Want to get college costs in line? Start by cutting the overgrown management ranks.
Administrators are not only well staffed, they are also well paid. Vice presidents at the University of Maryland, for example, earn well over $200,000, and deans earn nearly as much. Both groups saw their salaries increase as much as 50 percent between 1998 and 2003, a period of financial retrenchment and sharp tuition increases at the university. The University of Maryland at College Park—which employs six vice presidents, six associate vice presidents, five assistant vice presidents, six assistants to the president, and six assistants to the vice presidents—has long been noted for its bloated and extortionate bureaucracy, but it actually does not seem to be much of an exception. Administrative salaries are on the rise everywhere in the nation. By 2007, the median salary paid to the president of a doctoral degree-granting institution was $325,000. Eighty-one presidents earned more than $500,000, and twelve earned over $1 million. Presidents, at least, might perform important services for their schools. Somewhat more difficult to explain is the fact that by 2010 even some of the ubiquitous and largely interchangeable deanlets and deanlings earned six-figure salaries.
If you have any remaining doubt about where colleges and universities have been spending their increasing tuition and other revenues, consider this: between 1947 and 1995 (the last year for which the relevant data was published), administrative costs increased from barely 9 percent to nearly 15 percent of college and university budgets. More recent data, though not strictly comparable, follows a similar pattern. During this same time period, stated in constant dollars, overall university spending increased 148 percent. Instructional spending increased only 128 percent, 20 points less than the overall rate of spending increase. Administrative spending, though, increased by a whopping 235 percent.
Three main explanations are often adduced for the sharp growth in the number of university administrators over the past thirty years. One is that there have been new sorts of demands for administrative services that require more managers per student or faculty member than was true in the past. Universities today have an elaborate IT infrastructure, enhanced student services, a more extensive fund-raising and lobbying apparatus, and so on, than was common thirty years ago. Of course, it might also be said that during this same time period, whole new fields of teaching and research opened in such areas as computer science, genetics, chemical biology, and physics. Other new research and teaching fields opened because of ongoing changes in the world economy and international order. And yet, faculty growth between 1975 and 2005 simply kept pace with growth in enrollments and substantially lagged behind administrative and staff growth. When push came to shove, colleges chose to invest in management rather than in teaching and research.
A second common explanation given for the expansion of administration in recent years is the growing need to respond to mandates and record-keeping demands from federal and state governments as well as numerous licensure and accreditation bodies. It is certainly true that large numbers of administrators spend a good deal of time preparing reports and collecting data for these and other agencies. But as burdensome as this paperwork blizzard might be, it is not clear that it explains the growth in administrative personnel that we have observed. Often, affirmative action reporting is cited as the most time consuming of the various governmental mandates. As the economist Barbara Bergmann has pointed out, however, across the nation only a handful of administrators and staffers are employed in this endeavor.
More generally, we would expect that if administrative growth were mainly a response to external mandates, growth should be greater at state schools, which are more exposed to government obligations, than at private institutions, which are freer to manage their own affairs in their own way. Yet, when we examine the data, precisely the opposite seems to be the case. Between 1975 and 2005, the number of administrators and managers employed by public institutions increased by 66 percent. During the same time period, the number of administrators employed by private colleges and universities grew by 135 percent (see Table 4). These numbers seem inconsistent with the idea that external mandates have been the forces driving administrative growth at America’s institutions of higher education.
A third explanation has to do with the conduct of the faculty. Many faculty members, it is often said, regard administrative activities as obnoxious chores and are content to allow these to be undertaken by others. While there is some truth to this, it is certainly not the whole story. Often enough, I have observed that professors who are willing to perform administrative tasks lose interest when they find that the committees, councils, and assemblies through which the faculty nominally acts have lost much if not all their power to administrators.
If growth-driven demand, governmental mandates, and faculty preferences are not sufficient explanations for administrative expansion, an alternative explanation might be found in the nature of university bureaucracies themselves. In particular, administrative growth may be seen primarily as a result of efforts by administrators to aggrandize their own roles in academic life. Students of bureaucracy have frequently observed that administrators have a strong incentive to maximize the power and prestige of whatever office they hold by working to increase its staff and budget. To justify such increases, they often seek to capture functions currently performed by others or invent new functions for themselves that might or might not further the organization’s main mission.
Such behavior is common on today’s campuses. At one school, an inventive group of administrators created the “Committee on Traditions,” whose mission seemed to be the identification and restoration of forgotten university traditions or, failing that, the creation of new traditions. Another group of deans constituted themselves as the “War Zones Task Force.” This group recruited staffers, held many meetings, and prepared a number of reports whose upshot seemed to be that students should be discouraged from traveling to war zones, unless, of course, their home was in a war zone. But perhaps the expansion of university bureaucracies is best illustrated by an ad placed by a Colorado school, which sought a “Coordinator of College Liaisons.” Depending on how you read it, this is either a ridiculous example of bureaucratic layering or an intrusion into an area of student life that hardly requires administrative assistance.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.