‘Chronicle’ Highlights Study of Administrative Bloat at Nation’s Universities

By August 20, 2010

This week, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a study released by the nonprofit Goldwater Institute regarding the continued rise in the number of administrators at our nation’s colleges and universities. The Chronicle highlights perhaps the most jarring finding from the study: between 1993 and 2007, the number of administrators for every 100 college students increased by 39 percent, while the number of professors and researchers for every 100 students rose by a comparatively small 18 percent during the same period.

This is a rather dismaying statistic, and it is just the latest manifestation of a trend that FIRE has been decrying for some time now. Universities across the country have in recent decades employed a vast bureaucracy of administrators to patrol their campuses, and they continue to do so today in alarming proportions. The result is that university administrations over-regulate students’ lives, often to absurd levels. It’s no secret that these administrators need to justify their often-inflated salaries somehowand, all too typically, at the expense of the individual rights and liberties of students. Rather than make better use of their budgets to enhance students’ educational experiences, offer more and better courses, and otherwise bolster the curriculum, too many schools have chosen to bureaucratize their institutions, and the Goldwater Institute study reveals this trend once again.

When I speak of the bureaucratization of the modern American university, I am borrowing from FIRE Co-founder and Board Chairman Harvey Silverglate, who has railed against this trend for years now. Take, for instance, this piece he wrote for Minding the Campus in 2008. In it, Harvey convincingly made the point that universities have no business accumulating such large armies of administrators on their campuses:

No serious person can really argue that a student body needs such bureaucracy to participate in the civilized life of the university, much less in order to become an educated person. We are not talking, after all, about some war zone replete with carnage, rape and pillage, and genocide. We are talking instead about communities of higher learning where students have lived, worked, and studied together for centuries, long before the advent of the modern armies of administrators seeking to keep the peace and enable different groups of students to survive the often-bruising ego-assaults that are a normal part not only of growing up, but of exposure to the world of sometimes disturbing ideas. As Alan Charles Kors and I noted in our 1998 book, The Shadow University, "most students respect disagreement and difference, and they do not bring charges of harassment against those whose opinions or expressions ‘offend’ them." Yet today, we observe, "the universities themselves … encourage such charges to be brought." Surely massive administrative bureaucracies of student life must be maintained if universities are going to enforce the increasingly ubiquitousin academia"right" not to be offended.

Harvey also argued that universities could be using the money they spend on hiring ever more administrative bureaucrats to bolster the education they offer to students:

If our colleges and universities cut back on their enforcement bureaucracies, it is quite possible, indeed likely, that an increase in students’ liberty (not to mention an improvement in their ability to get along with and even help educate one another) would result. This would also increase the availability of additional funds to support faculty size even in the face of diminishing endowments and fund-raising.

This point has been echoed on numerous occasions elsewhere, including in an article in the Chronicle this July. Indeed, we saw recent news out of Washington State University that the university would be cutting three of nine vice president positions "in a reorganization driven primarily by budget forces," and that the university expected to "see immediate savings of $700,000 to $900,000" as a result. That’s a lot of money saved by cutting only three positions. With the money saved, Washington State has the ability to add to its faculty ranks and in other ways enhance its curriculum. Or, think of how many more students could attend Washington State on significant scholarships.

I encourage readers interested in following up and reading more about these issues to take a look at Harvey’s full article for Minding the Campus. I also encourage readers to take a look at the Goldwater Institute’s study, an executive summary of which is available here. Both the study and Harvey’s piece are well worth your time.