I find the use of “administration” and “administrators” in academic circles increasingly problematic. In particular, there is a lack of precision in the use of the term. The term “administration” seems to be applied to everything from clerical work to running the institution. It has become a catch-all category for any work done in the university that isn’t directly teaching and research.
Universities are complex organizations. Even a small university or college is a large organization delivering services to a lot of people. There are a lot of ways to run a large organization and legitimate debates to be had about appropriate governance models. Academics need to be involved in making decisions but let’s not deny the fact that there is a sensible division of the labour involved in the day to day running of the sort of complex organization a university is.
Administration, management, leadership
At the very least, it may be helpful to tease apart 3 different kinds of non-academic work that is going on, even if academics are doing work in all 3 categories.
Administration might be reserved for the day to day processes involved in actually making things run. There are decisions to be made by they are more in the line of tactics than strategy.
This is the work that department administrators do, and the staff in various non-academic units. Ensuring that bills get paid, information gets filed and communicated, forms get filled in, laws and policies are adhered to, and strategic decisions get put into practice.
Academics do quite a lot of this kind of work, especially in relation to their own teaching, research, advising, and committee work. There is a case to be made for hiring more administrative staff to take some of this burden off academics. It is important to remember that just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you are good at this kind of work. And that those who are good at this kind of work are not unskilled or less intelligent.
Management involves both strategic and tactical decisions with a clearly defined scope. The focus is on delivery. Tasks include working as a team to get things done and ensuring that other people do their part. Allocating tasks to others. Deciding short term priorities. They are probably combined with administrative tasks. Managers also do some of the work.
There are management roles in administrative units. There may also be non-academic management roles in academic units, like project managers on large research projects or coordinators for large introductory courses.
Academics are often directly involved in managing academic programs and research projects. Many academics manage teaching and research assistants. Roles like head of department, director of graduate studies, director of undergraduate programs, and so on are also management roles, though they may also include a leadership component.
Leadership involves strategic decision making and big picture planning. Those in leadership roles may also be doing management and administration, but the key distinguishing feature is that they are helping to decide and realize a vision for the institution, unit, or whatever. This work might involve bringing people together to deliver whatever is envisioned, securing financial and other support, and turning a big picture vision into something that can actually be delivered.
Roles like Vice-Chancellor, Dean, and Provost are primarily leadership roles. Other roles (can) include an element of leadership. For example, you can be a head of department that basically keeps things going (primarily management). Or you can be a head of department that decides that you want to change things in some way and provides the leadership to make those changes.
You might also take a leadership role in creating programs, creating interdisciplinary groups, developing new policies, etc. Research leadership might involve mentoring colleagues and post-doctoral fellows, securing a large collaborative grant, etc. There are leadership opportunities in non-academic units as well.
By lumping these different kinds of non-academic work under one term, often used derogatively, you lose the nuance of the different tasks. The lack of precision makes it hard to clearly identify a problem (if there is one) and fix it.
A critique of “administrative bloat” might be as much about a shift in strategic decision making for the institution from collective bodies of academics to individual senior appointments as it is about “administration” itself.
You might want to argue for more non-academic staff positions in particular types of role and fewer in others.
You might want to argue for training and professional development opportunities that enable you to develop the knowledge, skills, and networks needed to perform management and leadership roles effectively without burning out.
The core functions of a university might be teaching and research, but a clearer sense of the organizational structure and roles required to enable that core function to operate smoothly and well is also required.