Let’s Cut The Administrative Fat

After years of fat, our colleges and universities are now facing decisions imposed by the coming years of lean. Will the academy pull back from the spending binge of recent decades by cutting away administrative fat, or by chipping away at academic bone? Will it be administrations or faculties that get downsized? The answer will speak volumes as to whether today’s universities are more interested in educating their students, or in reforming their thinking and their conduct.
Whether the enormous growth of the administrative infrastructure has been due to the sudden influx of extraordinarily generous contributions buttressed by ahistorically large portfolio investment returns, or instead to the need to hire foot-soldiers to implement the politically correct ideological programs necessary to create the modern in loco parentis university, is anyone’s “chicken-before-the-egg” guess. But the bottom line is that since the mid-1980’s, burgeoning academic and student life bureaucracies – and the “needed” money to pay for them – changed the face, and much of the mission, of the modern (or should one say post-modern?) university.
This observer, relying more on observation and hunch than outright cynicism, is willing to bet that the teaching side of the academy will suffer more than the in loco parentis administrative side. Assistant vice-deans of student life specializing in sensitivity training will likely outlast the professor of European history or the instructor in Chinese, Arabic, or other critical languages.

Consider these statistics on portfolio increases in several wealthy, elite institutions. The University of Virginia saw more than three billion dollars added to its endowment over the past decade, a 298% increase. In the same ten-year period, the Ivy League and other “elite” institutions were truly in a league of their own: Stanford’s endowment increased by more than $12 billion (+284%), Yale’s grew by almost $17 billion (+292%), and Harvard, now the country’s most well-endowed institution, saw nearly $24 billion added to its portfolio, an increase of 217%. The numbers don’t lie – these institutions had money to spend or, as the case may be, to squander on ill-considered socialization experiments in pursuit of some notion of a brave new world.
As one would expect, wealthy colleges and universities responded by hiring more faculty. They are, after all, in the business of higher education, and business was certainly booming. But across the board, administrative hiring far outpaced new faculty hires. In the past decade, the University of Virginia saw a 15% increase in faculty and a 28% increase in administrative hiring; Stanford saw a 15% increase in faculty and a 34% increase in administration; and Yale witnessed a massive disparity – a 4% increase in faculty but a 25% percent increase in administration.
To be sure, these disparities aren’t limited to wealthier colleges. The University of Massachusetts, which has suffered from chronic fundraising shortfalls and most years has to struggle to dislodge funds from the state legislature, has a $350 million endowment that pales in comparison to its billionaire Bay State counterparts. Yet hiring trends are much the same – a 5% increase in faculty and a 25% increase in administration over the last ten years. (To be fair, public institutions such as the University of Massachusetts have to put up with enormous pressure from legislators and other politicians to hire retiring public sector hacks, pols’ family members, and other such hangers-on.) A national survey tracking employment trends in higher education found that, from 1993 to 2001, there was a 14% increase in faculty hiring. During that same period, there were 48% more executive, administrative and managerial positions on campuses across the country. There is little doubt that this trend has continued.
Yet these numbers hardly tell the whole story. Much-maligned by the professoriate, but rarely heard outside the ivory gates, is a disturbing national trend in faculty hiring: a decline in tenured faculty and a sharp rise in part-time lecturers. Harvard boasts a 22% increase in faculty over the past decade, which, at first glance, is a positive development when compared to the 15% increase in its administrative hiring. Yet at the same time, the number of professors pursuing tenure has decreased by 8% (in 1998, 61% of professors were on a tenure track – ten years later that number was just 53%). Thus, as one of the world’s flagship universities saw jaw-dropping endowment increases (until the current disastrous year), it began to find more brains-for-rent, rather than encouraging professors to become more invested in the institution. Tenure, to be sure, is far more significant than simply job security. For decades, it has been linked with one of the basic tenets of the liberal arts education: academic freedom.
Harvard is just one of many institutions turning to part-timers – and straying from long-honored academic principles. Three decades ago, adjuncts (part-time faculty and full-timers not on tenure track) represented 43% of faculty. Now, according to the American Federation of Teachers, that number has climbed to 70%. Take out the inflated faculty totals from the schools mentioned above, and an even more dismal picture emerges – UMass, for example, has seen a 4% decrease of faculty in the tenure system over the past decade.
However one parses the precise figures (this is an often difficult and inexact task, since different schools classify faculty and administration members using different job-descriptions), the trend is readily apparent: despite soaring revenues and assets, higher education – especially “elite” colleges and universities – has spent at least the last decade investing in bureaucrats rather than teachers. And now that times are hard, will Yale’s Office of the Associate Vice President for Administration – the administrators in charge of administration – survive at the expense of hiring or promoting a professor? Or will the requirements of financial prudence dictate, at long last, that bloated administrations simply have to go on a strict diet?
We already have some hints from several prominent and wealthy institutions as to how they intend to weather the economic storm. The signs are not encouraging.
In late September, Boston University became one of the first higher education institutions to respond to the economic downturn when president Robert Brown declared a moratorium on all campus construction projects, as well as a general hiring freeze. Last month, Dartmouth College president James Wright told community members that a similar hiring freeze would be in effect for both faculty and administrators, and staff reductions would be considered as the school faced $40 million cuts over the next two fiscal years. And, as the University of Virginia slashes budget items, professors may soon have to cut back on necessities, such as chalk. “[A]s a teacher, chalk is very important,” Faculty Senate Chair Ed Kitch told the Cavalier Daily.
No one, it appears, is immune. Newly-appointed Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust has already sent out a letter warning of dire economic winds affecting the wealthiest university in the world. Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith also announced, in a November 24 letter to faculty and administrators, an “immediate hiring freeze on FAS staff positions” while “pushing off” administrative hiring until the next fiscal year. This is not a good sign – that the faculty must suffer a hiring freeze, while the administration simply has to wait a few months for a new financial reporting period before adding to its girth.
Yet even that proved too rosy a scenario for these bleak fiscal times. On December 8, a letter from AS academic deans announced further cost-cutting measures: a freeze on salary raises for faculty and non-union staff, as well as a hold on “almost all” current tenure-track and tenured searches. No word yet on reductions in central administration.
Consider some of the administrative offices created in recent years at various educational institutions around the country that seek to micro-manage every aspect of student life and to cater to one or another gender, race, sexual identity, or other such interest group into which intrusive administrators divide up their students. A “Guideline for Classroom Discussion,” which required students to “[a]cknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutionalized forms of oppression exist,” was mandated for one course, in 2004, at the University of South Carolina. The University of Delaware, in 2007, instituted a mandatory “residence life education program” that attempted to push onto students a number of university-approved views on topics from race to sexuality. (It was eliminated after The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and FIRE-induced media reports exposed the fundamental violations embodied by the “treatment” program.) After recent allegations of racist slurs on a North Carolina State University “Free Expression Tunnel,” the school’s Chancellor appointed a Campus Climate Task Force. In other words, if there’s a problem of censorship on a campus of higher education, the administrative solution is to create a body to study the problem, rather than to simply remove the obstacle to academic freedom.
No serious person can really argue that a student body needs such bureaucracy to participate in the civilized life of the university, much less in order to become an educated person. We are not talking, after all, about some war zone replete with carnage, rape and pillage, and genocide. We are talking instead about communities of higher learning where students have lived, worked, and studied together for centuries, long before the advent of the modern armies of administrators seeking to keep the peace and enable different groups of students to survive the often-bruising ego-assaults that are a normal part not only of growing up, but of exposure to the world of sometimes disturbing ideas. As Alan Charles Kors and I noted in our 1998 book, The Shadow University, “most students respect disagreement and difference, and they do not bring charges of harassment against those whose opinions or expressions ‘offend’ them.” Yet today, we observe, “the universities themselves… encourage such charges to be brought.” Surely massive administrative bureaucracies of student life must be maintained if universities are going to enforce the increasingly ubiquitous – in academia – “right” not to be offended.
If our colleges and universities cut back on their enforcement bureaucracies, it is quite possible, indeed likely, that an increase in students’ liberty (not to mention an improvement in their ability to get along with and even help educate one another) would result. This would also increase the availability of additional funds to support faculty size even in the face of diminishing endowments and fund-raising. Are our universities up to the task of re-examining their priorities, and indeed their proper mission, in the face of scarcity? This question is likely to be answered in the trying months and years to come, for times of crisis also provide opportunities for change. One can hope – and fight – for educational values to prevail over the academy’s recent obsessions with micromanaging the beliefs and indeed the daily lives of its students.


  • Harvey Silverglate

    Harvey Silverglate, a Boston criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer, is the co-founder of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org). He co-authored The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses.

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31 thoughts on “Let’s Cut The Administrative Fat

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  9. I agree totally with Harvey’s conclusions, though not with his analysis of causes.
    I would bet what is left of my 401K that more tenured faculty positions will be cut than administrative positions, and for two reasons. First, the continued rampant consumerism on campus will dictate keeping administrative staff instead of faculty so that students will “feel good” and want to stay at the institution. In that sense all the staff hired for specific groups of students is the flip side of the fancy dorm rooms, food courts, etc. It is the university as psychological as well as physical mall.
    Secondly, and in my opinion much more basic and threatening, it is high-level administrators who will make the decisions regarding who is to be hired or fired, and both self-interest and their world-view will dictate their choices. That they have a conflict of interest here is an understatement. Also, do not expect their grossly inflated salaries to decline any faster than their numbers. The salaries of these presidents, vice presidents and deans are utterly obscene by academic standards. Indeed, for the first time in US and perhaps world history, it is now possible to become rich in academia–provided one does not teach any students or produce any scholarship! By last count [your] alma mater had 21 vice-presidents alone, all making 3 figure salaries. And obviously each one of them considers her/his position more critical to the institution than retaining a tenured professor of classics.
    To me this all reflects the corporatization of higher education. It is now big business, and it has developed the value structure and hierarchy to reflect that fact. That such a value structure is antithetical to the ideal and mission of higher education is, if anything, an understatement.

  10. As I graded student papers in the glorified storage closet that served at least a dozen adjuncts at a community college last spring, I was sometimes barraged by “cultural” music playing loudly in the “cultural outreach” office next door, where a young woman enjoyed an office of her own, larger than ours, with, among other things, a phone that actually worked. What she did, besides play music loudly during business hours and decorate her office with colorful posters, I don’t know. I do know her position was full-time and permanent, with benefits.
    In contrast, one extremely dedicated and hard-working composition teacher, a seasoned educator in her early Sixties, observed that she got paid less by the hour with every paper she graded until she was earning less than minimum wage. She had been at the school, laboring as a mere temp, for more than a dozen years. This sort of thing has been going on for a long time, and it is only getting worse.

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