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.

Comments

  1. #1 onymous
    August 31, 2011

    Your arithmetic is off — 30 people at $300k each is $9M, not $90M. Which only makes your argument stronger, of course.

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    August 31, 2011

    Gah! I hate it when I do that. I plead whiny-toddler-in-the-house.

    Numbers have been fixed, as well as references to them.

  3. #3 Moopheus
    August 31, 2011

    What about the other 5000 employees? I’d guess, after accounting for the top-level administrators, that on average the staff is less well-paid than the faculty, but those numbers suggest that salaries account for somewhere between a third and half of the University’s overall expenses (It’s hard to tell from the budget you linked to).

  4. #4 becca
    August 31, 2011

    Thank you. The article was entertaining to read, but it had the feel of ‘cherry picked examples’ to it. Albeit sometimes legitimately outrageous cherry picked examples.

    I also think that some of the deanlets have responsibilities that aren’t all that clear to the faculty. A third greater salary sounds ok for “higher rank” until you realize that “higher rank” should imply greater responsibility. Near as I can tell, the job of some of the deans I’m familiar with is to break the news to change-averse faculty in the gentlest way possible, and listen to complaints from all comers. The authority to actually change anything seems… curiously absent. It’s a tough job, and an obnoxious job, but in a theoretical world where administration and faculty are not so separate it would be a much less necessary job.

  5. #5 Nick Dvoracek
    August 31, 2011

    We solve this by a cumulative sort of promotion. I’m still Director of Learning Technologies, but now I’m also Chief Information Officer. They did add the extra shipping and handling on to my salary, but they forgot to install a multi-tasking processor.

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    August 31, 2011

    What about the other 5000 employees? I’d guess, after accounting for the top-level administrators, that on average the staff is less well-paid than the faculty, but those numbers suggest that salaries account for somewhere between a third and half of the University’s overall expenses (It’s hard to tell from the budget you linked to).

    It’s a little hard to tell, but I think that figure of 5116 employees includes everybody else– the department secretaries, the ITS staff, the people cleaning the dorms, etc. The vast majority of them will be paid way less than the senior administrators, and they are unquestionably essential to the functioning of the university.

    A third to a half of the budget on salary doesn’t sound unreasonable to me. Staff salaries should be one of the biggest expense categories for the university– the whole business is feeding, housing, and educating students.

  7. #7 Lisa Maurizio
    August 31, 2011

    I appreciate your point about not treating factoids out of context. Yet, hypothetical calculations about salaries at the University of Maryland seems a similar sort of venture. In particular most University faculty are adjuncts, even full time ones, who earn considerably less than tenured or even tenure track professors, while senior faculty, especially the stars, earn more. So—weighing the trends–less tenured faculty and more administrators and staff over the past few decades coupled with salary information would really help clarify where matters stand.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    August 31, 2011

    I appreciate your point about not treating factoids out of context. Yet, hypothetical calculations about salaries at the University of Maryland seems a similar sort of venture. In particular most University faculty are adjuncts, even full time ones, who earn considerably less than tenured or even tenure track professors, while senior faculty, especially the stars, earn more. So—weighing the trends–less tenured faculty and more administrators and staff over the past few decades coupled with salary information would really help clarify where matters stand.

    In the specific case of the University of Maryland, it’s a public institution, so you could, in principle, determine the salary of each of the 3,996 people classed as faculty in that list. I believe the school paper used to publish a salary list once a year when I was there; it’s probably on the web somewhere.

    The average salary I used for the estimate was based on a government-reported average salary, though, and with a sample size that big, I would expect it to be reasonably good. It’s certainly not going to be off by the order of magnitude or so you would need to bring faculty salaries down to a level comparable to the administrative salaries he’s complaining about.

  9. #9 Steinn Sigurdsson
    August 31, 2011

    All the big public universities have probably done something like a “war zone task force” recently: it is a liability issue, both for universities which encourage study abroad, and for researchers.
    Basically the university does not want to ban travel, especially as some war zones are particularly interesting for research – the study abroad is problem is usually inadvertent and evanescent – undergrads caught in Egypt during the uprisings kind of thing.
    So the universities come up with something that leaves the door open but tries to minimize liability.
    It is a high level decision, has to be consistent across the university, and a lot of different units within the university will have stakes in the decision.

  10. #10 Liz
    August 31, 2011

    My question – which I left in a comment on the Washington Monthly site – is whether the the figures Ginsberg uses to calculate staff-to-student ratios include research staff. Over the past several years, my university has hired many people whose salaries are covered mostly or entirely by grants (either directly, because a lab manager is written into the grant budget, or indirectly, through the 50% overhead). I’d hate to see our success at attracting researching funding make it look like we’re administratively bloated when what we’ve actually done is build up our research portfolio.

  11. #11 Sam
    August 31, 2011

    Are you certain about the average faculty salary of $75,000? My niece was a student there and I checked the public salaries. In her department, the lowest salary for an assistant professor was $90,000 and then approached $200,000 for a full professor.

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    August 31, 2011

    Are you certain about the average faculty salary of $75,000? My niece was a student there and I checked the public salaries. In her department, the lowest salary for an assistant professor was $90,000 and then approached $200,000 for a full professor.

    Salaries will vary from department to department, so some will obviously have higher averages within the department. There are also a lot of people listed as “Lecturer” who make much, much less– the tenure-track faculty may have six-figure salaries, but there are lecturers and adjuncts with four-figure salaries.

    Also, it doesn’t strengthen Ginsberg’s argument at all if I have underestimated the salaries of the faculty. Making the faculty salary number bigger only makes the administrative salaries a smaller piece of the total salary pool, and reduces the outrageousness of paying “deanlings” six-figure salaries.

    (The salary numbers for the University of Maryland are here, if you want to scan through dozens of pages of tiny type to estimate the average salary more accurately.)

  13. #13 A
    August 31, 2011

    It is funny to see someone complain about the high salaries of administrators of a 1.5 billion dollar enterprise involving ~40,000 people when it is a college, but not complain about the excessive salaries of the various CEOs, CFOs, and other top management, including those of directors, board members (with a meeting once a month or so as only duty) of various private enterprises (such as investment houses), which would be bankrupt if not for government intervention.–

    And what about the salaries made by those who administer the endowment funds of the Ivies? A proper accounting of education cost should include the cost to the taxpayer by the endowment funds being tax-free, which is a big subsidy to a few private institutions.–

    In my view, the increase in tuition students and their parents suffer from is due in public institutions to the decrease of funding by the states, pressed by lesser tax income (even before the financial crisis, due to the rise of various anti-tax movements; in California, we remember Governor Regan, who started this trend, a long time ago, until his reign, tuition was free for state residents in the UC/CSU/CC system).
    For private institutions, it is the effect of the ‘elite’ institutions, which sell not only education, but also ‘access’ (to network with the children of other wealthy people); for them, a high tuition is a mark of distinction
    (keeps the riffraff out, signals presumed high quality). Private and state colleges who want to compete must also attract the spoiled children of the rich, with excellent facilities for sports, entertainment, nice dorms and better food and such. And parents, having seen the $50,000+ tuition bill at an ‘elite’ college, may willingly pay ~half as much at a state university (or even less, if in-state), so state universities get away with charging as much as they do. And if a college skimps on facilities so as to have a lower tuition, it will attract less of the full-paying children of the rich, and parents will assume that the lower tuition represents lower quality.–
    So that is a quandary for any college administrator who doesn’t have the endowment (and large number of fully-paying students) of a Harvard. In addition, to keep the college’s place in some ranking, he has to attract preferably students with high SAT test scores (which in the US is closely correlated with higher parental income; again you need to attract the spoiled children of the rich with better facilities). So I would think that facilities cost and their upkeep may be increasing above inflation.

    It is more of a quandary for students and parents now, as they slowly recognize, that after graduating with lots of student loan debt, there may not be a job which would allow to pay it off. (This again, makes it more important to attend an ‘elite’ university, so that your friend is the kid of some investment banker, who helps you find a job on Wall Street.)

    The Ginsberg book is just another effort to obfuscate the role of colleges in the increasing stratification of American society, which – I think – is the proper context for a political scientist to study this.

  14. #14 Juice
    August 31, 2011

    If you want to look at administrative bloat, look no farther than most state and municipal governments, including the schools.

  15. #15 Moopheus
    August 31, 2011

    To follow up my own comment, I looked up the annual report for my own institution, and personnel costs (inc. benefits) are 48 percent of the budget. And indeed, I don’t know for sure, but I think the highest-paid guy on campus is the guy who manages the endowment.

  16. #16 Chad Orzel
    August 31, 2011

    To follow up my own comment, I looked up the annual report for my own institution, and personnel costs (inc. benefits) are 48 percent of the budget. And indeed, I don’t know for sure, but I think the highest-paid guy on campus is the guy who manages the endowment.

    I’m not sure whether it’s available online, but I believe the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a list every year giving the salaries for the top 3 (or maybe 5) highest-paid individuals at every institution. I couldn’t turn it up with a quick Google, but I remember reading this information in the print edition.

  17. #17 donna
    August 31, 2011

    http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/08/31/historical-trends-in-college-tuition/

    I’m sorry, but nobody needs 400 or 500 k a year for an office job. Yes, I DO blame the administrators. It’s outrageous.

  18. #18 donna
    August 31, 2011

    But I’m sure I’m biased by the fact that paying two university tuitions is preventing me from buying a new car at the moment, or otherwise contributing to the consumer economy.

    I don’t see why it costs so much more this year than last year, though. Yes, states have cut funds, but how is increasing administrator pay while raising tuitions supposed to help anything? It just makes college even less affordable. I’m sure the regents really needed that pay raise, though.

  19. #19 Lyle
    August 31, 2011

    I suspect two of the growth areas in cost are security and counseling. After Va Tech schools have had to spend a lot on stepped up security (building systems to notify all on campus stakeholders does not come cheap). Secondly counseling centers have had to grow to try to help students so they don’t do like Va Tech. Of course IT has grown as well. Then there is the staff at the provided health club that is attached to the university. If one went to an online only school the first 2 functions could be cut drastically.

  20. #20 NL
    August 31, 2011

    Tuition will continue to rise rapidly because the costs of benefits for faculty and staff (not salary) are skyrocketing. Administrative bloat sucks, but it’s not driving costs.

  21. #21 CCPhysicist
    August 31, 2011

    Maryland has a student/faculty ratio of 9.5 based on your numbers. Plausible.

    Compare that to the student/staff ratio of 2.5 at the average R1 university. That gets close to each student having their own private butler. That number can, and should, be contrasted with the CC ratio of 7.0. [Data from study cited in IHE but incorrectly transcribed there.]

    Administrative bloat is that you need 40 staff to serve 100 students at an R1, but only need 14 to serve them at a community college. Some of those staff are paid by funds other than tuition and fees, but not all of them. (Look at how much Rutgers siphons from academics to athletics.) Are they all needed to improve instruction? Texas is starting the process of answering “no” and then, presumably, either dismantling its outstanding research universities or making it clear what student tuition and state taxes is paying for.

    Finally, I question your view that every position in administration filled by a former instructor is at a “higher rank” than full professor. I think that is nonsense. What could be of greater importance and value than discovering and disseminating knowledge? Keeping records of course outcomes assessment?

  22. #22 Kaleberg
    August 31, 2011

    That “Committee on Traditions” probably pays for itself and then some. Alumni love that stuff and why not? Then, they open their checkbooks (or, more likely, get out a credit card).

  23. #23 Jasper Janssen
    September 1, 2011

    In .nl, the previous prime minister proposed the now eponymous “Balkenende-norm”, which essentially says that anyone employed at a governmental organization (or other organization funded primarily through public means) in any capacity is not allowed to have a salary of over n, where n is either at or at some percentage over the salary of the prime minister.

    Now, this is not force of law, but anybody caught going over it can certainly expect a pillorying in the press. What *is* law, incidentally, is that you have to make public the salaries of over the prime minister’s salary, if you’re funded through public means. We’re generally a bit more private about salaries than in the US, so just being employed at a public institution doesn’t cut it there.

    So… what is Obama’s salary?

  24. #24 Eric Lund
    September 1, 2011

    So… what is Obama’s salary?

    According to Wikipedia, the President of the United States is paid a salary of $400,000 (increased on 20 January 2001 from the previous level of $200,000). So yes, there are university presidents, and football and basketball coaches (organized athletic competitions between universities are a much bigger deal in the US than in most other countries), who are paid more than Obama.

    The more relevant comparison is with a state governor, since public universities in the US (except for the military universities) are supported primarily by state rather than federal funds. A quick Google search tells me that in 2009 the median governor’s salary was $129,962, and my state’s governor was paid $113,834. State Supreme Court justices get higher pay ($151,477 for the Chief Justice in my state in 2009). But the highest salaries are at the state university: 96 of the top 100 salaries among public employees in 2008, led by our then hockey coach at $382k (sourced to a newspaper article which is no longer on line).

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