Are Bloated Bureaucracies Undermining Higher Education?

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From 1975 to 2005, the cost of attending public universities in the U.S. tripled. Benjamin Ginsberg argues that much of the increased cost can be attributed to administrative bloat.

Since the 1970s, Ginsberg notes, the number of administrative staffers has risen  by 235 percent, while the number of faculty and students has increased by only about 50 percent.

Some administrators do so little that they "could be kidnapped by space aliens and it would be weeks or even months before his or her absence from campus was noticed," Ginsberg writes.

He also says the increase in administrators is taking universities away from their fundamental academic purpose, and doing students a disservice.

Book Excerpt: "The Fall Of The Faculty"

By Benjamin Ginsberg

College students generally view professors as individuals who exercise a good deal of power. Members of the faculty, after all, direct the lectures, labs, studios and discussions around which academic life is organized. Professors also control the grades and recommendations that help to determine students’ graduate school and career prospects.

Students are often aware, too, that some of their professors are movers and shakers beyond the walls of the campus. Academics are visible in the worlds of science, literature, the arts, finance and, especially, politics where they serve as analysts, commentators, advisors and high-level policy makers.

But, whatever standing they may have in the eyes of undergraduates or even in the corridors of national power, most professors possess surprisingly little influence in their own schools’ decision-making processes. At most, though perhaps not all of America’s thousands of colleges and universities, the faculty has been shunted to the sidelines. Faculty members will learn about major new programs and initiatives from official announcements or from the campus newspaper. Power on campus is wielded mainly by administrators whose names and faces are seldom even recognized by students or recalled by alumni.

At most schools to be sure, faculty members control the content of their own classes and, for the most part, their own research agendas. The faculty, collectively, plays a recognized though not exclusive role in the hiring and promotion of its members. Outside these two areas, though, administrators seldom bother to consult the faculty. And, should faculty members have the temerity to offer unsolicited views, these will be more or less politely ignored. Thus, there are few schools whose faculty members have a voice in business or investment decisions. Hardly any faculties are consulted about the renovation or construction of buildings and other aspects of the school’s physical plant. Virtually everywhere, student issues, including the size of the student body, tuition, financial aid and admissions policies are controlled by administrators. At most schools, fund raising and alumni relations are administrative matters, though faculty members are often asked to entertain alumni gatherings by giving talks and presentations.

Most professors, perhaps, have only a passing interest in the university’s physical plant or its investment strategies. Particularly at research universities many faculty members normally pay little attention to their school’s undergraduate admissions policies. But, professors lack much power even in areas in which they have a strong interest, such as the appointment of senior administrators, the development of new programs and curricula, and the definition of budgetary priorities.

As to appointments, on most campuses, presidential searches are controlled by the trustees or regents, while provosts, deans and other senior administrators are appointed by the president with varying degrees of faculty input. Professors, to be sure, often do serve on administrative or presidential search committees, alongside administrators, students and college staffers. These searches, however, are usually organized and overseen by corporate search firms employed by trustees, in the case of presidential searches, or the school’s administration for other searches. Before the 1960s, such firms were seldom retained by universities. Today, however, as college administrators imitate the practices of their corporate counterparts, search firms are a fixture of academic life. In recent years, two-thirds of the presidential searches conducted by large universities have been directed by professional head hunters.

In consultation with their employers, these firms identify most of the candidates whom the committee will be able to meet and consider. Generally speaking, search firms rule out candidates about whom anything at all negative is said when they investigate candidates’ backgrounds. This practice introduces a marked bias in favor of the most boring and conventional candidates. And, even the constrained choice given the committee is seldom final. Search committees are generally empowered only to recommend two or three candidates for review by the president or trustees who actually make the final decision. Many schools, of course, do not bother with even the pretense of faculty participation in administrative searches. The faculty learns the name of a new president or provost when the trustees issue a press release.

Once appointed, presidents serve at the pleasure of the trustees and can only be removed by them. Other administrators serve at the pleasure of the president. Every school employs a great many administrators whom the faculty regard as foolish or incompetent. But, so long as these individuals retain the support of their administrative superiors, the faculty is usually powerless to remove them. At one school, Pennsylvania’s Albright College, the faculty were dismayed to learn in 1999 that the resume’ of their newly appointed president was filled with fraudulent claims–books never published, positions never held and so on. Yet, while the facts of the matter could not be disputed, most trustees continued to support the president for nearly five years before he finally agreed to step down. Much of the Boston University faculty loathed and feared dictatorial President John Silber during his twenty-five years in office but, given Silber’s solid base of support among powerful members of the board of trustees, faculty opposition came to naught. In a similar vein, the trustees stood by the president of West Virginia University in the face of a faculty no-confidence vote when it was revealed that the university had awarded the daughter of the state’s governor an MBA degree she had not actually earned. Conversely, faculty support will certainly not protect an administrator’s job if she or he runs afoul of the Board. In 2005, for example, Cornell’s Jeffrey Lehman, a president whose work was generally approved by the faculty, was summarily fired by the Board, apparently in the wake of a personnel dispute. The Board neither consulted with nor informed the faculty before determining that Lehman should go.

Occasionally, to be sure, just as riots and disturbances in a third world country can bring about the regime’s downfall, severe faculty unrest may bring about the sudden ouster of an unpopular or inept administrator. In 2006, for example, vehement faculty protest forced the resignation of Harvard’s Larry Summers and Case Western’s Edward Hundert. Yet, not unlike third world peasants, disgruntled professors are seldom able to convert their brief paroxysm of rage into any form of sustained influence. In the university as in the third world, after the jubilant celebrations marking the ouster of the hated old regime end, an imperious new leadership cadre arrives to grasp the reins of power. Confined to an occasional uprising, the faculty exercises little more power over administrative tenure than the students, another campus group that can occasionally overthrow a college president but almost never governs. Thus, in 2006, apparently a difficult year for college leaders, several weeks of protests by Gallaudet College students forced the resignation of president-elect Jane Fernandez. At last report, however, students were not running the college. As often as not, faculty protests have little effect. Thus, for example, at New York’s New School for Social Research, several years of faculty rebellion, including a 271 to 8 vote of no confidence in December, 2008, did not result in the ouster of despised president, Bob Kerrey.

The views of the faculty play a similarly limited role when it comes to new programs and spending priorities. For example, in 1998, faculty at the University of Texas at Austin were surprised to learn that the university administration had decided to spend nearly $200 million to expand the school’s athletic facilities. This plan included renovation of the football stadium as well as construction of an air conditioned practice field, a new track-and-field stadium and a new athletic center. Not only did this involve a diversion of funds from other potential uses, but it would come at the expense of badly needed classroom and laboratory space. The faculty’s objections were ignored.

In a similar vein, early in 2005, Florida State University professors were startled to learn from press accounts that their school’s administration planned to build a school of chiropractic medicine on the Tallahassee campus. Indeed, before the faculty had even read about the idea, the university’s president had already hired an administrator to oversee planning for the new school and advertised for a dean to direct its programs. University administrators boasted that theirs would be the first chiropractic school formally affiliated with an American university, making FSU the nation’s leader in this realm. Administrators apparently were not bothered by the fact that chiropractic theories, claims and therapies, beyond simple massage, are universally dismissed by the medical and scientific communities as having no scientific basis. In essence, FSU administrators aspired to a lead role in the promotion of quackery. Fortunately, the state legislature cut off funds for the chiropractic school before the administration’s visionary plans could be implemented.

In 2008, Virginia Commonwealth University faculty were astonished to discover that their administration had signed a secret agreement with the Philip Morris tobacco company which prohibited professors from publishing or even discussing the results of their research without the company’s permission. Under the agreement, queries from third parties, such as news organizations, were to be directed to the company and university officials were to decline to comment. The school’s vice president for research asserted that the contract, which violated the university’s own rules, struck a reasonable balance between the university’s need for openness and Philip Morris’s need for confidentiality.

At my own university, a 2006 press release informed the faculty that the school’s administration had decided to establish a graduate school of business and would soon begin a search for a dean. The announcement came as a complete surprise to the faculty. Even professors in such fields as Economics, who would be expected to contribute to the new school’s efforts, were not consulted about or even informed of the plan before it was made public. Most faculty members were dubious about the administration’s objectives, particularly when it became evident that fund raising for the business school, which would require tens of millions of dollars from the university, would take precedence over other, more pressing, development priorities. Oblivious to faculty concerns, the school’s former president and former provost blithely declared that they hoped professors would direct graduating seniors with business interests to the new and even now unaccredited school.

Particularly aggressive administrators are prepared to confront and silence faculty resistance to their plans to establish new programs or reorganize old ones. One favorite administrative tactic is the claim that some fiscal or other emergency requires them to act with lightning speed–and without consulting the faculty–to save the university. For example, in 1999, the president of the University of Dubuque informed the faculty that because of a financial shortfall, the administration was eliminating or consolidating more than half the school’s majors and programs. For the most part, liberal arts programs were to be cut in favor of the business curriculum favored by the administration and the school’s trustees. No faculty were consulted before the president made his announcement nor was evidence of the supposed financial crisis presented to the faculty.

More recently, in the wake of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, administrators at several New Orleans schools declared states of emergency. These administrators asserted, with some legal justification, that in times of emergency they possessed the power to reorganize programs, drastically change the college curriculum, eliminate course offerings and, indeed, close entire departments without consulting the faculty. At Loyola University of New Orleans, according to a report commissioned by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), President Kevin Wildes surprised the faculty by releasing a document entitled “Pathways Toward Our Second Century,” which presented a blueprint for a complete reorganization of the university, including the elimination of several programs, consolidation of others and the suspension of eleven degree programs. The president conceded that his administration had begun work on “Pathways” before the hurricane. Katrina, though, “may have forced us to accomplish this undertaking much earlier than expected.” In other words, the hurricane provided the administration with an opportunity to bring about a complete reorganization of the school’s teaching and research programs without faculty involvement.

Similarly, under the cover of a declaration of fiscal exigency, Tulane’s president, Scott Cowen, proffered a “Plan for Renewal,” that included reorganization or elimination of academic programs and major changes in the curriculum. Some faculty members charged that the plan was an opportunistic effort to implement proposals that had been presented to the faculty and defeated before Katrina. Tulane’s administration rejected this interpretation of events, but President Cowen conceded that the hurricane had allowed him to take “bold” actions that could not have succeeded under normal circumstances. “Out of every disaster comes an opportunity,” Cowen said. As we shall see below, the financial crisis of 2009 gave administrators new opportunities to take bold actions.

Even in matters of curriculum planning, an area usually seen as the province of the faculty, some college administrators and trustees have been encroaching on professorial power. In 1999, for example, faculty at the State University of New York (SUNY) charged that the system’s trustees were mandating a new system-wide general education curriculum without so much as consulting the SUNY faculty.  In 2005, Delaware State University administrators relieved the faculty of the burden of curriculum planning when they informed professors that the university would be developing a new degree program without any faculty involvement at all. The university had contracted with a New York company called “” which would design and staff a new online Delaware State Master’s degree program in graphic arts and Web design. The school’s administration dismissed faculty objections to its curricular outsourcing plan.

In many instances, when they declare the need to reform the undergraduate curriculum, administrators have no actual interest in the curriculum’s content. Their real goal is to reduce the centrality of the traditional curriculum and to partially supplant it with what might be called a “student life” curriculum consisting of activities, seminars and even courses led by administrative staff rather than faculty. The traditional curriculum gives the faculty a privileged claim on university resources and decision-making priorities while the new curriculum enhances the power of administrators and justifies hiring more administrators and fewer faculty. Administrators usually seek to justify their school’s shift in emphasis by explaining that a good deal of learning takes place outside the classroom or involves subjects beyond the realm of the faculty’s traditional sphere of competence.

A former assistant dean–or perhaps deanlet or deanling might be a better title--at my university explained that students need to learn more than academic skills.12 They also must be taught, “the universal life skills that everyone needs to know.” And what might be an example of one of these all-important proficiencies? According to this deanling, a premier example is event planning. “For many students, the biggest event they’ve ever planned is a dinner at home.” But, planning an event on campus might require, “reserving the room, notifying Security, arranging transportation and lodging for out-of-town speakers, ordering food.” Armed with training in a subject as important and intellectually challenging as event planning, students would hardly need to know anything about physics or calculus or literature or any of those other inconsequential topics taught by the stodgy faculty.

An instrument often used by administrators to gain control over the curriculum is the study commission. Many universities, in recent years, have established commissions or committees to study the undergraduate curriculum and make recommendations for reform. Though the precise reasons for reform may not be clear, Americans generally believe that reform is a good thing and find it difficult to deny the desirability of considering reform proposals. Thus, even when the faculty is dubious about the need for such a commission, it is hard pressed to argue against its creation. At some schools, Berkeley, Chicago, Harvard and Stanford for example, professors were able to gain control of reform committees, asserting plausibly that they knew more about curricular needs than other groups on campus. More often, though, the makeup of the committee is designed to dilute or diminish faculty influence and the committee’s subsequent recommendations are often designed to create new budgetary priorities that will enhance administrators’ power and prerogatives.

One example of this phenomenon is the Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE) established by my university in 2002. This commission, whose announced goal was to improve the quality of undergraduate education, seemed to be modeled after similar commissions that had been established at Berkeley and Stanford. This sort of “borrowing” is common in administrative circles, where original ideas are usually in short supply. Administrators often hide their mimicry under the rubric of adherence to “best practices.” They can seldom offer any real evidence that the practice in question is even good, much less best. The Hopkins president who launched the committee had once been a Stanford faculty member, while the Hopkins provost, formerly a Berkeley professor, had actually served on Berkeley’s undergraduate education commission. Perhaps it was only natural that they should copy concepts from campuses with which they were familiar. While Hopkins borrowed the name CUE from its sister schools, the Hopkins commission functioned quite differently from its namesakes. At Berkeley and Stanford faculty members had seized control of their undergraduate commissions and had largely beaten back administrative incursions into curricular matters. Hopkins’ faculty, however, was caught off guard and watched as the committee became an administrative tool.

Administrative designs were evident from the outset when the president charged the commission with the task of improving undergraduate education, “ both inside and outside the classroom.” The phrase outside the classroom usually signals an effort by administrators to shift budgetary priorities from teaching, which the faculty controls, to other activities where, as noted above, faculty claims of expertise are weaker and administrators have an opportunity to expand their own bureaucratic domains. The role the administration expected the committee to play became even more clear when its make-up was announced. At Berkeley and Stanford most CUE members had been drawn from the faculty. At Hopkins, though, only eight of the forty individuals named to the commission were full-time professors. Twelve were administrators and staffers, and the remainder were students and alumni. Of the eight faculty commissioners, two were untenured and, thus, concerned not to make waves, and some of the others were individuals frequently appointed to university committees because they could be trusted by the administration to refrain from making trouble.

Named to chair Hopkins’ CUE was a freshly-appointed Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, a former medical school professor who had little or no experience with undergraduate education. This lack of acquaintance on the part of its chair with the subject of the commission’s inquiry would presumably be no hindrance to its efforts to improve education outside the classroom. Before the commission could complete its work, this worthy left the university to become the provost of a small college. The inaugural chair was soon replaced by a new Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, also an individual with no experience inside the classroom.

For at least some of the faculty committee members, service was a mind-numbing experience. On many occasions the CUE chair scheduled presentations by counselors and consultants–presumably experts in education outside the classroom--who led the commissioners in incomprehensible role-playing exercises. One professor told me that he thought he had been transported to an alternative universe whose official language was psychobabble. Administrators on the commission, though, were reported to enjoy their work. Like their bureaucratic counterparts everywhere they welcomed time out of the office, particularly if lunch was provided.

CUE submitted its report in 2003. Only a handful of the report’s recommendations actually focused on undergraduate education, the committee’s nominal topic. For the most part, these recommendations took the form of vague and platitudinous exhortations. Recommendation 5, for example, declared that the university should, “Expand the opportunities available to first-year students for intellectually engaging academic experiences in a small group format.” Presumably, implementation of this bold proposal would require overcoming fierce opposition from the many groups on campus committed to blocking student exposure to intellectually engaging experiences. Other recommendations were trivial. Number 12, for example, called upon professors to, “give final examinations only during the final examination period.” This would end the common practice of offering exams on the last day of class, a custom that had undoubtedly diminished the quality of American higher education for more than a century. Equally bold was Recommendation 33, which prodded the university to, “improve food quality and service.”

If CUE had little to offer on the topic of undergraduate education inside the classroom, it had much to say about what should happen outside the classroom. Recommendation 1 called upon each college within the university to appoint a “senior level administrator” to assure the quality of undergraduate education. Recommendation 12 affirmed the need for a new administrator to, “develop networking and internship opportunities for undergraduates.” Recommendation 26 demanded that more minority administrators be hired. Other recommendations called for expansion of administrative supervision of most aspects of campus life.

One might have thought that improving undergraduate education would begin by enlarging the faculty to allow a larger number and greater variety of courses. Perhaps, the committee might have considered changes in the undergraduate curriculum to address emerging fields in the sciences or new concepts in the humanities. But, apparently the idea that at least the first steps in improving undergraduate education should have something to do with faculty and courses is an old fashioned and overly professorial perspective. Created and led by administrators, the commission found that the undergraduate experience could be most effectively improved if the university hired more administrators! Several years later, many committee recommendations, including those pertaining to the quality of student life, had not been fulfilled, according to the school’s student newspaper. Those proposals calling for the appointment of more administrators, however, had been quickly implemented.

Reprinted with permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright 2011


This segment aired on November 2, 2011.


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