Obesity in the Dark Tower

There are two things you hear a lot in the faculty biz — OK, there actually quite a few, but humor me. One is when students (or their parents) say “For X thousand dollars a year, we should get whatever,” ignoring that they typically only pay a portion of the X, with the rest being covered by varieties of institutional aid. The other is faculty complaining about being underpaid — as I’ve said before, I’m a tenured professor who makes less than my wife, a first-grade teacher in a poor southern state. (As always, YMMV.)

Some see these two points of data and argue that faculty are merely greedy, and point to the stratospheric rise in higher ed prices in recent years. But an increasing number of folks are recognizing that both complaints may be accurate, and that the reason is one that hasn’t been addressed — the burgeoning administrative class in higher ed.

As the Goldwater Institute reports:

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent. Arizona State University, for example, increased the number of administrators per 100 students by 94 percent during this period while actually reducing the number of employees engaged in instruction, research and service by 2 percent. Nearly half of all full-time employees at Arizona State University are administrators.

Mondoville College is not one of these top research institutions, but our administrative expenses have skyrocketed as well. Our VP of business affairs told us recently that retaining legal counsel now costs us $250,000 yearly, at a school with a sub-$20M endowment. Out of the 252 names in my staff directory, only about 25% are instructors.

What has caused this administrative explosion? Over at Volokh, Todd Zywicki observes:

[During the economic boom years,] university endowments grew at record rates.  This essentially gave university presidents and their minions a huge slush fund to play with without actually having to raise new funds from alumni.  This created a growth in agency costs for senior university administrators.  Finally, this allowed universities to continue giving raises to faculty while expanding the bureaucracy even more.  Thus, the growth in bureaucratic spending was not coming out of a zero-sum pot, so that faculty were not monitoring the growth in the bureaucracy as much.Finally, I suspect this might also reflect the developing model of university president as CEO.  As university presidents have come to be more like CEO’s of universities, their entourages have grown as well.  Universities have come to take the look of a top-heavy bloated corporation like General Motors, with Vice-Presidents layered one atop the other.  In a world of lax budget constraints owing to flush endowments, it is easier to fritter away resources on unproductive bureaucrats and internal empire-building.

An advantage to that empire-building is that it’s largely invisible — parents see professors, not the Associate Vice President for Assessment (or his travel budget).

But what happens in the hard times? It seems that at many schools the difference is made up on the backs of faculty, which becomes increasingly made up of contingent labor. Even at my small, teaching-focused, “high touch” college, my department has as many adjuncts as tenure-line faculty (and even that split puts us ahead of many places, where a majority of students are taught by non-tenure-track personnel.)

In short, through much of higher ed, the actual process of education has become a sidelight to the core bureaucracy business. And as inevitably happens in bureaucracy, the overhead winds up bloating and using up much of what might otherwise go to actually delivering whatever needs to be delivered.

I sometimes think that part of my antipathy to big government stems from my own exposure to the bloat I’ve seen over the years in higher academic administration. In both cases, I find the bloat undesirable, even counterproductive, and a condition that breeds hostility, even if misdirected,  from the public.

Zywicki’s final comment is what we in the English biz call understatement:

I think that for some time academic reformers have focused on issues like tenure and other elements of faculty governance in thinking about reforming higher ed.  But this growth of administrative bloat is a whole new issue and one that might prove more difficult.

Difficult, yes, but exposing the problem may be the first step toward solving it.

H/T: Critical Mass.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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2 Responses to Obesity in the Dark Tower

  1. Pingback: Seeking High Ground Amidst the Bayous | Professor Mondo

  2. Pingback: Anchors Aweigh | Professor Mondo

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