Friday, June 6, 2014

Another Look at Administrative Bloat in Higher Ed

I've written various pieces before (see here, here, and here) about the real issues of cost in higher education, and how the public debates seem to miss the point in their desire to hawk one ideological view or another. A lot of things drive up the cost of higher ed. One of my favorite bogey men is the story of "administrative bloat".

Now, on its surface "administrative bloat" is real insofar as universities and colleges today employ a lot more non-instructional staff than they did in past years.  Some of this is technology driven - 50 years ago universities didn't have IT departments with groups of computer programmers. Faculty like to believe that administrative bloat is a fundamental product of administrative motivations - that administrations (assumed in subtext to be greedy and selfish) will grow and metastasize in much the same way that Thomas Piketty argues capitalism produces inequality. There are certainly cases of this kind of "frivolous bloat", although it is not as common as some of the faculty hawks believe.

Often unnoticed in these discussions is a third force driving administrative bloat: mandates from the outside world. Some of these mandates are from the marketplace - parents and students want universities with certain kinds of amenities and services (how many schools, for example, have done away with their Career Center in this job-focused age?) And some of those mandates come from the government.

It is into this category that a story in today's Chronicle titled "Why Colleges Are on the Hook for Sexual Assault" falls. The meaning and mandate of the Federal Title IX statute has been expanded significantly in the decades since it was founded, and recently especially in the realm of rape and sexual assault. Universities now find themselves essentially having to set up professional criminal justice systems, with top-quality capabilities to investigate, handle due process, and render verdicts which will stand up to both legal and public scrutiny. In other words, universities now need their own court systems.

This is a series of tasks which universities are ill-suited to do. Even a decent-sized institution like my employer only has a handful of people on campus who have anything resembling professional competence in these areas. To do this and do it right, the university would have to hire a number of people, some of them pretty highly-paid professionals with experience and credentials. In other words, more bloat.

The price of not doing this for any university is twofold. If a student has a bad experience and blames the institution for it, that school may find itself the subject of a Federal investigation - never a good thing. Moreover, the bad press generated will almost certainly drive students away, which in today's lean times can be catastrophic. So anybody not moving in this direction is gambling with the future of the university.

Most of us agree that sexual assault is a terrible thing and needs to be stamped out. I don't object in the slightest to building improved systems to treat victims better and, hopefully, reduce the incidence of rape and assault. But we have to understand that there is a cost to doing so, and that cost is being imposed on universities - which will mean, ultimately, higher tuition and all the rest of it. Somebody has to pay, and the broader public (through their state legislatures) has long since decided that it isn't going to be the taxpayers. So students are, in essence, being told to fund their own solution to the problem. And there will be a few more highly-paid administrators on every campus for faculty to complain about.


  1. I agree. Except for that bit about the administrators tasked with meeting Title IX mandates being "highly paid." Most Student Conduct administrators and Title IX coordinators (positions which at smaller institutions often overlap) have at least a Masters, many have earned their PhD's. And because of the increased legalism foisted on the system, the JD is becoming either a required or preferred credential. But because these positions are often housed in Student Life (and not the "revenue-generating" departments like Housing, Dining, or Rec Sports), salaries are rather puny compared to administrators in other areas with less exposure to risk.

  2. Point well taken - these positions certainly aren't as highly paid as various VPs, or even as well as similarly-credentialed people in the private sector. By "highly paid" here I meant in the context of perceptions of faculty who complain about "administrative bloat", who sometimes seem to think that anything over $50k per year (or anything that rivals their salaries) is "too much" for "the help".