The Fightin’ Administrators: The Birth of a College Bureaucracy

The Fightin’ Administrators: The Birth of a College Bureaucracy

Why you should care

Because sometimes you don’t get what you pay for so much as you pay for what you get.

Smiling 20-somethings conversing on sun-drenched quads, sitting in lecture halls, or cheering their alma mater in a state-of-the-art sports stadium. College brochures can paint quite an idyllic portrait. But there’s one image you’re unlikely to see: the office of an assistant vice provost, or any of the other administrators behind such experiences, not to mention the brochure itself.

As the price of admission to attend college in the U.S. has rocketed 400 percent over the past few decades, so has something else: the number of full-time administrators responsible for orchestrating the college “experience.” And, according to some scholars, if you want to understand why the cost of higher education has risen recently, it’s useful to begin with the birth of big-time college administration.

Just a century ago, the American university operated on a very different scale.

Even just a century ago, the American university operated on a very different scale. Hundreds of colleges had fewer than 300 students, and as of 1917, fewer than 5 percent of Americans age 18 to 20 attended college. Most institutions had limited resources, which meant a lean administration: Presidents served as the primary academic officer, many schools had “catchall” administrators wearing multiple hats, from librarian to registrar, and most administrative duties were carried out by faculty.

Slowly, a managerial revolution began, fueled by a growth in student numbers. Business leaders increasingly replaced clergy on university boards, and college organizations started to resemble their industrial counterparts. Two universities in particular, Chicago and Columbia, pioneered an administrative hierarchy that served as a “blueprint for the modern college bureaucracy,” says John Thelin, a University of Kentucky professor and author of A History of American Higher Education.

During higher education’s post–World War II “golden age,” student numbers exploded, aided by a booming economy and large-scale government funding and loan programs. Throughout that period, however, top administrators were still typically drawn from the faculty, which also handled most midlevel managerial duties. It wasn’t until the 1970s that things began to change, as the U.S. economy faltered and the balance of power on university campuses began to shift.

Tune in Tuesday at 11:30/10:30C for PBS’ new late-night series Point Taken to see OZY co-founder Carlos Watson moderate a spirited debate on whether or not college is worth the price tag.

What happened next, and has been happening since, is what Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, calls “the spread of administrative blight.” In a 40-year period, full-time faculty have gone from outnumbering administrators and staffers 2 to 1 to being outnumbered by them. Since 1975, according to a 2014 report from the American Association of University Professors, full-time administrative positions grew by 369 percent, whereas full-time tenure-track faculty grew by 23 percent and part-time faculty by 286 percent. “Over the past 30 years,” according to Ginsberg’s analysis in The Fall of the Faculty, “administrative and staff growth has outstripped by a considerable margin virtually all other dimensions of the expansion of American higher education.”

Given the explosion of well-paid deans and “deanlets” (Ginsberg’s word for the “phalanxes of vice deans, associate deans and assistant deans”), it’s no wonder, Ginsberg tells OZY, that administrative costs now account for more than a quarter of university spending. If you held that percentage down to what it was 25 years ago, he estimates tuition could be cut by about one-third. What do all of these folks do? A broad range of “make-work activities,” says Ginsberg, who has studied the inner workings of college bureaucracies, from meetings, conferences and retreats to frequent revisions to a university’s strategic plan.

A number of factors have combined to drive such administrative growth, most centered around the changing nature of college itself. Many universities are now billion-dollar operations with enhanced fundraising, lobbying and student services, all of which require many more administrators to run than 40 years ago. “Whenever you had a new problem or a new project” during that period, says Thelin, “you basically added a new office.” This includes the need to respond to a myriad of state and federal compliance obligations. “What most people don’t realize,” says Patricia L. Leonard, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, “is that higher education is one of the most regulated industries there is, behind health care and financial institutions.”

Among those making the biggest demands of colleges are prospective students and their parents, as schools compete to provide the best amenities, from fitness centers to study abroad programs. Indeed, the growth of administrative positions, says Leonard, can be readily explained by “the demands of parents, expectations of students and the regulatory and compliance requirements that have been imposed on higher education.”

Whether or not such growth is justifiable, many consumers of higher education, like cable television customers, find themselves staring at a hefty price tag. Like the elaborate packages assembled by cable operators, colleges have grouped together a variety of goods and services in an indivisible bundle. You may only want ESPN and a bachelor’s degree, but you’re going to have to pay for Lifetime and a campus lazy river too, sometimes with a lifetime of student debt.

And until college rankings measure institutional bloat and excess amenities, or higher education is disrupted by online, on-demand options, it’s hard to imagine much in the way of administrative retrenchment (or lower tuitions). So, if you’re searching for a college and you want to cheer for a perennial powerhouse, then wave your banner for the Fightin’ Administrators. It may not make the brochure, but when it comes to the modern American university, it’s the biggest game in town.

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