For universities and many colleges, this is the age of administrative bloat. The Office of the President of the University of California has roughly two thousand employees – doing no teaching or research. In just the Diversity and Engagement area of her office (which probably did not even exist 50 years ago), there are five senior administrators with the words “vice provost” or “director” in their title, and 25 other identifiable support personnel. And this, of course, includes none of the administrators at any of the ten campuses where students are actually taught. If these 30 diversity and engagement employees abruptly fired, would learning or research be impaired in the slightest? Who was Socrates’ Diversity Coordinator?
More ‘Administrators’ Than Faculty
Over the last ten years, at the California State University System, “the growth in the number and compensation of management personnel significantly outpaced other employee types,” nonacademic according to the state auditor. The Cal State experience is repeatable all over America. For all American four-year public universities, for example, the National Center for Education Statistics tells us that from 2007 through 2014, spending for “student services on academic professional personnel) rose 18.8 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, nearly double the 10.6 percent rise in spending for “instruction.”
There are more “administrators” broadly defined, than faculty at most American universities. For the year 2015, I added up the number of full-time employees in “management,” “business and financial operations,” “office and administrative support,” and “student and academic affairs” and compared that with the total number of faculty. There were 911,428 in the administrative category, far more than the 807,032 faculty (some not teaching).
Deliberately Hard to Track Numbers?
The U.S. Department of Education, I suspect deliberately, has increasingly made it difficult to track the trends in administrative staff, changing employment categories, recently including most administrators in a very broad category of “other” employees. Nonetheless, after reviewing a lot of historical data, I am reasonably confident that, even after adjusting for enrollment growth, there are nearly twice as many administrators today as there were in the mid-1970s, while the number of enrollment-adjusted faculty has grown only very modestly.
Two explanations are often advanced to explain this. First, federal regulations have increased substantially, requiring more administrators. Examples include safety requirements surrounding use of laboratory materials, rules on investigating human subjects, regulations regarding discrimination in hiring, admitting students, and contracting, and the infamous 2011 Federal “guidance” regarding campus sexual assault.
Second, we are providing so many more services today for students than previously –- it takes administrators and other workers to maintain the climbing walls, indoor running tracks, and lazy rivers that we provide students. Universities are now as much country clubs as they are learning communities –my school (Ohio University) employs workers just to run the golf course’s pro shop and schedule tee times (ah, the heavy burdens of academic life!)
Layers of Bureaucracy
When I began working at Ohio University in the mid-1960s, there was no Provost, but a Vice President for Academic Affairs who had one assistant. Enrollments have risen about 50 percent, but now our Provost office has an administrative staff of 16, including a “senior vice provost for instructional innovation” and, our equivalent of a Secretary of State, the “vice provost for global affairs.”
So it goes across the country. At some schools, two levels of bureaucracy oversee an already large campus administrative staff. Take the University of Texas. There are a large number of campuses, including the Austin flagship, but others at locations such as Arlington, San Antonio, Dallas and El Paso. Overseeing them is a university-wide administrative apparatus. But on top of that is the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, an organization with over 200 administrators overseeing not only the University of Texas but other public schools like Texas A & M, the University of Houston, and Texas Tech University.
Why is this happening? As they say in analyzing felonious (as opposed to merely wasteful and inefficient) behavior: look at means, motive, and opportunity. Regarding opportunity, the faculty have lost an enormous amount of power on campuses to non-academic apparatchiks. It used to be difficult to recruit professors, but now in many fields in academia it is a buyer’s market –there are often dozens of applicants for every position. Increasingly, the faculty are hired hands, not persons with real clout. Decision-making is done by administrators, who have not only seized opportunity but have ample motives to expand their own empires of underlings to do irksome chores.
Buying Peace on Campus
The federal student assistance programs have enabled higher tuition fees, providing the means to hire more staff. Rising fees mean more revenues. To be sure, some added staff are fundraisers, as universities become more aggressive about begging for money from alumni and others to continue their profligate ways.
Some of the administrative expansion reflects attempts by university administrators to buy campus peace and tranquility. Loyal alums who equate university excellence with student ball- throwing prowess demand that schools hire lots of coaches and weight training experts –and pay some of them far higher salaries than the university president. Environmental activists pressure universities into spending vast sums on sustainability coordinators and economically dubious alternative energy projects. Minority students demand all sorts of “diversity” related positions or special services. Thus presidents will create positions to reduce discontent, or, less politely, bribe militants to behave.
An interesting academic exercise is to ask: how much more affordable would American universities be if the administrative bloat of modern times had not occurred? Looking at public universities, in recent years spending on “public service,” “student services,” “academic support” and “institutional support,” all largely administrative staff categories, has almost precisely equaled the revenues raised from tuition fees. If spending in these areas had been reduced 20 percent, which historical data suggests would have been possible, then tuition fees could likewise probably be reduced about 20 percent. Are rising administrative costs an important factor in rising tuition fees? The answer seems clearly “yes.”
What can be done about this? Passing laws restricting administrative staff growth is tempting, but the cure could be worse than the disease if one-size-fits all rules are indiscriminately applied. Reducing the fuel supply (financial support) for the administrative apparatus is another, perhaps more promising approach, by restricting federal student financial aid that enables universities to promote high tuition fees, and by state governments continuing recent trends towards restricting financial support.