UVa President Teresa Sullivan addresses the Faculty Senate in 2012. In this case, faculty and administration united to buck control by the Board of Visitors.
Growing administrative overhead is a major force driving up the cost of higher education. While there is no simple, uni-causal explanation for bureaucratic bloat, George Mason University law professors Todd Zywicki and Christopher Koopman observe that growing higher-ed bureaucracy coincides with a long-brewing power shift in academe from faculties to administrators.
“Of particular concern and importance appears to be the relationship between the faculty and administration that has, in many ways, created a permissive culture in which administrative bloat has been allowed to thrive,” they write in a new paper, “The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in American Higher Education.” “The faculty is either unwilling or unable to take on the growing administrative bureaucracies.”
Zywicki and Koopman identify other forces at work as well. One contributor to bloat is the pressure to provide students with more luxurious accommodations — the so-called “Club Ed” phenomenon — and the increasing subsidies in the form of federal loans and grants to students to pay for it all. But the overarching theme in their paper is a shift in internal power from faculties to administrators.
“The faculty essentially ran universities for their own personal benefit, adopting policies that benefited the faculty and which they rationalized as being good for the university as a whole,” the authors write. “Faculty salaries and perquisites increased, teaching loads decreased, and faculty increasingly asserted control over many of the core functions of the university.”
In recent years, however, the balance of power has tipped to administrators who have captured the unprecedented flow of tuition revenue (financed by federal loans and grants) and lush endowments to pursue their agenda of expanding bureaucratic fiefdoms and enhancing institutional prestige.
Universities have plowed more resources into administrative hires and compensation than into faculty. Between 1980 and 2009, spending per student increased 61.2% for administration while spending on instruction increased 39.3%. Universities now have more full-time employees devoted to administration than to instruction, research and service combined. It takes 39% more full-time administrators to manage the same number of students than it did in 1993.
As administrators have taken the lion’s share of resources, so have they abrogated power, say Zywicki and Koopman. “Today the faculty has little or no input or control over student admissions, a task that has been completely delegated to bureaucratic specialists.”
Decisions with respect to hiring and promotion are increasingly hemmed by a raft of guidances and limits imposed by administrators, such as diversity mandates and the like. Perhaps most astonishingly, core policies regarding academic freedom for students and professors — such as the existence and terms of a university speech code — have increasingly been ceded to student life offices and other non-academic university administrators. Administrators have also unilaterally imposed student and faculty disciplinary procedures for certain controversial topics such as allegations of sexual assault, routinely overriding faculty objections. Thus, not only do university bureaucrats consume an increase amount of university resources, they also have gathered an increasing amount of power and decision-making authority.
What is driving the power shift? One explanation is increasing federal regulation and ever-expanding requests for information by state and institutional governing boards. Whenever federal legislation on higher education is enacted, Zywicki and Koopman say, the government establishes a new office to administer the law. Subsequently a “clone” of that office appears on most major university campuses.
Faculty members have largely acquiesced to the growing bureaucracy. One possible reason, the duo says, is that they have benefited from the outsourcing of traditional duties, such as advising students, to academic administrators.
The prototypical professor … has three related objectives: job security, freedom to spend his time on activities he prefers, and maximization of professional reputation and income. The prototypical administrator seeks to keep his job, build his reputation, and to free his own time for outside income opportunities. Further, the administrator also shares the goal common to all managers, such as the desire for status and power manifested in a large office and support staff.
Thus, senior professors devote more time to their own research and writing while sloughing off teaching and other duties to instructors, graduate students and others. Administrators are happy to take up the slack, expanding their spheres of responsibility.
The two GMU profs have no concrete recommendations to reverse administrative bloat, although they suggest that the non-profit structure of public universities is part of the problem. Under a for-profit model of higher ed, they suggest, equity holders would focus on efficiency. “In such a governance system, a runaway growth in administration is unlikely as it reduces the bottom line profit. … A for-profit ownership and governance model could better align the incentives of owner, managers and students in a way that the current structure does not.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Privatization is an interesting idea, although I think it demands closer scrutiny. The track record of for-profit education in an era of indiscriminate federal student loans has been less than glorious. And, unless privatization is handled properly, university administrators will control the process and enrich themselves. Think Russia, Yeltsin, privatization and oligarchs.
More rewarding for our purposes here at Bacon’s Rebellion, Zywicki and Koopman provide a useful framework for understanding public colleges and universities in Virginia. In all my scribblings on the topic of higher ed, I had never paid close attention to the “political economy” inside public universities, much less the balance of power between faculties and administrators. I had more or less assumed that the interests of the two groups were aligned in protecting university prerogatives against tuition-paying parents, soundbite-spewing legislators and other pitchfork-wielding Philistines who would claw back tuition, fees and state support. But I now appreciate that there might be an ongoing struggle between faculty and administrators over the spoils. I will be more attentive to this dynamic in my future coverage of Virginia colleges and universities.