A National Perspective

The faculty continues to fall

Benjamin Ginsberg

David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and Chair, Center for Advanced Governmental Studies, Johns Hopkins University

In 2011, I published The Fall of the Faculty, pointing to the problem of accelerating administrative bloat at America’s colleges and universities. The book’s reception exceeded my expectations. Professors throughout the United States (as well as Canada and Europe) wrote to me with stories of mismanagement, administrative incompetence, bureaucratic waste and fraud, and the sheer arrogance and stupidity of their administrators. Many letter writers declared that I must have done my research on their campuses, since everything I described had happened there. Others declared that my examples were not extreme enough and offered stories from their own schools that often topped mine. 

Everywhere, it seems, legions of administrators are engaged in strategic planning, endlessly rewriting the school mission statement, and “rebranding” their campus. All these activities waste enormous amounts of time, require hiring thousands of new “deanlets” and, more often than not, involve the services of expensive consultants. This rebranding business is so foolish that it is difficult even to caricature. With the help of consultants, the University of Chicago School of Medicine rebranded itself “Chicago Medicine,” while my own university’s medical school rebranded itself “Hopkins Medicine.” I hope these new brands came with consultants’ warranties. I have a feeling that the next group of administrators will want to introduce their own brands—after, that is, rewriting their schools’ mission statements.

Despite its reception from the professorate, I would have to say that The Fall of the Faculty has been a failure. One early reviewer in the Wall Street Journal predicted that as a call to arms the book was “bracing” but came too late, and he may have been correct. Two recent articles—one by Richard Vedder and published by Bloomberg News and the other by Scott Carlson in the Chronicle of Higher Education—point to the onward march of the administrative vandals across the wreckage of America’s campuses.

Vedder, one of America’s most distinguished educational economists, shows that in 2010-11, less than 30 percent of the $449 billion spent by American colleges and universities was spent on actual instruction. Indeed, for every $1 spent on instruction, $1.82 was spent on non-instructional matters including “institutional support”—that is, the care and feeding of deanlets. Vedder goes on to show that if the ratio of deanlets to professors in 2010 had been the same as in 1976, there would now be nearly 400,000 fewer deanlets whose combined salaries account for one-fourth of all tuition dollars paid by students and their parents in 2010. I guess financially hard-pressed parents can take solace in the fact that their children will have no difficulty finding deanlets with whom to work—though professors might be in short supply.

Carlson confirms this sad tale by reporting that increases in administrative staffing drove a 28-percent expansion of the higher education work force from 2000 to 2012. This period, of course, includes several years of severe recession, when colleges saw their revenues decline and many found themselves forced to make hard choices about spending. The character of these choices is evident from the data reported by Carlson. Colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors, and yet found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers. 

Much of the ongoing growth in administration, it seems, is connected with “student services.” Colleges argue that contemporary students are constantly demanding more services, while the federal government is forcing colleges to provide disability services and other counseling services that were unknown even three decades ago. These claims are not completely false. Students do want services, but it is often the case that they are given services they neither want nor need. Every professor can point to examples of the foolishness and extravagance of student service activities on their campus. On many campuses the student services deanlets have organized a shadow curriculum of inane and trivial courses (my personal favorite is the “learning kitchen” at one school in the Washington area) that they encourage, and sometimes even require, students to take. My general impression of student services is that seldom in the course of human events has so little been done by so many at such great expense. Come to think of it, the Department of Education may be another example.

As to government mandates, certainly the federal government does mandate a variety of expensive activities on the part of universities. As economists Robert Martin and R. Carter Hill show in an excellent 2012 paper, however, external cost drivers such as federal or state mandates are far less important than internal or voluntary factors, particularly growth in administrative spending, in explaining rising costs on college campuses. Schools have chosen to spend more, not been forced. And what they have chosen to spend money on is the administrative superstructure, not the education of students.

Faculty need to learn to convert their anger into institution-building. . . . The faculty can and should demand more information, greater financial oversight, and changes in university governance processes. 

I ended The Fall of the Faculty with a call to action, and I have been happy to see that on a growing number of campuses professors have begun to do battle with their administrators. Angry professors have succeeded in forcing the resignation of a president here or a provost there. Satisfying, though, as these faculty revolts may be, they are ultimately futile. Like third-world peasants who overthrow a tyrannical regime, rampaging professors are likely to be tyrannized again by the next bunch. Faculty need to learn to convert their anger into institution-building. Undertaking the construction of faculty senate budget committees to conduct regular audits of administrative practices might seem to be a good start. 

Professors should also push for the enactment of state and federal legislation modeled on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. “Sarbox” was designed, among other things, to curb insider dealing and irresponsibility on the part of corporate boards. The legislation does not apply to the non-profit sector but is badly needed there. Why not make boards responsible for the actions of the presidents, provosts, and deanlets they employ? Perhaps board members would become less tolerant of administrative misbehavior if it affected them. Why not prohibit board members from doing business with the university-—a common practice today? If members of the board had no financial stake in the administration, they might be more ready to listen when the faculty pointed to administrative incompetence.

So, as Vedder, Carlson, and others have shown, the fall of the faculty continues, while the deanlets spread blight across the academic landscape. But there is always hope. The faculty can and should demand more information, greater financial oversight, and changes in university governance processes. At least for now, the university remains an institution worth fighting for.