Administrators Ate My Tuition

Want to get college costs in line? Start by cutting the overgrown management ranks.

No statistic about higher education commands more attention—and anxiety—among members of the public than the rising price of admission. Since 1980, inflation- adjusted tuition at public universities has tripled; at private universities it has more than doubled. Compared to all other goods and services in the American economy, including medical care, only “cigarettes and other tobacco products” have seen prices rise faster than the cost of going to college. And for all that, parents who sign away ever-larger tuition checks can be forgiven for doubting whether universities are spending those additional funds in ways that make their kids’ educations better—to say nothing of three times better.

Between 1975 and 2005, total spending by American higher educational institutions, stated in constant dollars, tripled, to more than $325 billion per year. Over the same period, the faculty-to-student ratio has remained fairly constant, at approximately fifteen or sixteen students per instructor. One thing that has changed, dramatically, is the administrator-per-student ratio. In 1975, colleges employed one administrator for every eighty-four students and one professional staffer—admissions officers, information technology specialists, and the like—for every fifty students. By 2005, the administrator-to-student ratio had dropped to one administrator for every sixty-eight students while the ratio of professional staffers had dropped to one for every twenty-one students.

Apparently, as colleges and universities have had more money to spend, they have not chosen to spend it on expanding their instructional resources—that is, on paying faculty. They have chosen, instead, to enhance their administrative and staff resources. A comprehensive study published by the Delta Cost Project in 2010 reported that between 1998 and 2008, America’s private colleges increased spending on instruction by 22 percent while increasing spending on administration and staff support by 36 percent. Parents who wonder why college tuition is so high and why it increases so much each year may be less than pleased to learn that their sons and daughters will have an opportunity to interact with more administrators and staffers— but not more professors. Well, you can’t have everything.

Of course, universities have always employed administrators. When I was a graduate student in the 1960s and a young professor in the 1970s, however, top administrators were generally drawn from the faculty, and even midlevel managerial tasks were directed by faculty members. These moonlighting academics typically occupied administrative slots on a part-time or temporary basis and planned in due course to return to full-time teaching and research. Whatever their individual faults and gifts, faculty administrators seldom had to be reminded that the purpose of a university was the promotion of education and research, and their own short-term managerial endeavors tended not to distract them from their long-term academic commitments.

Alas, today’s full-time professional administrators tend to view management as an end in and of itself. Most have no faculty experience, and even those who have spent time in a classroom or laboratory often hope to make administration their life’s work and have no plan to return to teaching. For many of these career managers, promoting teaching and research is less important than expanding their own administrative domains. Under their supervision, the means have become the end.

Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to college and university payrolls, even as schools claim to be battling budget crises that are forcing them to reduce the size of their full-time faculties. As a result, universities are now filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school. If there is any hope of getting higher education costs in line, and improving its quality—and I think there is, though the hour is late—it begins with taking a pair of shears to the overgrown administrative bureaucracy.

Forty years ago, America’s colleges employed more professors than administrators. The efforts of 446,830 professors were supported by 268,952 administrators and staffers. Over the past four decades, though, the number of full-time professors or “full-time equivalents”—that is, slots filled by two or more part-time faculty members whose combined hours equal those of a full-timer—increased slightly more than 50 percent. That percentage is comparable to the growth in student enrollments during the same time period. But the number of administrators and administrative staffers employed by those schools increased by an astonishing 85 percent and 240 percent, respectively.

Today, administrators and staffers safely outnumber full-time faculty members on campus. In 2005, colleges and universities employed more than 675,000 fulltime faculty members or full-time equivalents. In the same year, America’s colleges and universities employed more than 190,000 individuals classified by the federal government as “executive, administrative and managerial employees.” Another 566,405 college and university employees were classified as “other professional.” This category includes IT specialists, counselors, auditors, accountants, admissions officers, development officers, alumni relations officials, human resources staffers, editors and writers for school publications, attorneys, and a slew of others. These “other professionals” are not administrators, but they work for the administration and serve as its arms, legs, eyes, ears, and mouthpieces.

Before they employed an army of professional staffers, administrators were forced to rely on the cooperation of the faculty to carry out tasks ranging from admissions to planning. An administration that lost the confidence of the faculty might find itself unable to function. Today, ranks of staffers form a bulwark of administrative power in the contemporary university. These administrative staffers do not work for or, in many cases, even share information with the faculty. They help make the administration, in the language of political science, “relatively autonomous,” marginalizing the faculty.

While some administrative posts continue to be held by senior professors on a part-time basis, their ranks are gradually dwindling as their jobs are taken over by fulltime managers. College administrations frequently tout the fiscal advantages of using part-time, “adjunct” faculty to teach courses. They fail, however, to apply the same logic to their own ranks. Over the past thirty years, the percentage of faculty members who are hired on a part-time basis has increased so dramatically that today almost half of the nation’s professors work only part-time. And yet the percentage of administrators who are part-time employees has fallen during the same time period.

Administrators are not only well staffed, they are also well paid. Vice presidents at the University of Maryland, for example, earn well over $200,000, and deans earn nearly as much. Both groups saw their salaries increase as much as 50 percent between 1998 and 2003, a period of financial retrenchment and sharp tuition increases at the university. The University of Maryland at College Park—which employs six vice presidents, six associate vice presidents, five assistant vice presidents, six assistants to the president, and six assistants to the vice presidents—has long been noted for its bloated and extortionate bureaucracy, but it actually does not seem to be much of an exception. Administrative salaries are on the rise everywhere in the nation. By 2007, the median salary paid to the president of a doctoral degree-granting institution was $325,000. Eighty-one presidents earned more than $500,000, and twelve earned over $1 million. Presidents, at least, might perform important services for their schools. Somewhat more difficult to explain is the fact that by 2010 even some of the ubiquitous and largely interchangeable deanlets and deanlings earned six-figure salaries.

If you have any remaining doubt about where colleges and universities have been spending their increasing tuition and other revenues, consider this: between 1947 and 1995 (the last year for which the relevant data was published), administrative costs increased from barely 9 percent to nearly 15 percent of college and university budgets. More recent data, though not strictly comparable, follows a similar pattern. During this same time period, stated in constant dollars, overall university spending increased 148 percent. Instructional spending increased only 128 percent, 20 points less than the overall rate of spending increase. Administrative spending, though, increased by a whopping 235 percent.

Three main explanations are often adduced for the sharp growth in the number of university administrators over the past thirty years. One is that there have been new sorts of demands for administrative services that require more managers per student or faculty member than was true in the past. Universities today have an elaborate IT infrastructure, enhanced student services, a more extensive fund-raising and lobbying apparatus, and so on, than was common thirty years ago. Of course, it might also be said that during this same time period, whole new fields of teaching and research opened in such areas as computer science, genetics, chemical biology, and physics. Other new research and teaching fields opened because of ongoing changes in the world economy and international order. And yet, faculty growth between 1975 and 2005 simply kept pace with growth in enrollments and substantially lagged behind administrative and staff growth. When push came to shove, colleges chose to invest in management rather than in teaching and research.

A second common explanation given for the expansion of administration in recent years is the growing need to respond to mandates and record-keeping demands from federal and state governments as well as numerous licensure and accreditation bodies. It is certainly true that large numbers of administrators spend a good deal of time preparing reports and collecting data for these and other agencies. But as burdensome as this paperwork blizzard might be, it is not clear that it explains the growth in administrative personnel that we have observed. Often, affirmative action reporting is cited as the most time consuming of the various governmental mandates. As the economist Barbara Bergmann has pointed out, however, across the nation only a handful of administrators and staffers are employed in this endeavor.

More generally, we would expect that if administrative growth were mainly a response to external mandates, growth should be greater at state schools, which are more exposed to government obligations, than at private institutions, which are freer to manage their own affairs in their own way. Yet, when we examine the data, precisely the opposite seems to be the case. Between 1975 and 2005, the number of administrators and managers employed by public institutions increased by 66 percent. During the same time period, the number of administrators employed by private colleges and universities grew by 135 percent (see Table 4). These numbers seem inconsistent with the idea that external mandates have been the forces driving administrative growth at America’s institutions of higher education.

A third explanation has to do with the conduct of the faculty. Many faculty members, it is often said, regard administrative activities as obnoxious chores and are content to allow these to be undertaken by others. While there is some truth to this, it is certainly not the whole story. Often enough, I have observed that professors who are willing to perform administrative tasks lose interest when they find that the committees, councils, and assemblies through which the faculty nominally acts have lost much if not all their power to administrators.

If growth-driven demand, governmental mandates, and faculty preferences are not sufficient explanations for administrative expansion, an alternative explanation might be found in the nature of university bureaucracies themselves. In particular, administrative growth may be seen primarily as a result of efforts by administrators to aggrandize their own roles in academic life. Students of bureaucracy have frequently observed that administrators have a strong incentive to maximize the power and prestige of whatever office they hold by working to increase its staff and budget. To justify such increases, they often seek to capture functions currently performed by others or invent new functions for themselves that might or might not further the organization’s main mission.

Such behavior is common on today’s campuses. At one school, an inventive group of administrators created the “Committee on Traditions,” whose mission seemed to be the identification and restoration of forgotten university traditions or, failing that, the creation of new traditions. Another group of deans constituted themselves as the “War Zones Task Force.” This group recruited staffers, held many meetings, and prepared a number of reports whose upshot seemed to be that students should be discouraged from traveling to war zones, unless, of course, their home was in a war zone. But perhaps the expansion of university bureaucracies is best illustrated by an ad placed by a Colorado school, which sought a “Coordinator of College Liaisons.” Depending on how you read it, this is either a ridiculous example of bureaucratic layering or an intrusion into an area of student life that hardly requires administrative assistance.

The number of administrators and staffers on university campuses has increased so rapidly in recent years that often there is not enough work to keep all of them busy. To fill their time, administrators engage in a number of make-work activities. This includes endless rounds of meetings, mostly with other administrators, often consisting of reports from and plans for other meetings. For example, at a recent “president’s staff meeting” at an Ohio community college, eleven of the eighteen agenda items discussed by administrators involved plans for future meetings or discussions of other recently held meetings. At a gathering of the “Process Management Steering Committee” of a Midwestern community college, virtually the entire meeting was devoted to planning subsequent meetings by process management teams, including the “search committee training team,” the “faculty advising and mentoring team,” and the “culture team,” which was said to be meeting with “renewed energy.” The culture team was apparently also close to making a recommendation on the composition of a “Culture Committee.” Since culture is a notoriously abstruse issue, this committee may need to meet for years, if not decades, to unravel its complexities.

When they face particularly challenging problems, academic administrators sometimes find that ordinary meetings in campus offices do not allow them the freedom from distraction they require. To allow them to focus fully and without interruption, administrators sometimes find it necessary to schedule off-campus administrative retreats where they can work without fear that the day-to-day concerns of the campus will disturb their deliberations. Sometimes these retreats include athletic and role-playing activities that are supposed to help improve the staff’s spirit of camaraderie and ability to function as a team. For example, at a 2007 professional development retreat, Michigan Tech staffers broke into teams and spent several hours building furniture from pieces of cardboard and duct tape. Many staff retreats also include presentations by professional speakers who appear to specialize in psychobabble. Topics at recent retreats included “Do You Want to Succeed?” “Reflective Resensitizing,” and “Waking Up the Inner World.” In all likelihood, the administrators and staffers privileged to attend these important talks spent the next several weeks reporting on them at meetings with colleagues who had been deprived of the opportunity to learn firsthand how to make certain that their inner worlds remained on alert.

Administrative budgets frequently include travel funds, on the theory that conference participation will hone administrators’ skills and provide them with new information and ideas that will ultimately serve their school’s interests. We can be absolutely certain that this would be the only reason administrators would even consider dragging themselves to Maui during the winter for a series of workshops sponsored by the North American Association of Summer Sessions. Given the expense and hardship usually occasioned by travel to Hawaii, it is entirely appropriate for colleges to foot this sort of bill.

Another ubiquitous make-work exercise is the formation of a “strategic plan.” Until recent years, colleges engaged in little formal planning. Today, however, virtually every college and university in the nation has an elaborate strategic plan. This is typically a lengthy document— some are 100 pages long or more—that purports to articulate the school’s mission, its leadership’s vision of the future, and the various steps that are needed to achieve the school’s goals. The typical plan takes six months to two years to write and requires countless hours of work from senior administrators and their staffs.

A plan that was really designed to guide an organization’s efforts to achieve future objectives, as it might be promulgated by a corporation or a military agency, would typically present concrete objectives, a timetable for their realization, an outline of the tactics that will be employed, a precise assignment of staff responsibilities, and a budget. Some university plans approach this model. Most, however, are simply expanded “vision statements” that are often forgotten soon after they are promulgated. My university has presented two systemwide strategic plans and one arts and sciences strategic plan in the last fifteen years. No one can remember much about any of these plans, but another one is currently in the works. The plan is not a blueprint for the future. It is, instead, a management tool for the present. The ubiquity of planning at America’s colleges and universities is another reflection and reinforcement of the ongoing growth of administrative power.

There is, to be sure, one realm in which administrators as a class have proven extraordinarily adept. This is the general domain of fund-raising. Even during the depths of the recession in 2009, schools were able to raise money. On the one hand, the donors who give selflessly to their schools deserve to be commended for their beneficence. At the same time, it should still be noted that, as is so often the case in the not-for-profit world, university administrators appropriate much of this money to support—what else?—more administration.

The stress on fund-raising has enabled more than a few university presidents to acquire luxurious offices, lavish residences, and an assortment of perks in addition to princely salaries. Some enjoy the services of a chauffeur when they commute to work and a household staff when they entertain or even relax at home. These and many other perquisites are usually defended by administrators as needed to carry out their social duties and, particularly, to impress their schools’ wealthy benefactors. Yet no study has ever proved that presidents who arrive at fundraising events in chauffeur-driven limousines are more likely to succeed in their capital campaign goals or in any other endeavor than their counterparts who drive their own cars or come by taxi or, for that matter, by subway. I have personally known university presidents who were outstanding fund-raisers but, nevertheless, lived frugally and always traveled as cheaply as possible. Among college officials, though, the spendthrifts seem to outnumber the penny pinchers.

College presidents are usually the guiltiest parties, since they are in the best position to authorize expenditures, and many are more than happy to use school funds to burnish their own images. One recent case in point is that of Benjamin Ladner, the former president of American University in Washington, D.C. Soon after arriving on the campus in 1994, Ladner and his wife, who dubbed herself AU’s “first lady,” declared that the president’s official residence was inadequate and had the university build an expensive new house, which included a waterfall and pond behind the patio, a few blocks from the campus. They outfitted the house with expensive furnishings, china, and stemware. At university expense, the Ladners employed a chauffeur, a cook, a social secretary, and numerous other personal staff members. They hosted gala events to which they invited prominent Washington figures. They traveled abroad frequently, generally charging their first-class tickets to the university.

Matters came to a head in March 2005, when an anonymous whistleblower wrote to the board of trustees accusing the Ladners of “severe expense account violations.” An extensive audit subsequently revealed hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable spending, some personal but most associated with President Ladner’s frenetic image-polishing efforts. Over the previous several years, the Ladners had charged the university for $6,000 in club dues, $54,000 in drivers’ costs, $220,000 in chefs’ services, $44,000 for alcohol, and $100,000 in services from their social secretary.

After months of bruising battles within the AU board, Ladner’s contract was terminated—though he and the first lady received a generous severance package. While Ladner mingled with the rich and famous at the school’s expense, faculty members had to settle for miserly annual salary increases and students saw their tuitions rise markedly every year.

The expansion of college and university administration has not been coupled with the development of adequate mechanisms of oversight and supervision, particularly for senior managers. University boards, which technically oversee the administrations, are generally not well prepared for the task. One recent study found that 40 percent of university trustees said they were not prepared for the job and 42 percent indicated that they spent less than five hours a month on board business. Many trustees serve because of loyalty to their school and say they have “faith” in its administration. They do not go out of their way to look for problems, and administrators are generally able to satisfy trustees with the rosy pictures of college life presented at weekend board meetings.

Moreover, university boards do not have the same legal responsibilities borne by corporate boards. Most federal regulations establishing management standards for private-sector firms, such as the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, do not apply to nonprofit entities, and state regulation of university administration is spotty. At the same time, while schools have developed many internal rules and standards applying to the conduct of faculty members and students, few if any have established standards governing administrative conduct or established oversight mechanisms. For the most part, senior administrators police themselves.

The result of this lack of supervision is that a number of college and university administrators have, in recent years, succumbed to the temptation to engage in corrupt practices. In 2008, for example, the director of Tufts University’s Office of Student Activities, Josephine Nealley, was indicted on three counts of larceny for embezzling more than $300,000 in student activities funds. She allegedly transferred the money to her personal bank accounts and used it for purchases and trips. While acting on an anonymous tip regarding Nealley’s activities, university auditors uncovered a second, apparently unrelated case of embezzlement. Raymond Rodriguez, a budget officer, allegedly stole more than $600,000 from the university, which he spent on trips and luxury goods. Rodriguez was indicted on two counts of larceny for his alleged thefts. Both Nealley and Rodriguez entered guilty pleas and were sentenced to prison terms.

In a similar vein, the president of the University of Tennessee was forced to resign when an audit revealed that he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in university funds on personal trips, entertainment, and purchases. The president’s travel at university expense allegedly included trips to Birmingham, Alabama, where he was said to have a “personal involvement” with the president of another school.

Often, frauds go unnoticed for years because the perpetrators are the accountants and financial officers responsible for fiscal oversight. When fraudulent conduct is discovered, university officials often prefer to allow the perpetrators to resign or retire quietly rather than risk a public brouhaha that might upset donors and lead to questions about the quality of the school’s leadership. Many professors can point to cases at their own school when crooked administrators were allowed to leave quietly, sometimes even without being compelled to make restitution for their offenses.

When fraud is exposed and restitution demanded, the sums can be considerable. In January 2008, Roy Johnson, chancellor of Alabama’s community college system, pled guilty to bribery and was required to forfeit the $18 million he admitted receiving in direct and indirect benefits from companies doing business with the colleges he oversaw. As the U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case observed, “Taxpayers must wonder how many more Alabama students could have been educated had money not been wasted on fraud.”

The priorities of the hyper-administrative university emerge most clearly during times of economic crisis, when managers are forced to make choices among spending options. Thanks to the sharp economic downturn that followed America’s 2008 financial crisis, almost every institution, even Harvard, America’s wealthiest school, has been compelled to make substantial cuts in its expenditures. What cuts did university administrations choose to make during these hard times?

A tiny number of schools took the opportunity to confront years of administrative and staff bloat and moved to cut costs by shedding unneeded administrators and their brigades of staffers. The most notable example is the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, which in February 2009 addressed a $100 million budget deficit by eliminating fifteen “leadership positions,” along with 450 staff jobs, among other cuts. The dean also emphasized that faculty would not be affected by the planned budget cuts. Chicago’s message was clear: administrators and staffers were less important than teaching, research, and—since this involved a medical school—patient care; if the budget had to be cut, it would be done by thinning the school’s administrative ranks, not by reducing its core efforts.

Unfortunately, few if any other colleges and universities copied the Chicago model. Facing budgetary problems, many schools eliminated academic programs and announced across-the-board salary and hiring freezes, which meant that vacant staff and faculty positions, including the positions of many adjunct professors, would remain unfilled until the severity of the crisis eased.

Perverse administrative priorities were even more in evidence at a number of schools that actually raised administrative salaries or opted to spend more money on administrative services while cutting expenditures on teaching and research in the face of budget deficits. For example, in January 2009, facing $19 million in budget cuts and a hiring freeze, Florida Atlantic University awarded raises of 10 percent or more to top administrators, including the school’s president. In a similar vein, in February 2009, the president of the University of Vermont defended the bonuses paid to the school’s twenty-one top administrators against the backdrop of layoffs, job freezes, and program cuts at the university. The university president, Daniel Fogel, asserted that administrative bonuses were based on the principles of “extra pay for extra duties” and “pay for performance.” The president rejected a faculty member’s assertion that paying bonuses to administrators when the school faced an enormous budget deficit seemed similar to the sort of greed recently manifested by the corporate executives who paid themselves bonuses with government bailout money. Fogel said he shared the outrage of those upset at corporate greed, but maintained there was a “world of difference” between the UVM administrative bonuses and bonuses paid to corporate executives. He did not specify what that world might be.

In the meantime the president of Washington State University, Elson Floyd, accepted a $125,000 pay raise, bringing his 2009 salary to $725,000 per year, soon after announcing that financial circumstances required the school to freeze hiring. At another university that had just announced a large budget deficit and mandated salary and hiring freezes, the outgoing president was feted by the board of trustees at a gala 350-person dinner, to which trustees, senior administrators, alumni, donors, and other notables—but no students or faculty—were invited. The dinner, which might as well have been held on the promenade deck of the Titanic, featured musical performances, videos, and a lounge area with hundreds of Chinese newspapers and a tea set to recognize the president’s many trips to China. (No wonder university spending was frozen.) Later, this same university placed restrictions on the use of copy paper by graduate students. Maybe the Chinese newspapers should have been recycled.

On any given campus, the only institution with the actual power to halt the onward march of the all-administrative university is the board of trustees or regents— which, as we’ve seen, tend to be unprepared or disinclined to make waves. But they need to do so if their institutions are to be saved from sinking into the expanding swamp of administrative mediocrity.

To begin with, trustees interested in trimming administrative fat should compare their own school’s ratio of managers and staffers per hundred students to the national mean, which is currently an already inflated nine for private schools and eight for public colleges. If the national mean is nine administrators per hundred students at private colleges, why does Vanderbilt need sixty-four? Why does Rochester need forty and Johns Hopkins thirty-one? Management-minded administrators claim to believe in benchmarking, so they should not object to being benchmarked in this way.

The right kind of media coverage would embolden boards to ask the right questions. In particular, the various publications that rate and rank colleges—U.S. News is the most influential—should take account of administrative bloat in their ratings. After all, a high administrator-to-student ratio means that the school is diverting funds from academic programs to support an overgrown bureaucracy. I am certain that if Vanderbilt or Duke or Hopkins or Rochester or Emory or any of the other most administratively top-heavy schools lost a few notches in the U.S. News rankings because of their particularly egregious administrative bloat, their boards would be forced to act.

But given the general fattening of administrative ranks in recent years, even schools with average administrator-to-student ratios could stand to see major cuts in their administrative staffs and budgets. This could help not only to fill budget holes but, more importantly, to begin a healthy shift in the balance of bureaucratic power within universities. A 10 percent cut in the staff and management ranks would save millions of dollars but would have no effect whatsoever on the operations of most campuses. The deanlets would never be missed; their absence from campus would go unnoticed. A 20 percent or larger cut would begin to be noticed and would have the beneficial effect of substantially reducing administrative power and the ongoing diversion of scarce funds into unproductive channels.

With fewer deanlets to command, senior administrators would be compelled to turn once again to the faculty for administrative support. Such a change would result in better programs and less unchecked power for presidents and provosts. Faculty who work part-time or for part of their careers as administrators tend to ask questions, use judgment, and interfere with arbitrary presidential and provostial decision making. Senior full-time administrators might resent the interference, but the university would benefit from the result. Moreover, with fewer administrators to pay and send to conferences and retreats, more resources might be available for educational programs and student support, the actual items for which parents, donors, and funding agencies think they are paying.

Benjamin Ginsberg

Benjamin Ginsberg is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. This article is adapted with permission from The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, by Benjamin Ginsberg, published by Oxford University Press, 2011.