The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is the significance of a clean desk?"... ...Laurence J. Peter.

Commentary of the Day - May 3, 2001:  Controlling Administrative Bloat in Higher Education.

One of the most remarkable changes in higher education during the past 25 years has nothing to do either with students or with pedagogy.  Instead, it is the nearly exponential growth in the number of administrators on American college and university campuses.  While exact figures for the nation as a whole are difficult to come by, most studies indicate that the number of purely bureaucratic administrative positions has been growing at nearly 2% per year.  This may not seem like much, but cumulatively over the past two-and-a-half decades it has added up to a significant bloating of the administrations of most major colleges and universities.

In the nation's largest system of public higher education, the California State University System, the growth has been even more dramatic.  According to information recently obtained by The Irascible Professor, during the 1975-76 academic year the Cal State system employed 3,800 administrators and 18,400 tenured or tenure-track faculty members to serve a full-time equivalent student body of just under 230,000.  Twenty-five years later (1998-99) the system was employing 8,561 administrators and 19,700 tenured or tenure-track faculty members to serve a full-time-equivalent student body that had grown to slightly more than 268,000 students.

In other words, the number of administrators has more than doubled in those 25 years, while the number of students has increased by less than 17% and the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty has increased by less than 7%.  Now it doesn't take a Ph.D. in nuclear physics to realize that there is something here that isn't computing.

When the IP first arrived at Krispy Kreme U. in 1970 the administrative structure of the institution was relatively simple and straightforward: a president, a vice president for administration, a vice president for academic affairs, deans for each of six schools, a dean of students, a few deans taking care of graduate studies, extended education programs and the like, and about a dozen "directors" who managed various campus offices.  There were no Associate Vice Presidents or Assistant Vice Presidents.  A total of 78 administrative positions above the rank of department chair were listed in the 1970 catalog.  In our current catalog a total of 159 such positions are listed.  To be sure, we live in a more complicated world than we did in 1970, and some additional administrators are needed to keep up with the plethora of government regulations that must be attended to.  In addition, the size of our student body has grown substantially since 1970 (in contrast to the system as a whole).  However, a close reading of the current list of administrators shows that by far the fastest growth has been in areas that are far removed from instruction.

K.K.U. is not by any means unique.  Administration at most colleges and universities has more than doubled over the past 25 years.  This growth has had, in the IP's opinion, two quite negative effects on the academy.  The first, of course, is a burdensome financial drain on college and university budgets.  At the private universities and colleges, a good part of the rapid rise in tuition costs -- more than double the rate of inflation -- can be attributed to the need to feed an ever larger "administrata".  In the public universities and colleges, where budgets have been tight for the last decade or more, the result has been a draining of support from the academic side of the house to the administrative side.  For example, the IP's own department struggles on with a support budget that is about the same in absolute dollars as it was in 1970.  Factoring in inflation, we are expected to get along on less than half the real spending power than we had in 1970.

Students also see the effects of the financial drain caused by administrative bloat.  In 1970 most of the classes taken by K.K.U. students were taught by full-time tenured or tenure-track professors.  Now nearly 60% of classes are taught by part-time instructors.  These are the so-called "freeway flyers" who travel between a number of campuses trying to piece together a living while teaching at starvation wages.

The second negative effect has been a change in the culture of colleges and universities that can be attributed, in large part, to the development of an "administrative class" that is ignorant of academic values.  Thirty years ago the majority of people in academic administrative posts held solid academic credentials.  They had come up through the professorial ranks, and had established reasonable records as teachers or scholars.  Degrees in "higher education administration" were unheard of in those days.  College and university administration was not viewed as a career apart from the academic life itself.  Except for a small number of technical specialists, most administrators had risen through the faculty ranks.  Invariably university presidents and vice presidents held serious academic credentials.  Today, many of our universities are run by folks who have had little or no experience in the classroom and who have produced little or no serious scholarship.  These people value only those programs that they can point to as being "new" or "innovative".  They have little or no appreciation for quality teaching on a daily basis.  To justify their existence they create programs which have high visibility, but which often affect only a tiny fraction of the student body.

One has to ask if there is any way to bring the growth of the "administrata" under control?  Surprisingly, a very good answer to this question comes from an administrator himself.  Jon C. Strauss, president of Harvey Mudd College, has suggested in an article in The Scientist by Robert Finn that the growth can be controlled by making the cost of administration public.  According to Strauss "If you put these administrative costs right in front of everybody, they stop growing.  It's very dramatic."  What could be more simple?

Just as the prospectus for a mutual fund must disclose prominently the fund's administrative costs, every college and university catalog should display prominently on its front cover the fraction of each budget dollar that goes to administration.

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© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.