a small piece of the pie?  

But in the midst of an intercampus eruption against sexual violence at UConn and the negligence of the administration to properly support those who speak out, it’s clear that the economic interests of the upper echelon of the UConn administration come at the expense of students. The same is true from the high costs of attending UConn, to the militarization of cops on campus, to UConn’s investments in fossil fuels. The UConn administration is detached from and unaccountable for the student body and its interests.

After three protests against UConn’s sexual assault policy, a list of demands regarding transparency, accountability, and trauma-informed responses is set to be publicized soon by the student organization Revolution Against Rape. UConn students already entrenched in exams are proving more dedicated to and capable of improving our school than its administrators. This poses the question: does UConn really need an administration?

The answer, as always, is complicated. Administration is a noun based on the verb administer, meaning to manage or bear responsibility for something (e.g. administer a business, administer a vaccine). It’s a position that, in theory, can be occupied by anyone with a basic set of soft skills like teamwork, communication and adaptability. When we think about the UConn administration proper, however, we picture an elite, inaccessible group of highly specialized, overpaid professionals. This is the paradigm that we need to abolish. 

The reward for putting the livelihoods of thousands of students and workers in your hands shouldn’t be hundreds of thousands of dollars; rather, it should be the joy of connecting with the community and learning alongside its members (as well as a quality standard of living, but this should be universal). 

Of the last five presidents, from Susan Herbst to Interim President Radenka Maric, none have attended UConn as a student. If you lack the unique experience of being a UConn student, will you gravitate toward helping the student community or doing the bare minimum to “chase the bag,” so to speak?  

The salaries of coaches, BOT members, and administrators should all be on the table in conversations about a more equitable distribution of wealth. If given the opportunity and resources, students with initiative could easily pass sustainable and socially responsible legislation through mechanisms like Undergraduate Student Government. The largest obstacle to fighting climate change, improving the status of marginalized students and decreasing the cost of attending and living at UConn is a reticent administration more interested in imposing austerity measures (i.e. increasing the privatization of our public institution) than supporting its students.

As a student worker, I’ve seen firsthand that the most enthusiastic and capable full-time employees are UConn alumni who feel gratitude for the community they encountered during their time here. Instead of hiring “distinguished” faculty members who did not attend the university, why not draw from student activists and leaders, as well as the network of alumni? By all means, an environment in which students live, eat, learn and work is just as much a community as a city or town. Even if most expect to leave within four years, why not treat it as such by compensating students fairly for their dedication to improving this institution and hiring and training alumni to perform well-paid administrative jobs?  

The unfortunate answer is the state government isn’t interested in supporting a university with real democratic structures that doesn’t cater to special interests and investors. We can indeed come up with alternatives to the capital-A Administration if our imagination is big enough, even innovating how we govern this institution democratically within the current capitalism system, wherein the profit motive strangles consensus. The theory is there — we just need to garner the power and develop the coalitions to build it.  

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