The “crisis” in higher ed? truffula sniffs out “administrative bloat.”

Associate Vice Provost of Incentivization

Of all of the contributions I’ve had to the “crisis” of higher education meme inspired by Tony Grafton’s recent review in the New York Review of Books, no one has yet called out administrators and/or administrative bloat.  Most of us humanist faculty types appear to see the liberal arts college administrators as tapdancing as fast as they can with the budgets handed down by the central administration.  (Or, perhaps the other problems just loom larger–who knows?) 

Well friends, that changes today with this guest post by commenter truffula, who is a department head in the natural sciences at an urban university.  She identifies the “growth toward a corporate organizational structure” as the burr under her saddle these days.  She asks, given the budgetary pressures in public higher ed, can we really afford all of those administrators, especially when the ones at her uni seem to be more dedicated to their own salaries and perks than to serving the students or the general public?  She portrays the administrative class at her uni as barbarian invaders of the groves of academe, “harvesting as much as they possibly can and . . . salting the fields.”

Take it away, truffula:

A colleague whom I love dearly has this crazy scheme to storm out of the castle, form guilds, and conduct our transactions directly with our customers. Unfortunately, his preferred alternative to the brick and mortal castle is the interwebs. I’ve argued with my colleague about the pedagogical problems and the risk of ghettoization associated with online classes but I can’t dismiss his idea entirely and here’s why: the maintenance costs associated with the modern university president, vice presidents, provost, vice provosts, and various assistant and associate deans are very high.

Here at Provincial State U, a large public university, our growth toward a corporate organizational structure has led to what some would call an administrative bloat problem. Some code of public relations suggests that it is bad to give one of the dozen or so vice presidents/provosts a raise in these times of furloughs and hiring freezes so instead the big bosses create new job titles and promote internally to fill those jobs–at higher pay, natch. The administrative class didn’t get where it is today by being stupid. But the costs of professional administrators are more than just their salaries. They’re harvesting as much as they possibly can and they are  salting the fields.

I do not know but my guess is that our upper administrators have all read books or attended management seminars in which they learned about the importance of well-defined hierarchies. (I guess this because I’ve been told that as a department head, I am supposed to impose such a structure. For the record, I refuse.) The hierarchy is important in part because it simplifies the assignment of blame when things go awry but it also sends a strong message about the individual’s place in our campus society. This growing class structure is the source of considerable resentment. When observable inequity is paired with increasing work loads among the classified staff—due to a combination of factors, including enrollment growth without increased staffing—it leads to distress. People with deep institutional knowledge either quit, check out, or sink into productivity-stifling depression. These are costs we should add to our accounting.

Every administrator who is on a career path understands that goals must be set and met so that ze may be judged to have excelled at hir work. The university is a huge and complicated organization so for evaluation purposes, those goals must be represented by simple metrics, that is, numbers. The reduction of the educational endeavor to a set of numbers either met or not, changes how we understand our mission and sets departments up to fight with each other for warm butts in seats.  These are more costs we should add to our accounting of the professional administrative class.

Suppose I set a pedagogically sound enrollment cap of 20 on a class, the class schedulers put me in a room with 30 seats, and I enroll 15. Now, 15 is a solid turn-out for an upper division specialty class in my department but when the VP for Fiscal Strategies (really, we have one)  reviews the spreadsheets, what ze sees are two problems: first, the mismatch between the cap and the size of the room is underutilized space, and second, I have 5 (or 15) seats worth of unrealized revenue.  The evaluation is even worse if I’d managed to attract 18 souls the last time I taught the course—now I’ve lost revenue over time.  If I held class outside, perhaps in the shade of an old oak tree, I would not have these problems. I’d have to draw all the figures in the dirt with a stick but I think I can do that.

Many of us down in the trenches at Provincial State U are going to counselors now. Our jobs are driving us crazy but we can’t afford to walk away. The psych professionals tell us that our anger and sadness are entirely rational responses to the corporatization of our university. “Just try not to yell so much,” they say, “try to hold on until you can retire.”  I think the counselors are right, what ails us at my large state university does have its roots in our transformation into a public corporate organization but it is not just that. What ails us are the class divisions associated with hierarchical ordering of people and the performance-metrics drive to value quantities that are not about learning.

(It may also be that if these administrators–the university equivalent of corporate executives–were really any good they would not be slumming here with us but would in fact be running successful corporations. Maybe our execs are not very good.)

As I understand it, the first western colleges were collectives formed to protect the rights of students and teachers. If we could fix the corporate disease–if we could think more collectively about the endeavor of higher education–we could stop fighting for student contact hours, a battle that leads us to water down classes and drive down expectations. If we could fix the corporate disease, we could pay our staff more equitably and stop thinking of each other as the problem.

What do you think, dear readers?  Does this resemble at all your university?  Can you relate?  Are there any administrators out there who want to offer another perspective on what she calls “administrative bloat?”  (Or should we call that adminsitrative “PUMP you UP?“)

30 thoughts on “The “crisis” in higher ed? truffula sniffs out “administrative bloat.”

  1. The problem is endemic everywhere. The military, government offices, education, hospitals even!, and, oddly enough, corporations themselves. Dilbert is not a comic strip, it’s just straight reporting, as anyone who works in a corporation will point out.

    So there has to be a common element operating everywhere.

    The problem in education, which is the only one of those fields I know, is, as truffula says, a useless, ass-covering focus on measuring the immeasurable in order to get money. You might as well try to bottle a sunrise and then sell the bottle.


  2. I’m trying to dance on just the head of this pin, in a draft essay that may or not even make it to Historiann, and (if) then, may or may not make it through editorial, between calling *out* administrators and calling them *back*, to a truer understanding of why the first don ever agreed to become the first dean. It’s no easy task, I’ll say. The temptation to revert to what Grafton calls “higher snark” is omnipresent; the desire to look for more nuance is there, but that signal fades with every “ping” of global e-mail from the adminisphere. We’ll see what happens. I guess.


  3. I love this post! Although I’m a Texas writer, I teach college in California, and we have the white-knuckle bashing-one’s-own-head-against-the wall maddening situation of university and college heads awarding themselves higher and higher perks and salaries (their excuse: they must do this to “stay competitive”) at the same time that students are dropping out because tuition has skyrocketed.

    These administrators never deserved the huge amounts they got, and now in an era when everyone else is being cut back, why should their pay be based in a time when money flowed like water?

    Top-level administrators are the 1% in the educational world.


  4. Tough call — as far as I can tell, my dean makes about what a senior professor at most SLACs makes. I think our president makes $250k or less. Probably less. But I don’t even want to think about what the folks in the professional schools make. ANd we have definitely suffered administrative bloat. Administrators who are divisive and not clearly competent get moved around, lots of new levels of administrative officers, when what we really need is to raise the pay for not only faculty, but also for staff. We could raise staff pay AND hire more people, more competitively, to take care of a lot of the things that need doing. Seriously. When you pay staff a pittance and overwork them, things fall through the cracks and a lot of stuff doesn’t get done well, and isn’t communicated well. And every time there’s an issue with things falling through the cracks, we hire more administrators to make sure it doesn’t happen. And we have some staff who simply don’t pull their weight.

    Better pay means being able to expect a better quality of work, better qualifications, and the ability to keep good staff who gain and pass on institutional wisdom. Even a few more staff positions in key departments would make it possible for all staff to get more training, solve problems, etc. And it would probably be far more effective than putting staff on academic committees ‘because they are part of the community.’


  5. I’ve noticed this bloat here, but I do believe – as was summed above – that most of these people are fighting the good fight.

    We’re an RCM university, and the College, as it is called, is my RC. Within the College, we have everything from Biology to Film, so our notion of “the Arts and Sciences” is truly catholic. My RC competes for student credit hours with the schools of Journalism, Business, Public Policy, and Health and Recreation. (I’m editing the names because they are so damned long). And, for a dozen years, the College has been losing this competition, and witnessing a declining overall share of student credit hours. So, to be frank, we’re in trouble.

    Here, the biggest thumb that is pressing us to generate more student credit hours is *definitely* coming from outside the College. And where our Dean and Deanlets ask us to do more, they are usually doing it because they fear that the College will be broken up if we don’t retain our “market share” of student credit hours against the other RCs.

    I will admit, though, that a part of the annual budget dance involves the Dean looking at our departmental student credit hours. We can hire, we are told, if we are growing. And to grow *before* hiring means that we either build new 100 level courses with a higher seat count, or add a dozen seats to every class, no matter the content or sophistication. There are consequences to either approach.

    But I see this budget-meeting tactic as a part of the Dean’s larger strategy to preserve the College as a single unit, and to protect the Humanities in particular.

    Yes, I am totally aware of how absolutely bat-shit corporate this sounds. I hate it. But it is better for English, American Studies, and Gender Studies to be in the RC with the largest market share. (It is better, too, for the sciences, though they don’t seem to understand this).

    Also, just to piss everyone off, my university president was given a $100K raise this year – the same year that our health insurance costs went up 200%.


  6. Many university presidents make 7 figures salaries. They tend to get house, large expense, limitless trips, etc. VP and Provost get less than the president but still hefty compensation. All this money affect the university priorities but is peanuts compared to other university expenses. My department has a budget of about $10M brings in grant of close to $3M.

    Everyone is free to infer whatever they want from these facts. For me the post is a smoke screen, red herring, flash in the pan or Mitt Romney.


  7. Actually, that message might be a bit weightier posted under this handle, so here it is again:

    Hmm. One woman’s more useful, better-compensated staff member is another woman’s bureaucratic bloat layer. How does one (com)pare?


  8. Which is to say, I agree with truffula, and with ADM, but I don’t know what the solution is.

    I do know that somehow managing to work hard and well as a “regular” staff person despite the morale-crushing pay and rank and hierarchical snobbery of both administrators and faculty can ultimately be rewarded even in a broken-seeming, confused, mismanaged institution. Because people are so surprised by competence and energy and because they know how important institutional knowledge is.

    I also know that as soon as you stop being viewed as a “secretary,” you become “bloat.”

    Possibly sooner, if the person asked is one of the many who believes that any University function in which they don’t directly participate (sometimes research, sometimes public service, sometimes…INSTRUCTION) — not to mention central admin functions like HR, janitors, and the oft-referred-to-of-late affirmative action office — is entirely beside THE reason the institution exists (aka the reason it personally benefits him/her).

    So, agreeing with the fact that the faculty, actual documented experts in a real field of inquiry, ought to in every instance be better-respected and better-compensated than all but the absolute topmost administrators (if that) and that bloat is a problem but a seemingly inevitable side effect from modern R1s being all things to all people…

    How, truly, does one start deciding who goes/stays? Is the problem the hierarchy? Its inhabitants? Misaligned incentives? Unclear/competing goals? The large public research institution model?

    Serious question. I certainly don’t know.


  9. I’ve actually had the thought before that we’d be better off organizing universities as for-profit collectives, where the faculty are also the shareholders. It’s on my list of things to do. Unfortunately, it’s somewhere around #257, well below “finish dissertation,” “have kids,” and “save enough for retirement so I don’t have to eat cat food,” so I don’t know if I’ll get to it in this lifetime. Maybe in my next incarnation.


  10. I don’t know–even cat food is pretty expensive these days, rustonite. I have to pay $1.50 a can for some prescription stuff for one cat!

    I apologize if my introduction, in highlighting truffula’s one complaint about salaries and how administrators manage to pay themselves more amidst hiring and pay freezes for everyone else, put unfair emphasis only on the financial costs of administrators. I think truffula’s overall point is the “price” of administrators writ large: price in terms of working conditions for everyone else; the price we pay when the bottom line is all that counts; the price we pay when a corporate model of top-down hierarchy replaces faculty governance, etc.

    quixote nails it in the first comment: professional administrators have managed to infiltrate every work environment, demanding assessment of the value and effectiveness of the labor that the people who fulfil the actual mission of the organization are doing, and managing to escape accountability for their own labor.

    But, of course, most of the actual human administrators I know are also (at least in theory) faculty in a department. For some, administration is just a few turns on the merry-go-round, and then it’s back to faculty life. For others, usually for those whose research agendas have withered of late, administration becomes a way of life. What separates the administrators who are faculty just participating in university governance, and the professional administrators? It’s hard to say. (Having read “Who Moved My Cheese” and “What Color is Your Parachute?” Not having published a book or an article for 10 years? 15 years?)

    Furthermore, how much is too much money to pay for giving up the academic schedule and taking on an 11-1/2 month, 10-hour a day administrative job? How much is my summer worth to me, when I can travel and do research whenever I like? How much is it worth to the faculty to preserve the snobbish edge we get over administrators because we’re still active researchers? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I wonder if there is a way of reducing the difference between the faculty and the faculty who also administrate. (At least, it seems to me that the faculty are paying an awfully high price, all the way around, for the mostly imaginary superiority we might feel as “active researchers.”)


  11. I can speak to the environment at an elite private medical school, and my impression is that the administrative “bloat” is not at all at the higher levels–deans and vice-whatevers–but at the lower levels. This is because with every passing year, we are subject to greater and greater administrative burdens of record-keeping, regulatory-compliance, form-filling, financial accounting, etc. These requirements are being imposed by the governmental bodies that pay for and regulate a lot of clinical practice, and by NIH on the research side of things.

    We are fortunate to have these positions almost all populated by very energetic and competent people who do their best to streamline administrative processes so that the scientists and clinicians who do the research, clinical practice, and teaching can devote the maximum amount of their energies to those tasks.

    Perhaps the medical school environment runs much leaner from an administrative standpoint, because only a very small amount of its revenues come from tuition and endowment income, and the vast majority comes from clinical income and research grants.


  12. most of the actual human administrators I know are also (at least in theory) faculty in a department

    This is the old model. The new generation of upper administrator (here at my uni.) speaks of new hires as people building careers in higher ed. administration. I think there is an empire-building aspect to this. If you hire from the outside, the people you hire are loyal to you, not necessarily to the institution.


  13. At my state-owned uni, administration growth is a mixed bag.

    We have added deanlets to cover the ever-increasing requests for accountability, both from the state and our accrediting body. Otherwise, the FACULTY would have do more of that chore. The associate deans don’t make more than the senior faculty so it seems a good trade-off.

    The HR and Accounting office staffs have remained status quo, despite increasing job burdens. Admissions has a net loss of personnel with continued pressure to increase both the size and quality of the incoming class.

    Student life is another matter entirely. Faculty are hesistant to retire because they know their line may not be replaced. Meanwhile, residence hall assistants, assistant coaches, student club coordinators are replaced every time one leaves. No questions asked. If a faculty member who last year taught sections of 50 students now has to teach 100+ in a section, why can’t residence hall staff cover two floors instead of one?


  14. My experience (at a state R2) matches Truffula’s. My institution is also now offering degrees in “higher education” (even though we’re in a state that did away with *undergrad* education degrees in favor of model of teaching certification that calls for a BA or BS in a real subject plus graduate hours in education that include both coursework and supervised apprentice/practice teaching). Although our older/higher-up administrators (President, Provost, Deans) are, indeed, faculty (and occasionally behave as such, teaching and/or publishing in recognizable fields/departments), the middle and lower levels are not, or they teach what appear to me to be somewhat dubious and/or very specialized courses in specialized programs. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it was one of them who told a student whose independent project I was advising that “academic” writing does not contain personal pronouns, period (not just no “I,” which admittedly should be used sparingly if at all, but no he, she, you, we, they, etc.). The student was quite linguistically sophisticated and widely-read, so we rolled our eyes and strategized how to get around the prohibition without producing completely ridiculous prose, but I’d hate to see the instructor/administrator’s writing, which presumably goes out under my institution’s imprimatur.

    It also strikes me that the new administrative class is very much uncomfortable with/opposed to the sort of constant tinkering and experimentation that is typical of any good humanities class (and plenty of others as well, I’m sure). They want something quantifiable, standardized, approved and then fixed in stone until the next review. It’s taking more and more creativity on the part of departmental-level administrators (who do tend to be real faculty) to find ways of setting and measuring goals that don’t require stifling the creativity of their faculty. And for today’s overworked, underpaid faculty, the joy of creativity, and the autonomy to engage in it, is often one of the few remaining perks of the job.


  15. Pingback: What I Can’t Let Happen to Me « Reassigned Time 2.0

  16. AAUP visited us since we are under investigation. Pointed out that the new copyright administrator is a danger. Don’t let your college of sciences be turned into a patent factory while you are not watching.


  17. Just because we’re so under-resourced, we don’t have that many administrators. And because of the focus on research, I think a lot of staff and administrators do the work that faculty don’t want to do. We’ve just hired people to help us with assessment, since the current regime is pretty intense. Our administrators make decent salaries, but our dean’s salary is not much higher than senior faculty in econ or management make — he’s a terrific scholar, and the only tension about him is that he still wants to *be* a scholar. Actually, the culture of our institution is that the most important administrators are all scholars, and all have a tenured appointment in their area of specialization.

    What drives me nuts is that we have some areas that clearly need more people at a higher level who can help us do things better; and other areas where people are grossly inefficient but there are tons of them. And we have processes — some imposed by our system — that are extremely cumbersome. (The biggest offender here is “Administration” — which includes finance, planning, campus police, etc.; Student Affairs, which does tutoring and advising of undeclared students as well as the clubs, residence life, etc. is incredibly understaffed.)

    It seems to me that there are two primary sources of administrative expansion: first, all the accountability stuff — from accreditation to finance, to reporting on crimes, etc. There is, as far as a I can tell, a metric f*ckton of it. The second is IT: going digital requires a lot of support – for software, hardware, etc. How do you keep archives when you don’t just keep files? How can people find things? And additional source in our context is that we have to report to a system, as well as doing everything any other campus would do….

    To put it another way, while the “departmental secretary” no longer types manuscripts for faculty, let alone letters of recommendation, they are doing all sorts of things they didn’t do in the past, like maintaining websites and helping coordinate assessment.


  18. I looked up the salaries of our top administrators — those without faculty appointments — and those salaries actually went *down* 3% from 2008 to 2009, and again from 2009 to 2010.

    Could’ve knocked me over with a feather.


  19. I am an administrative assistant for a continuing education department within a school, within a University. 50% of my time is spent marketing, 40% is spent supporting class offerings and 10% is as an assistant to the department head.

    The bloat is real, even at the lower levels, but I have no idea how to solve it. I spend much of my day chasing other staff members who do things like supply ordering, human resources, space allocation, IT, accounting in order to make sure things my department needs are getting done. And those people, in turn, are chasing people at the university levels. The amount of work and sign offs it takes to do simple things like order class materials is unreal. At our school, each and every purchase needs to be OK’d by both the Dean of the School and the Dean of Finance and administration, even if it is not going beyond the budgeted amounts.

    For a long time, I thought it was about incompetent people, but it seems like the bureaucracy itself rewards incompetent people and also people who make their job seem like it is very difficult and only they can do it.


  20. sophiabrooks: the first rule of administration is that administrators must generate sufficient work to supervise to justify their salaries and office support. That said, a lot of what administrators and their support staff do at my uni is real work and it means that faculty can focus (for the most part) on teaching, research, and service to their disciplines.

    Much of this admin work has value, but much of it is a huge waste of time and money. I find myself fantasizing about the day a prestigious public university (Berkeley, Michigan, or in my wildest dreams, Texas) says, “f^uck this assessment $hit. We assess our students all the time with ‘instruments’ that we call grades.” If a really prestigious public uni did that–and dared people to call their bluffs and not send their children there, thus proving their value in the vaunted marketplace, which should shut up conservative state legislators–then it might give lower-ranked public unis the stones to get the assessment monkey off of our backs.

    But you know what they say: wish in one hand, $hit in the other, see which one fills up first.


  21. I haven’t seen a discussion of this anywhere, but in my state, many of the layers of admin are the direct result of new laws passed by our state government. Many of these yearly changes also add a lot of work for our staff, since our budgets are being cut over and over. A layer of admin to make sure everyone complies, no new staff to do the work, often less.


  22. Wini–that’s a good point. I think it’s the same my state. It strikes me that public universities should be bolder than they have been. Why not say, “You can either subsidize us reasonably & appropriately and demand compliance, or you can withdraw support and let us go our own way.” I haven’t supported the privatization of state institutions until now, but the sad fact is that what we’ve got is political & public oversight without any support: the worst of all possible worlds.


  23. H’ann: Word. I was thinking the exact same thing. Why do we see the increase in oversight/accountability at the same time as disinvestment? I also don’t advocate for the privatization of universities, but we’re there anyway. (UC is going to jack up tuition again – in the next five years, it will be up in the $20,000s.) What’s public about my state u that gets less than 10% of its budget from the state? As far as I can tell, it’s that the state is up in our grill about how to do our business. I guess we’re part of state insurance and pension systems, too. I wonder if flagships started revolting if it would force grandstanding state legislatures to back down – for godsake, if they aren’t going to pony up with some cash, they should least back off.


  24. It’s faculties that will have to do the “just say no’ing” on what Sagebrush Rebels once called “unfunded mandates.” The universities in their corporate capacities will never stop being obedient lapdogs until the last appropriated dollar is withheld by the last demented legislature. There should be a massive faculty-led Arab Spring stand-down on “assessment,” which is a function best left to biographers and obituary-writers. I have a picture of me being dropped off at college in a madras sport jacket and brush cut, and another, forty-five months later, in cap and gown, long-haired and draped in a raggedy paper peace symbol. And I can authoritatively attest there wasn’t a single “outcome” sloshing around inside of me in the latter. That fact didn’t stop me from beginning to generate outcomes about ten days later and continuing uninterrupted until now. Including the realization that the “assessment” bandwagon will someday be determined to have been our generation’s academic equivalent of the laetrile therapy enchantment in medical science. Saying “it’s out there, it’s coming, let’s get out in front of it and make it our own, so we can control it and put it to our uses” isn’t going to save us from that historical judgement.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.