Priorities in Higher Ed – Admin Bloat By the Numbers

Yesterday I followed a tweet from New Faculty Majority to Academe Blog (from but not speaking for the AAUP) – and read a startling set of statistics.

I posted this tweet:

It was re-tweeted a lot (for me). As I altered and sent out the numbers again over twitter, those tweets were picked up by more people and circulated.  Clearly the story these numbers tell seemed compelling to the twitter-academics.

Here’s the context from the blog:

In this past week’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a very revealing graph representing the changes in employment in colleges and universities from 1976 to 2011. The graph is based on an analysis of IPEDs data by AAUP’s John Curtis.

I’ve talked about this before when discussing the rise of the administration (aka the “Fall of the Faculty“). I wrote:

“I was called out for using the phrase, “administrative bloat.” It’s pejorative and I think I will drop it. [spoiler alert: I haven’t dropped it] There certainly has been a rise in the number of administrators. This has both cultural and financial costs. A recent piece from the Chronicle notes that the faculty:admin ratio declined from 2000-12 by 40%, now at 2.5:1. Thus the savings from shifting to the adjunct model have largely been spent on hiring new admin. But at least some of this has happened because of new regulatory models (assessment assessment assessment), and “bloat” suggests that the university did this on purpose, rather than having no choice. It’s an issue to consider.”

That was me being nice. I know so many brilliant, dedicated, administrators who do amazing work to make their institutions of higher ed better. I feel exceptionally fortunate in the administrators with whom I work at Dominican. But the numbers are kind of bleak. Moreover, as I’ll discuss below, there are choice here being made by administrators that lead to bloat, even if it’s not deliberate, even if many of the choices are defensible.

When I survey the big higher ed landscape, I see the following linked processes [update: see comments for clarification] – 

1) Cuts in funding for public universities
2) Cuts in numbers of tenure track lines
3) Rise in numbers of students at the same time
4) Explosive growth of adjuncts
5) Explosive growth of staff and admin

What this ends up meaning is that the money saved by cutting full-time lines ends up going to admin and other non-instructional costs rather than to education OR to improve bottom lines. Adjunctification, admin expansion, and the cutting back on FT teachers has been a somewhat zero-sum game shifting costs around rather than saving money (to some extent).

Academe Blog has this useful take after running the numbers [my emphasis]:

It is as if higher education has borrowed very selectively and poorly from the corporate model. Although we now have much the same ever-widening gap in compensation between upper management and the bulk of the employees, we also have the sort of burgeoning middle management that was more typical of American corporations in the third quarter of the 20th century and increasing eliminated from our corporations in the last quarter of the 20th century. If our colleges and universities were truly operating as efficiently as the best corporations, the increase in administrative staff would be among the lowest numbers on this chart and not the highest number.

That rings true to me. It’s not just that the universities have corporatized, but that we’ve DONE IT BADLY.

A really smart criticism of my customer service article for the Chronicle emphasized that my discussion of customers relied on a model for customer service not reflecting best practices in the business world. I believe it! But I also know that my outmoded model reflects the model that most universities use when they say “students are customers.” It’s not just corportization, it’s bad corporitzation.

I don’t think admin bloat happens intentionally – no one says (I really hope): Let’s get rid of a bunch of tenure-track lines, hire a ton of Deanlets for high salaries, and then fill the classrooms with adjuncts. Rather, administrators get hired defensively – a need is located and the solution is to hire a single person and to give them a title to solve it. Those people are often understaffed, under-budgeted, and individually pretty well compensated as they try to wrestle with difficult tasks. They are hired, though, so their salaries now eat up a chunk of the budget once occupied by tenure-track lines, and the numbers have to balance. Enter the adjunct to save the day (or fill the lecture hall anyway).

Right now, at my unversitiy, we are hiring our first Chief Diversity Officer. We have real diversity issues on my campus. We are becoming a majority Latina/o university taught by a mostly white faculty.  A swastika was carved on an elevator door. There have been racial slurs against some African-American students, and plenty of other problems. I’m particularly focused on disability as diversity, and we’ve issues there too. If your campus doesn’t have diversity issues, it probably means that you aren’t looking hard enough and that your students – whether divided by race, class, gender, orientation, religion, ability, etc – don’t feel safe enough to raise the issues. Denial is not a diversity strategy.

I’m pleased Dominican is taking this step. I hope a CDO helps all our students and faculty feel safer, empowered to speak out, included, and I will do everything in my power to support whoever we hire, though I’m not convinced an administrative hire is the optimal solution to our issues.

There’s a cost here though. I assume the salary, at the president’s cabinet level, will be significantly higher than my own, perhaps as high as one and a half starting tenure-track lines. That means one fewer faculty member, bigger undergraduate classes, and more part-timers. We’re a tuition-driven institution and the budget has to balance.

What is a university to do? We have a need – whether it’s diversity, or assessment, or more IT needs, or better facilities, or any number of other kinds of problems requiring staff/admin to solve. Yes, in some colleges we’ve got explosive middle-management issues based on #badmin (as the hashtag goes) trying to carve out self-replicating bureaucratic fiefdoms. That’s not the problem at my small university and I expect not the problem at many other places either.

And yet, the growth of admin continues and the faculty fall.

3 Replies to “Priorities in Higher Ed – Admin Bloat By the Numbers”

  1. Kevin McClure says:

    If you haven't already done so, check out the Delta Cost Project's report on staffing patterns in higher education: Much of the expansion in administration can be attributed to the growth in student services. Some of this growth is due to college completion initiatives, and that's a good thing. Executives are an easy target, but that's not where the real expansion has been. I'm not convinced that money from cutting tenure lines is being used to hire administrative staff (might be a causation versus correlation issue). Lastly, I would caution against implying that adjunctification is necessarily a product of cutting tenure lines. At many institutions, the number of tenure-track faculty has remained constant. It's simply that the proportion of TT faculty has declined relative to non-TT faculty. Many of the latter have been hired in response to enrollment growth and the creation of professional degrees that generate revenue. In other words, some of the trends you mention here require a bit of nuance, and the relationships among the trends are complicated.

    1. David Perry says:

      That's all true. I've read the DCP report (and link to a summary of it from CHE above). It's true that in many places there has been an increase or steady in TT lines, but that's in an era of undergraduate population growth, so the net effect is a reduction in % taught by full timers. I should be clearer about that.

      I don't mean to imply direct causation, but I think the correlation between money spent on admin – and I hope I made it clear I often think that the money spent on admin is money that needs to be spent, that was my intent with the diversity officer issue – and the decrease in percentage of sections taught by full timers is a very strong correlation.

      Most of which is to say that adjuncts have saved money on instructional costs, but that the money has gone to pay for other things, not improving the bottom line of institutions (writ large).

    2. Kevin McClure says:

      Thanks for the clarifications, all of which make sense. The only other thing that came to my mind was that money saved on hiring contingent instructors may not go anywhere because it is designed to get a unit out of the red. That is, if institutions are looking to cut costs due to reductions in their revenues, they may be looking to simply cut labor costs, not reallocate it to administration. The idea that money saved on adjuncts is going to pay for other things assumes that the pot of money is staying the same, not declining. Hope that makes sense – I confused myself while writing it!

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