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Administrative Bloat

Administrative Bloat

Among the various critiques of higher education, and particularly of the policies of administrators like me, you can imagine that the phrase “administrative bloat” is my favorite. It’s been tossed around by concerned faculty for quite a while, and now periodically enters into the more contemporary discussions of college costs. In my comments on this I’m not pretending a systematic national study, but rather some observations based mainly on my own experience especially as a provost over now more than a decade.

To my mind the phrase encompasses two issues, and while they’re related I have a somewhat different reaction to each. Issue one is administrative compensation. There is no doubt in my mind that the pay of middle and upper level administrators has risen to unjustifiable heights, compared to faculty salaries. We’ve mirrored the nation, of course, though happily our sins pale before corporate executive levels. But boards of trustees, given national patterns and their own predominantly business backgrounds, have found it quite logical to elevate top executive pay without much regard to worker – that is, faculty – averages, and the trend has spread to many vice presidents and deans. Now, most academic administrators (to my knowledge) work very hard and really do face distinctive stresses and responsibilities. So some gap, beyond the difference between 9- and 12-month assignments, is clearly justified. But we’ve gone too far. (And by the way, we must throw top athletic coaches in this mix as well, where absurdity is compounded.)  Correctives would not necessarily have as much impact on college costs as some critics claim – it would be fun to model this – but at least it would help.

What to do about the issue is another matter. We need to hire top people – in my case, hire top deans. Getting them almost always, now, involves surprisingly high salary demands, for they know what others are paid, what their predecessors were paid, and they argue not only from greed but from a sense that their prestige and clout will depend on competitive compensation levels. It will be really hard to dent this cycle. But at least we can admit we have a problem. We are, at places like Mason, trying to do a bit: when we have salary increments to offer, we watch administrative levels particularly closely and cap the highest salaries at levels lower than faculty averages. This mainly prevents the problem from getting much worse, it does not resolve it.

My views on this aspect of administrative behavior are open to dispute, and I assume that a number of highly valued and talented colleagues will disagree. I also should note the obvious, that I include myself among those paid a bit more than should be the case, in relation to faculty salaries, which has allowed some increases in philanthropy.

The second aspect of administrative bloat is more challenging. It is unquestionably true that at many places, including Mason, the number of administrators has gone up faster than the number of faculty. No question, this can get out of hand. But in my own experience – and I don’t think I’m just being defensive – much of the growth has legitimately responded to needs and opportunities, not to mindless bloat. Some additional administrators help us get additional income – in my case, new staffing in distance learning and in global ventures constitutes cases in point, with additional benefits from new functions as well. Some additional administrators – for example, in aspects of student life involving counseling or in areas of reporting to state and federal authorities – is essentially or literally required by external forces. Some actually respond to faculty demand: we added an associate provost for undergraduate education as an outgrowth of a faculty-led revision of general education, and it has paid off handsomely.

Arguments of this sort can be discussed, and there may be examples when expansion has been more frivolous. But at places like Mason, even with some growth (and we have kept faculty-student ratios pretty healthy even so), we remain fairly lean on the administrative side. I’m not sure bloat, here, is a fair term. And by the way – and this has some implications on the salary side as well – one factor in administrative trends is an often increasing difficulty in finding faculty interested in doing the necessary work.

I do think, obviously, that the overall issue of administrative growth and compensation is fair game for discussion, and not just evasion.