Inequality Thrives at Public Universities, Where Execs Live Like Kings

June 11, 2014

By Robby Soave at Reason Online

The left loves to cite corporate America when lambasting the greed of the mega-wealthy 1 percent. But what about public universities, where top administrators make millions of dollars while students flounder in debt?

To its credit, The Nation recently spotlighted some of the most egregious examples, drawing on a new study by Andrew Erwin and Marjorie Wood for the Institute for Policy Studies that found student debt was worst at the 25 universities with the most staggeringly high salaries for chief executives.

There is no worse offender than the Ohio State University, which paid its president nearly $6 million per year between 2010 and 2012:

The “most unequal” public university in America, according to the report, is Ohio State. Between 2010 and 2012 it paid its president, Gordon Gee, a total of almost $6 million, while raising tuition and fees so much that student debt grew 23 percent faster than the national average.

The only people on campus worse off than students with loans are the part-time faculty members—and they too were worst off at schools with the highest paid presidents. OSU, while paying its president $5.9 million, focused its faculty hiring on low wage part-timers, hiring 498 contingent and part-time but only forty-five permanent faculty members.

At the same time that the regular faculty has been shrinking, the number of administrators has been growing. During the period when OSU hired forty-five permanent faculty members, it hired 670 new administrators. A similar pattern is found throughout American universities.

It’s telling that so much of the money is going toward administrative jobs and pay. If universities were hiring more faculty, retaining excellent educators, and keeping class sizes low, then at least they might be able to argue that students were getting more for their buck. But no—students are borrowing hideous amounts of money so that campuses can vastly expand their administrative, non-teaching services.

The growth of the bureaucratic class at modern universities is not only expensive: It’s actively disruptive to free speech and student autonomy. Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argued in his book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of the American Debate that more administrators means more infringements on students’ rights. In other words, a more cumbersome bureaucracy is expensive, serves little educational purpose, and has something to do with the sorry state of free expression on college campuses.

At the conclusion of their study, Erwin and Wood offer Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s student loan bailout bill as one possible answer to campus inequality. That’s problematic, however, since it would incentivize students to borrow more and universities to jack up prices.

But they do propose something that is at the very least intriguing:

State legislatures should establish spending ratios for their public universities. Based on our analysis, a ratio of spending on non-academic administration to scholarships could be reasonably set at 2 to 1.

Such a spending ratio may be a tad meddlesome, and more scholarship money is probably not a very good way to make college affordable.

This general approach may hold promise, however. At the end of the day, public universities are government agencies. Shouldn’t taxpayers have some say over whether Gordon Gee and his ilk get to buy new yachts next year?