Want to get college costs in line? Start by cutting the overgrown management ranks.
In the meantime the president of Washington State University, Elson Floyd, accepted a $125,000 pay raise, bringing his 2009 salary to $725,000 per year, soon after announcing that financial circumstances required the school to freeze hiring. At another university that had just announced a large budget deficit and mandated salary and hiring freezes, the outgoing president was feted by the board of trustees at a gala 350-person dinner, to which trustees, senior administrators, alumni, donors, and other notables—but no students or faculty—were invited. The dinner, which might as well have been held on the promenade deck of the Titanic, featured musical performances, videos, and a lounge area with hundreds of Chinese newspapers and a tea set to recognize the president’s many trips to China. (No wonder university spending was frozen.) Later, this same university placed restrictions on the use of copy paper by graduate students. Maybe the Chinese newspapers should have been recycled.
On any given campus, the only institution with the actual power to halt the onward march of the all-administrative university is the board of trustees or regents— which, as we’ve seen, tend to be unprepared or disinclined to make waves. But they need to do so if their institutions are to be saved from sinking into the expanding swamp of administrative mediocrity.
To begin with, trustees interested in trimming administrative fat should compare their own school’s ratio of managers and staffers per hundred students to the national mean, which is currently an already inflated nine for private schools and eight for public colleges. If the national mean is nine administrators per hundred students at private colleges, why does Vanderbilt need sixty-four? Why does Rochester need forty and Johns Hopkins thirty-one? Management-minded administrators claim to believe in benchmarking, so they should not object to being benchmarked in this way.
The right kind of media coverage would embolden boards to ask the right questions. In particular, the various publications that rate and rank colleges—U.S. News is the most influential—should take account of administrative bloat in their ratings. After all, a high administrator-to-student ratio means that the school is diverting funds from academic programs to support an overgrown bureaucracy. I am certain that if Vanderbilt or Duke or Hopkins or Rochester or Emory or any of the other most administratively top-heavy schools lost a few notches in the U.S. News rankings because of their particularly egregious administrative bloat, their boards would be forced to act.
But given the general fattening of administrative ranks in recent years, even schools with average administrator-to-student ratios could stand to see major cuts in their administrative staffs and budgets. This could help not only to fill budget holes but, more importantly, to begin a healthy shift in the balance of bureaucratic power within universities. A 10 percent cut in the staff and management ranks would save millions of dollars but would have no effect whatsoever on the operations of most campuses. The deanlets would never be missed; their absence from campus would go unnoticed. A 20 percent or larger cut would begin to be noticed and would have the beneficial effect of substantially reducing administrative power and the ongoing diversion of scarce funds into unproductive channels.
With fewer deanlets to command, senior administrators would be compelled to turn once again to the faculty for administrative support. Such a change would result in better programs and less unchecked power for presidents and provosts. Faculty who work part-time or for part of their careers as administrators tend to ask questions, use judgment, and interfere with arbitrary presidential and provostial decision making. Senior full-time administrators might resent the interference, but the university would benefit from the result. Moreover, with fewer administrators to pay and send to conferences and retreats, more resources might be available for educational programs and student support, the actual items for which parents, donors, and funding agencies think they are paying.
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