Yves here. This short post puts some facts around a long-established trend we’ve commented upon from time to time: that the explosion in higher education costs can be attributed almost entirely to adminisphere bloat, both in terms of numbers, and even more important, pay levels. For instance, Robert Samuels, president of UC-AFT, which 4,000 librarians and lecturers in the University of California system. pointed out that .
When I was a kid, top administrators at Harvard were few in number and modestly paid. They were almost entirely older alumni who had made enough money to retire or at least semi-retire. Having a role at Harvard allowed them to have a lot of prestige, stay comfortably cash-flow positive, hang around interesting people, and work a comfortable schedule.
However, the explosion in the number of people receiving MBA degrees (and schools that were formerly seen as second-tier and therefore not having much market value attached to their degrees somehow getting themselves seen as more desirable) has led to them colonizing not-for-profits and running them like businesses in the worst possible way, such as squeezing workers and cutting service levels to increase their pay. One big manifestation at the “better” private schools is the increase in the bad trend that had been underway at schools like Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, and NYU: that of the institution becoming an investment fund with an educational arm attached. One of the many manifestations is that a big justification for lofty administrator compensation is that they do supposedly very valuable fundraising…when those dollars go increasingly into real estate projects like overly glamorous dorms and gyms, and not into schooling.
By Barkley Rosser, Professor of Economics, James Madison University. Originally published at
One of the few good things that appears to have happened in the conference committee on the generally awful impending GOP tax bill is that the hits students were going to take have been eliminated. However, even without that additional burden, college students face costs that are far higher than any other nation and have been rising above inflation rates for decades. While` students in Denmark actually get paid, costs are closing on $70,000 per year at the most expensive US institutions, with public schools having costs rising more rapidly than in the privates over the last decade, as states have cut public support in the wake of the revenue shortfalls that came with the Great Recession. This is not likely to be reversed in many states as favorable views of universities among Republicans have fallen from nearly 60% to about 30% (with little change among Dems, still between 55 and 60%).
I would like to focus on a long-running trend that has been known for some time but somehow keeps disappearing from view. This trend was best presented in the ever more relevant 2011 book by Johns Hopkins poli sci prof, Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters. This rise of an all-powerful professional administration is tied to a corporatization of American academia. From 1975 to 2005 while student populations rose 56%, faculty increased by 51%, administrators rose 85%, and their professional staffs rose 240%. Around 2005 the total numbers of admins and staff surpassed that of faculty, with that trend simply continuing. Admin salaries have risen faster than the other categories. On top of that, even as faculty numbers and salaries have not kept pace, there has also been the weakening of status and pay arising from the ongoing steady shift from tenure track faculty to temporary adjuncts who have risen from 22% of faculty in 1970 to about 50% in 2017.
Ginsberg argues that this rise of administrative bloat has become administrative blight. While admins claim that corporatization brings efficiencies and flexibility, the evidence looks just the opposite with the ridiculous rise of tuition and fees showing the lie to this claim. Some argue that the explosion of admins is a response to expanding government mandates, this can explain only a portion of this. Indeed, Ginsberg documents that admins have increased more at private than at public unis, which looks to be the opposite of what we expect if it were public mandates lying behind this trend.
Rather he poses a “Malthusian” theory whereby admins breed more admins. Deans breed “deanlets” and “deanlings” or as they are more usually known, ass. deans (some associates and their underling assistants). At JMU where I am there were precisely zero of these creatures when I arrived 40 years ago. Now my college alone has three associate deans, and we have had an explosion of colleges, each with their plethoras of deanlets. We now have assistants to deputy vice provosts, whereas back then two of those layers did not exist. As it is, many of these people have too little useful to do for their overblown salaries, so they have lots of meetings, which generate initiatives to formulate strategic plans nobody gives a damn about or follows, but developing these is imperative for unis that are becoming efficient by corporatizing. As it is these deanlets insist on dragging faculty into these horrendously nauseating exercises, even as they make it harder for faculty to teach and do research.
There is much more arising from this trend, but here at the end of this fall semester I think it is worth reminding people of this long building phenomenon, even as so many other matters have gotten lots of media and political attention. This trend is more damaging and probably harder to overcome. After all, when the fiscal crises hit, it is the admins who decide which jobs and salaries will be cut or restrained, not the faculty.
Addendum, 12/17: I shall add a point that Ginsberg makes from his own observation and that I agree with, given how long I have been in and around academia (my late father also having been a professor and even an administrator). in the “good old days” top admins tended to be more senior faculty with r1easonably distinguished records who had been on campus for a long time and knew the people and place. Now we have undistinguished professional managers, especially among tose deanlets and others.