A currently popular explanation for the increasing price of higher education is that all those tuition dollars are being soaked up by bloated bureaucracy– that is, that there are too many administrators for the number of faculty and students involved. While I like this better than the “tenured faculty are greedy and lazy” explanation you sometimes hear, I’m not sure it’s any more valid. In part because proponents make it difficult to see if it’s any more valid.
One of the major proponents of the administrative bloat idea is Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, who is flogging a book making this argument, and has a long piece in Washington Monthly about it (that link may spawn a “print” window, but it’s the only way to get the whole thing on one page without their incredibly annoying animated and pop-up ads). I’ve sat in enough pointless administrative meetings that I’d really like to believe this, but at least in the Washington Monthly piece, he’s engaging in the sort of argument-by-factoid that is frustrating when it comes from professional pundits, and vastly more irritating coming from a professional academic.
Take, for example, one of his illustrative examples:
Administrators are not only well staffed, they are also well paid. Vice presidents at the University of Maryland, for example, earn well over $200,000, and deans earn nearly as much. Both groups saw their salaries increase as much as 50 percent between 1998 and 2003, a period of financial retrenchment and sharp tuition increases at the university. The University of Maryland at College Park–which employs six vice presidents, six associate vice presidents, five assistant vice presidents, six assistants to the president, and six assistants to the vice presidents–has long been noted for its bloated and extortionate bureaucracy, but it actually does not seem to be much of an exception. Administrative salaries are on the rise everywhere in the nation. By 2007, the median salary paid to the president of a doctoral degree-granting institution was $325,000. Eighty-one presidents earned more than $500,000, and twelve earned over $1 million. Presidents, at least, might perform important services for their schools. Somewhat more difficult to explain is the fact that by 2010 even some of the ubiquitous and largely interchangeable deanlets and deanlings earned six-figure salaries.
Now, I went to the University of Maryland, and I can confirm that the only efficient thing at the university was the parking enforcement. So, these are pretty damning numbers, right?
the problem is, they’re just factoids, without their proper context. 30 high-level administrators sounds like a lot, especially if you scornfully cite their silly-sounding titles. But is that a lot?
According to the university’s own press office, they have just under 4000 faculty, and almost 38,000 total students. Those are also big numbers. Is 30-ish high-level administrators too many for managing an institution of that size? There’s no good way to tell.
Yes, but surely they’re overpaid, right? Maybe, but how big a factor in the cost of higher education is this, really? Let’s say the average salary among those administrators is $300,000 (the full VP’s probably make more, but the assistants probably make less). 30 people at $300,000 each is $9,000,000, another very big number.
But the 4000 faculty at the university, making something like $75,000 on average (more than 3/4 of those faculty are full-time, and that’s a nice round number close to the average for full-time faculty according to the Department of Labor), would have a total salary of $300,000,000, more than thirty times that of the administrators. And the total budget of the university is in excess of $1,500,000,000. So, how big a problem are those administrative salaries, anyway? Can something that is less than 1% of the total budget really be said to be the primary driver of high academic costs?
And then there’s the contemptuous statement that “even some of the ubiquitous and largely interchangeable deanlets and deanlings earned six-figure salaries.” Surely, it’s totally outrageous that low-level administrators make six-figure salaries, right? Except, again, the average salary for full-time faculty is over $70,000, which isn’t all that far from the canonical six figures. So, all this is really saying is that low-level administrators (many of whom are drawn from faculty ranks) get paid about a third more than the faculty average. As they should, given that they are at a higher rank. So, what’s the problem, again?
And it just goes on and on in that vein, borrowing shady rhetorical tactics from the worst sorts of politicians. In addition to the big numbers ripped from meaningful context, we get an unhealthy dose of mocking of silly titles:
At one school, an inventive group of administrators created the “Committee on Traditions,” whose mission seemed to be the identification and restoration of forgotten university traditions or, failing that, the creation of new traditions. Another group of deans constituted themselves as the “War Zones Task Force.” This group recruited staffers, held many meetings, and prepared a number of reports whose upshot seemed to be that students should be discouraged from traveling to war zones, unless, of course, their home was in a war zone. But perhaps the expansion of university bureaucracies is best illustrated by an ad placed by a Colorado school, which sought a “Coordinator of College Liaisons.” Depending on how you read it, this is either a ridiculous example of bureaucratic layering or an intrusion into an area of student life that hardly requires administrative assistance.
It’s great snark, but is it really any different than William Proxmire’s obnoxiously stupid “Golden Fleece” awards, or any of the “shrimp on a treadmill” sort of mockery scientists have come in for lately? Yes, the notion of a “War Zones Task Force” sounds ridiculous, but there was almost certainly more to it than that mocking description makes it seem. Really, the whole piece is the sort of hackwork that serves to remind everyone that the title “political scientist” is only half accurate.
It’s a tempting argument, because I’d love to have a principled reason to rail against academic administration generally. But this just isn’t it.