I write about the social history of 13th-century English diocesan administration: how it worked, particularly with regard to the relations between bishops and the bureaucrats who served them. It will help explain my conclusions on the subject to imagine an early 21st-century academic world much like our own. It submits to the same panoply of bureaucrats: department chairs, deans (in a stunning variety), directors of this and that, vice presidents, provosts, chancellors, presidents, and the rest. But, as in 13th-century diocesan administration, all of these figures also hold tenured positions, not in their administrative roles, but as faculty. Indeed, it is their faculty positions that provide their pay, their sole pay.
Thus far, of course, this alternative universe may not seem too alternative; cannibalizing faculty lines to support administrators is hardly unknown, although additional money is customarily superadded to the professorial income. Imagine, however, some further conditions. While a dean may also be a tenured professor of chemistry, her duties to the chemistry department—her teaching, scholarship, even service—are carried out by lower-paid underlings, leaving the dean the vast bulk of the professorial income with none of its obligations. She instead spends all of her time doing whatever it is deans do. This may remind some uncomfortably of graduate-student assistants, but clearly strays beyond the practice of some of our universities into fantasy.
The fantasy grows wilder when one considers that, analogous to the 13th-century diocesan context, our dean may not be simply a tenured professor of chemistry, but also a tenured associate professor of history and a tenured professor of marketing—enjoying the income of all these positions, again with the professorial duties carried out by subordinates while the dean does her Very Important Work. Such a dean, as in our own 21st-century academic universe, might someday "return to faculty." She has security of tenure in these faculty lines; should she cease to be dean—at either her decision or the administration's— she will continue as professor of chemistry, associate professor of history, etc., while retaining her various subordinates to carry out her faculty duties. And, in a feature that most emphatically distinguishes this fantasy and 13th-century diocesan administration from our academic reality, should the dean move to an administrative post at another university, she will keep all her tenured faculty positions at the first, while she may very well add to her collection at the next.
This universe will strike many as a managerial nightmare. An essential element of the discipline of employees in our world is the loss of income or the threat of it. No work, no pay, is the principle on which modern employment is supposed to work. A system where work and pay are decoupled should be a system doomed to fail. Under these circumstances, how can one expect administrators to administer?
Historians sometimes speak of the past as a foreign country, in fact, an alternative universe. The alternative universe I have described is modeled on 13th-century English diocesan bureaucracy. It was an age of burgeoning administration, both secular and ecclesiastical—the start, it has even been said, of a civil service. Historians have long pointed out that the clergy who staffed these administrations were supported by benefices: ecclesiastical endowments, usually churches, that provided the material support that today comes from salary. (The spiritual duties that came with benefices could be carried out by low-paid deputies [often graduate students in our universe]; benefices so managed were the original sinecures.) In this way, it has been argued, bishops, and kings and lords for that matter, transferred the burden of rewarding their administrators from their own resources to those of the Church. Such cost cutting was why beneficeswere the common prize of administrative service. This explanation is a rather bishop/lord/king-centered one, ignoring the perspective of the bureaucrats who received benefices. In fact, I think, the security of tenure offered by benefices—more on this below— meant that bishops gave benefices to assuage demand from their own men, demand that indeed sometimes...