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Administrative Bloat and Academic Freedom

By July 6, 2016

Last week, the Aspen Ideas Festival held a panel discussion on “Academic Freedom, Safe Spaces, Dissent, and Dignity,” which included remarks from FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff, Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter, and Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth.

As reported by Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic, while there was disagreement among the various panelists about the nature and scope of censorship on campus, there seemed to be agreement on the idea that administrative bloat is contributing to the problem.

On many things, such as the meaning of “academic freedom,” some of the sharpest disagreement was between Stephen Carter and Michael Roth. Carter said that “[t]he notion that we’re going to start taking ideas off the table because we don’t like them is enormously dangerous” and “threatens the enterprise” of higher education altogether. Roth, by contrast, said that “[y]ou will always have some things that you refuse to legitimate by calling [them] a subject of debate.”

But when talking about the rapid expansion of college administrations, Carter and Roth had much more in common. Carter said:

There is an enormous amount of administrators on college campuses now, many of whom, most of whom, they’re not trained historians, they don’t come from a background of academic freedom, they come from a background of being trained in administration, their job is to damp down problems. They have no sense of the mission of a university.

And Roth, for his part, said:

I think we have seen an extraordinary growth of administrators, many of whom have to do the work that faculty members no longer want to do, like advising students. And because of a tremendous amount of regulations from the federal and state governments. Mostly federal. But there is a corporatization of the university.  

What exactly does this bureaucratization look like? Consider this: According to The Huffington Post,

from 1987 until 2011-12 … universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, or an average of 87 every working day, according to the analysis of federal figures, by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting in collaboration with the nonprofit, nonpartisan social-science research group the American Institutes for Research.

[…]

Universities have added these administrators and professional employees even as they’ve substantially shifted classroom teaching duties from full-time faculty to less-expensive part-time adjunct faculty and teaching assistants, the figures show.

Other studies have yielded similar results. A 2010 study by the Goldwater Institute found that “[b]etween 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent.”

The phenomenon has even spawned a University Title Generator, which randomly spits out titles like “Executive Assistant Provost for the Committee on Dining Diversity.” The website’s creator, Gregor Robinson, told Inside Higher Ed that his site, while intended to amuse, was also intended to critique the state of higher education:

“The present state of higher education imitates the modern corporation, especially on the administration side, and I wanted to poke a big finger at that,” Robinson said in an email. “While this soup of administrative titles proliferate at universities, professorships do not. This points to academic stagnation in higher ed.”

Much of the ink spilled over administrative bloat on campus has related to the astronomical growth in the cost of a college education. But as FIRE has noted in the past, this bloat also drives the increasing overregulation of students and faculty members, including on matters of free speech and academic freedom. As my colleague Azhar Majeed once put it, “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.”

That is why it is heartening to see agreement between Stephen Carter and Michael Roth—who otherwise have disparate views of what is happening to free speech and academic freedom on campus—on the issue of administrative bloat.  If we can make progress even in this one area, I think we would see measurable improvements in freedom on campus.