Want to get college costs in line? Start by cutting the overgrown management ranks.
The number of administrators and staffers on university campuses has increased so rapidly in recent years that often there is not enough work to keep all of them busy. To fill their time, administrators engage in a number of make-work activities. This includes endless rounds of meetings, mostly with other administrators, often consisting of reports from and plans for other meetings. For example, at a recent “president’s staff meeting” at an Ohio community college, eleven of the eighteen agenda items discussed by administrators involved plans for future meetings or discussions of other recently held meetings. At a gathering of the “Process Management Steering Committee” of a Midwestern community college, virtually the entire meeting was devoted to planning subsequent meetings by process management teams, including the “search committee training team,” the “faculty advising and mentoring team,” and the “culture team,” which was said to be meeting with “renewed energy.” The culture team was apparently also close to making a recommendation on the composition of a “Culture Committee.” Since culture is a notoriously abstruse issue, this committee may need to meet for years, if not decades, to unravel its complexities.
When they face particularly challenging problems, academic administrators sometimes find that ordinary meetings in campus offices do not allow them the freedom from distraction they require. To allow them to focus fully and without interruption, administrators sometimes find it necessary to schedule off-campus administrative retreats where they can work without fear that the day-to-day concerns of the campus will disturb their deliberations. Sometimes these retreats include athletic and role-playing activities that are supposed to help improve the staff’s spirit of camaraderie and ability to function as a team. For example, at a 2007 professional development retreat, Michigan Tech staffers broke into teams and spent several hours building furniture from pieces of cardboard and duct tape. Many staff retreats also include presentations by professional speakers who appear to specialize in psychobabble. Topics at recent retreats included “Do You Want to Succeed?” “Reflective Resensitizing,” and “Waking Up the Inner World.” In all likelihood, the administrators and staffers privileged to attend these important talks spent the next several weeks reporting on them at meetings with colleagues who had been deprived of the opportunity to learn firsthand how to make certain that their inner worlds remained on alert.
Administrative budgets frequently include travel funds, on the theory that conference participation will hone administrators’ skills and provide them with new information and ideas that will ultimately serve their school’s interests. We can be absolutely certain that this would be the only reason administrators would even consider dragging themselves to Maui during the winter for a series of workshops sponsored by the North American Association of Summer Sessions. Given the expense and hardship usually occasioned by travel to Hawaii, it is entirely appropriate for colleges to foot this sort of bill.
Another ubiquitous make-work exercise is the formation of a “strategic plan.” Until recent years, colleges engaged in little formal planning. Today, however, virtually every college and university in the nation has an elaborate strategic plan. This is typically a lengthy document— some are 100 pages long or more—that purports to articulate the school’s mission, its leadership’s vision of the future, and the various steps that are needed to achieve the school’s goals. The typical plan takes six months to two years to write and requires countless hours of work from senior administrators and their staffs.
A plan that was really designed to guide an organization’s efforts to achieve future objectives, as it might be promulgated by a corporation or a military agency, would typically present concrete objectives, a timetable for their realization, an outline of the tactics that will be employed, a precise assignment of staff responsibilities, and a budget. Some university plans approach this model. Most, however, are simply expanded “vision statements” that are often forgotten soon after they are promulgated. My university has presented two systemwide strategic plans and one arts and sciences strategic plan in the last fifteen years. No one can remember much about any of these plans, but another one is currently in the works. The plan is not a blueprint for the future. It is, instead, a management tool for the present. The ubiquity of planning at America’s colleges and universities is another reflection and reinforcement of the ongoing growth of administrative power.
There is, to be sure, one realm in which administrators as a class have proven extraordinarily adept. This is the general domain of fund-raising. Even during the depths of the recession in 2009, schools were able to raise money. On the one hand, the donors who give selflessly to their schools deserve to be commended for their beneficence. At the same time, it should still be noted that, as is so often the case in the not-for-profit world, university administrators appropriate much of this money to support—what else?—more administration.
The stress on fund-raising has enabled more than a few university presidents to acquire luxurious offices, lavish residences, and an assortment of perks in addition to princely salaries. Some enjoy the services of a chauffeur when they commute to work and a household staff when they entertain or even relax at home. These and many other perquisites are usually defended by administrators as needed to carry out their social duties and, particularly, to impress their schools’ wealthy benefactors. Yet no study has ever proved that presidents who arrive at fundraising events in chauffeur-driven limousines are more likely to succeed in their capital campaign goals or in any other endeavor than their counterparts who drive their own cars or come by taxi or, for that matter, by subway. I have personally known university presidents who were outstanding fund-raisers but, nevertheless, lived frugally and always traveled as cheaply as possible. Among college officials, though, the spendthrifts seem to outnumber the penny pinchers.
College presidents are usually the guiltiest parties, since they are in the best position to authorize expenditures, and many are more than happy to use school funds to burnish their own images. One recent case in point is that of Benjamin Ladner, the former president of American University in Washington, D.C. Soon after arriving on the campus in 1994, Ladner and his wife, who dubbed herself AU’s “first lady,” declared that the president’s official residence was inadequate and had the university build an expensive new house, which included a waterfall and pond behind the patio, a few blocks from the campus. They outfitted the house with expensive furnishings, china, and stemware. At university expense, the Ladners employed a chauffeur, a cook, a social secretary, and numerous other personal staff members. They hosted gala events to which they invited prominent Washington figures. They traveled abroad frequently, generally charging their first-class tickets to the university.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.