Bloated Administration, Blighted Campuses

Barbara R. Bergmann
Professor of Economics, AU
President, AAUP

[Reprinted with permission from AAUP's Academe 77.6 (Nov-Dec 1991).]

Undetected, unprotected, and unchecked, the excessive growth of administrative expenditures has done a lot of damage to life and learning on our campuses. On each campus that suffers from this disease, and most apparently do, millions of dollars have been swallowed up. Huge amounts have been devoted to funding administrative positions that a few years ago would have been thought unnecessary.

If it were just a matter of the money wasted, that would be bad enough. But the bloating of college administrations over the past decades has made administrative performance worse rather than better. It has bogged us down in reels of time-consuming and despair-creating red tape. It has fostered delusions of grandeur among some of the administrative higher-ups, whose egos have grown along with the size of the staffs under their supervision.

The increase in administrative expenditures on American campuses relative to other outlays has been going on for a long time. Back in 1930, institutions of higher education in the United States spent on average 19 cents for administration for every dollar spent on instruction. By 1950, that figure had climbed to 27 cents. In the 1987-88 academic year, the latest period for which we have information, the outlay for administration was 45 cents for each instructional dollar.

By 1980, universities had behind them five full decades in which the growth in spending for administration had outpaced the growth in spending for teaching. One might have imagined that by the end of those five decades the desire to add administration functions would have been sated. But that apparently was not the case. In the 1980s, administrative budgets--the expenditure for presidents, deans, and their assistants--grew 26 percent faster than instructional budgets--the expenditure for professors.

By the academic year 1987-88, the cost of administration in institutions of higher education nationwide was averaging, $1,742 per full-time equivalent student. That figure excludes any expenditure for libraries, or for student services such as counseling, admissions, or placement. It excludes expenditure for the operation of the physical plant, and any expenditure for research. It even excludes any administrative expenses directly connected with such services. It also excludes a rather mysterious category of expenditure labeled "public service," for which institutions spent $410 per FTE student enrolled. (It is probably a good bet that "public service" is just another name for what, to a faculty member, would look, walk, and quack like an administrative duck.)

What is administration? It is essentially collaborating with the faculty in setting policies for and supervising the institution, and performing service activities like producing the catalog, registering the students, keeping track of the money. At the beginning of the 1980s we apparently needed "only" $1,189 (in dollars of 1988 purchasing power) per FTE student for these functions. Is it likely that the $1,742 per FTE student we were spending at last count is fully justified?

One common justification for the growth of administrative personnel is the increased demands for reporting on the part of the federal government. One often hears that affirmative action requirements are the main reason that we have more administrators than we used to have.

Putting the blame for burgeoning administrative budgets on affirmative action, which is unpopular in many quarters, is a good ploy politically by those who don't want to face up to the waste of time and money that administrative bloat has caused. But the falsity of the affirmative action alibi becomes obvious when we look at the size of affirmative action staffs.

As an example, consider the Florida state system, which had 7,702 professional employees in 1985-86, of whom 4,435 were professors. Of the remaining 3,267 professional employees in the Florida system, only twelve were devoted to affirmative action. That's one-third of one percent of the non-instructional staff. Those who attribute the problem of administrative bloat to the minuscule staff that work on affirmative action are simply trying to find a handy scapegoat.

Another common claim is that people classed as administrators are doing work that was previously done by faculty members. When pressed to come up with an example of duties that professors have been relieved of, the answer given is "counseling students." In my own experience, we have been relieved of no substantial duties in the counseling line that faculty members performed when I started teaching three decades ago. We still help students decide on what courses to take. Faculty still provide a modest amount of friendly, common-sense advice to students about their work, and, on occasion, about their lives.

Of courses, most colleges now have "counseling centers." These presumably give heavier-duty psychological therapy of a sort that faculty members have not undertaken. The effectiveness and benefit of this high-growth activity need, of course, to be evaluated. However, the growth in administrative expenditures cited above cannot be attributed to the growth in counseling expenditures, because the numbers on spending for administration cited above do not include spending for student services.

If neither affirmative action requirements nor a shift of faculty duties to administrators can account for a substantial part of the growth of administration, then what can? I would argue that the growth of administration to its present levels derives from two things: the desire of each administrator for more underlings, and a governance problem--weak curbs on administrative growth. Administrators, being human, have an interest in enhancing their status by augmenting the number of the people who report to them. And proliferation may be hard to contain. The chancellor who sits atop a flock of "associate," "assistant," or "vice" chancellors may find it difficult to deny each of the associate chancellors the right to have deputy associate chancellors.

Sitting atop campus administrators are boards of regents or governors, who are nominally in control. On paper, they have ample power to control administrative bloat. However, these boards are seldom in a position to question the details of administrative budgets. Inflation and the growth of the institution accustom regents to expect that expenses next year will exceed those of this year. Since everything is going up, the fact that the year-to-year percentage change in administrative spending is being allowed to exceed the year-to-year percentage change in spending for instruction tends to escape notice. Faculty budget committees, where they exist, also generally fail to detect that extra rate of administrative creep, allowing it to go on for decades.

Most of the extra money added on to administrative budgets goes, of course, to hiring more administrators. Some of these newly added people apparently have to cast around for things to do. One of the things they do when in that fix is issue fancy brochures and newsletters. Faculty lived happily without any newsletters a decade ago. Now they are likely to find their mailboxes stuffed with regularly issued newsletters from the provost of the division, the dean of the college, the honors program, the general education program, the personnel department, the benefits office, the parking and traffic control authority, the janitorial department, and the department of employee health and fitness. At the University of Maryland, I once collected a pile of twenty-four different ones.

An ad in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education gives some insight into some of the other uses that have been found for the extra money that has been put into administrative budgets. The ad announces a vacancy at Princeton for an "Assistant to the President for Special Projects." According to the ad, the person hired for this job will work "on writing projects for the President including...speeches and reports to internal and external communications." In plain English, Princeton is recruiting a speech writer for its president.

Many presidents of sizable institutions have now added one or more speech writers to their staffs. So when the president of your institution steps up to address the farewell luncheon for your departing associate vice provost for academic affairs, or to give the ritual (and eminently dispensable) opening greeting to the Symposium on Deconstruction that is taking place on your campus, he or she will not be speaking off the cuff. Presidents of universities used to do it, but they don't anymore. Your president (perhaps aping the president of the United States) will be reading from a six-page document written by a speech writer. A speech writer is not all your president may have. Presidents maintain their own lawyers, press agent, schedulers, Persons Friday, and a surprising number of secretaries. At their university-provided houses, they may have a chef and a corps of maids.

Recently, the news emerged that at Stanford substantial sums derived from federal grants for scientific research were being spent for expensive flower arrangements and elaborate furnishings for administrators' houses, and for an administrator's wedding. The Stanford administration seems to have considering buying and paying for these items as part of the normal cost of administering the university in providing facilities and administrative support for the research.

When the matter became public, Stanford was of course forced to realize that it looked bad to charge off items like these to government funds appropriated for scientific research. There has been no acknowledgement, however, that it looks bad for the Stanford budget to finance a millionaire's lifestyle for the university president, wherever the money is coming from. Tuition receipts or the income from the endowment are not supposed to be spent on that kind of thing either.

Former University of Pittsburgh President Wesley W. Posvar's salary was recently revealed to be $242,000. Presidents like him typically don't need to spend much of it on living expenses, because the university provides a free house, plus food, utilities, and maid service, among other perquisites. The information on his salary, previously secret, surfaced because of scandal over the multi-million-dollar retirement package given to Posvar by his board. The package included a $938,000 lump-sum-payment, an annual "salary" of $201,000 for life, and annuities from two pension plans. (In October, he agreed to a salary cut at the request of Pittsburgh's trustees).

Even presidents who leave office under a cloud get large sums. Recently, a university president who had been detected making lewd and harassing phone calls from campus to women he didn't know negotiated a good-bye package. It included the $320,000 severance payment called for in his contract, plus an additional sum of $1.2 million. But they allowed him to get the severance payment, to receive a long leave with pay, and to stay on campus with a well-paying full professorship, despite his rusty expertise in his specialty.

Administrators, like faculty, enjoy getting away from campus to attend conferences with their peers. The extent of their conference-going can be gauged through the conference announcements that appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education. During the two-week period starting July 14, 1991--a period when money was allegedly tight--there were no fewer than thirty conferences for university administrators.

The thirty included many misty titles, such as "Situational Leadership" and "Setting the Vision: Quality and Higher Education in the 21st Century--a Partnership of Higher Education, Industry, and Government." Getting down to specifics, quality was a hot topic this year. Administrators could choose between going to Hong Kong for "Quality Assurance in Higher Education" or to Bath, England, for "Assessing Quality in Higher Education." They probably came back with some good ideas for new forms for faculty to fill out and new reports for chairs to compose.

Administrators are apparently worrying that tough times may be ahead. Among the offerings was a four-day conference entitled "Endangered Species: The Dean in a Time of Transition." The title seems unduly alarmist. Remembering that the number of deans has been steadily rising for six decades, it is hard to believe that any modest culling of the herd could threaten the survival of that species.

Any faculty member who has taught for twenty years or so can see many unwelcome changes that have resulted from the increase in administrative personnel and resources. The idea that faculty should welcome or at least not complain about the growth of administration because they have been relieved of duties thereby is in the nature of a bad joke. If anything, the growth of administration has left faculty with more to do rather than less.

The main burden of administrative demands for progress reports, form filling-in, projections, and mission statements falls on unhappy department chairs, but some of the production of boilerplate is passed on to ordinary faculty.

One of the worst effects of administrative bloat is that extra layers of administration have been piled on. If the faculty of a department, after a lot of work canvassing candidates, reading papers, and listening to seminars, votes to hire somebody to fill an already approved-of position, an excessively large and still growing number of administrators must approve the appointment of that candidate.

I can recall an attempt a number of years ago at the university of Maryland at College Park to lure away from another university a professor we believed would greatly enhance our department. We knew there were twelve administrators through whom the papers had to pass, and we watched attentively as the papers rose upwards.

Each of the administrators had to write a page or two of earnest prose on why the appointment should be allowed to occur. Presumably each administrator's approval statement had to be different from all those that preceded it, and these statements must have become considerably more difficult to compose as the appointment papers wended their way upwards. Perhaps that is why the rate of progress of the papers slowed appreciably as they ascended. Just as the papers reached the ninth administrator in the ladder, the AAUP deadline for notifying a current employer that one is leaving passed, and we had to give up the attempt. We had wasted the professor's time and our own. He subsequently went elsewhere, perhaps to a university that thought eight layers of administrative approval were enough.

One of the most serious results of the proliferation of administrators is the change it has made in the duties of the chairs of departments. The chairs bear the primary burden of the extra paperwork that the bloated administration demands as its daily food. The chair must shepherd appointment and promotion approvals up through the multiple layers of administrators through which they must pass.

When there are more administrators, there are more administrator-hours to fill up, and one of the ways they fill these hours is by calling meetings of the chairs under their jurisdiction. Many of these meetings are vacuous. Not only must the chair go, but he or she must keep a straight face and display a respectful attitude toward the proceedings. Sometimes that is desperately hard to do.

Extra administrators have time to invent extra paperwork for chairs to do. One of the most deplorable of these inventions is the "mission statement" for the department. It isn't enough for the administration to know (through reading the catalog, perhaps) that the French department has the mission of teaching French to undergraduates and graduates. No, the chair of the French department has to come up with ten or so pages of painfully composed boilerplate to describe its mission.

The added paperwork burdens of the position of chair have, of course, resulted in some defensive moves by the chairs themselves. Chairs, at least of the bigger departments, get to hire administrative assistants whose job it is to keep up with some of the paperwork the administration requires. Although this appears to be a help to the department, and under the circumstances is a help, it involves the devotion of still more of the college's resources to administration.

The deterioration of the chair's job caused by administrative bloat has had some unfortunate effects on departmental governance. The time and difficulty of dealing with the administration's unquenchable desire for paperwork and attendance at meetings means that it is not easy to get faculty members to be willing to serve as chair, even for a limited period. This makes it difficult to set up a rotating chair, which is a department's best guarantee of collegiality. The chair tends to be occupied on a permanent basis by someone with a taste for power, rather than faculty members willingly sharing in the duty of departmental governance.

The rise in the number of administrators has at least in part been responsible for a change in the recruitment process for administrators. In simpler times, deans were generally recruited from the senior faculty at their own institution, and might expect to return to the faculty.

Recruiting deans from the senior faculty had a number of important advantages. The dean would have considerable experience with the faculty role, and in most cases some experience as chair of a department. Second, the dean would have had first hand experience with the governance processes of a department and of the university, and have had a chance to understand the value of collegiality in governing.

The proliferation of "assistant deans" and "associate deans" has meant jobs have been created for which it is difficult to recruit senior faculty members. These jobs have a great deal less autonomy than a faculty member's job at most institutions, and the work is less stimulating. As a result, the jobs tend to be filled by people who have spent only a short time, if any, in the role of faculty member. Some come to administration directly from graduate school, after completing a Ph.D. in the field of higher education. When faculty and administration are two separate castes, collegiality in governance is bound to suffer.

What can faculty members do on their own campuses to stop and even reverse the trend to administrative bloat? The first step is to gather information on the extent of the bloat your own campus has experienced. One simple way to get information is for the AAUP chapter to ask its administration for copies of the form it files annually with the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education, the source of the aggregate statistics quoted earlier in this article.

Each campus files with the NCES summary information on how much it has spent each year for the following categories:

The Department of Education defines "administration" as academic support (excluding library expenses) plus institutional support.

It should not be difficult for the administration to dig out and share with you the form it has sent to the federal government. Ask for the forms for the current year, and the same information for an earlier year, such as 1980. With this data in hand you can track the bloat (or the lack thereof). One simple measure is the change in the ratio of administrative spending to spending instruction.

If you detect unacceptable bloat, you can activate your AAUP chapter and your faculty budget committee, if you have one, to attack the problem. (If you don't have an active AAUP chapter, this is a good issue to rally around. If you don't have a faculty budget committee, you should start negotiations to set one up as a part of the regular governance structure of the campus.) Then you can call for a gradual rollback in the ratio of administrative to instructional spending, to the levels of 1988, 1985, or even earlier.

Note on sources: Information on numbers of persons employed in higher education administration and teaching are given in "Trends in Institutional Costs," U.S. Department of Education, November 1990, p. 80, based on EEOC data. Information on average expenditures is from releases of the Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, April 1991. A source of historical statistics of many kinds on education is the Digest of Education Statistics issued annually by the National Center for Education Statistics. For the data on the Florida system, as well as for much data and analysis on U.S. trends, see Thomas P. Snyder and Eva C. Galambos, "Higher Education Administrative Costs: Continuing the Study," Department of Education, January 1988.

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