Friday, August 27, 2010

Administrative Bloat? At the University of Minnesota?
Could It Be?

From Critical Mass:

The admins are the enemy...

August 25, 2010, 8:12 am

George Mason law professor Todd Zywicki is a strong critic of the higher ed status quo, and has some skin in the game when it comes to rethinking governance models–several years ago he ran for the Dartmouth board of trustees as a dark horse alumni petition candidate, and he won.

The election was much discussed in the higher ed press, and was an important part of a larger power struggle at Dartmouth about who should have a say in how the college is run, and whether entrenched inside interests should carry the day. So he’s a governance reformer, if you will, with an eye to returning our colleges and universities to a form that compels them to focus on their educational missions and their obligation to serve not themselvesbut the public good.

A new study has just come out about the mammoth administrative bloat that we’ve seen in higher ed in recent years. It points out, among other things, that from 1993 to 2007, hiring and spending on university admins increased at twice the rate of hiring and spending on faculty. Zywicki notes that this fact has major implications for how we think about higher ed reform, and for how we assign responsibility for the problems we are seeing now:

Many observers believe that the problem with higher education is that universities are basically run by its employees–the faculty–and that the faculty’s interests are not aligned with those of the students who they serve. But what [Jay] Greene’s report hints at is a larger trend at work–more and more universities are run by their bureaucrats, not the faculty, and the incentives of bureaucrats are even more poorly aligned with student interests than the faculty. University organization is so screwy these days, that even though faculty incentives are so poor, governance would probably be improved (at least in the short run) by empowering the faculty against administrators.

That’s a serious claim–the faculty have, as he notes, tended to be the focal point of much of the criticism that has been leveled against colleges and universities for their failure to fulfill their education missions as well as for their failure to maintain the system of peer review with integrity. I’m still thinking that latter is on the faculty–but the former is certainly more complicated.

Zywicki offers some thoughts on where all the money for the bloat came from, and speculates about how we might go about getting unbloated:

Jay focuses on the role of government subsidies in feeding the bloat of academic bureaucracy. That seems plausible to me. The other factor that strikes me as perhaps relevant is that during most of that period university endowments grew at record rates. This essentially gave university presidents and their minions a huge slush fund to play with without actually having to raise new funds from alumni. This created a growth in agency costs for senior university administrators. Finally, this allowed universities to continue giving raises to faculty while expanding the bureaucracy even more. Thus, the growth in bureaucratic spending was not coming out of a zero-sum pot, so that faculty were not monitoring the growth in the bureaucracy as much.

Finally, I suspect this might also reflect the developing model of university president as CEO. As university presidents have come to be more like CEO’s of universities, their entourages have grown as well. Universities have come to take the look of a top-heavy bloated corporation like General Motors, with Vice-Presidents layered one atop the other. In a world of lax budget constraints owing to flush endowments, it is easier to fritter away resources on unproductive bureaucrats and internal empire-building.

The acid test, of course, will be whether the financial downturn will lead to the scaling back of these bureaucratic empires. Ironically, it appears that one of the Obama Administration’s priorities is to funnel more money into higher education–which will reinforce exactly the sorts of pressures that Greene highlights. Higher education almost perfectly converts subsidies (whether direct or aid to students) into higher prices. With no real reason to expect that those subsidies will be used to promote better substantive outputs instead of internal agency costs.

More generally, I think that for some time academic reformers have focused on issues like tenure and other elements of faculty governance in thinking about reforming higher ed. But this growth of administrative bloat is a whole new issue and one that might prove more difficult.

“Might prove more difficult” is an understatement. It’s already demonstrably true that at many schools feeling a pinch, it’s not administrative salaries or positions that are being cut, but faculty ones. I’m reminded of Jonathan Rauch’s devastating book about how, once you create a special-interest bureaucracy, you can never get rid of it, Government’s End.


Sadly, many of the statements made above are very applicable here at the University of Minnesota.


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