Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Administrative bloat at American universities: Why it costs so much to go to college

 During my years at the University of Houston, I parked my modest Honda in the faculty parking lot next to other modest cars driven by UH professors--mostly Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans, and Fords.

Then I would walk through the parking lot reserved for administrators, and all the vehicles were luxury cars: Audis, Lexuses, BMWs, and expensive SUVs. Those cars reminded me of the university's priorities--and they didn't include teaching. 

I finished my career at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where I volunteered to teach a class of first-year students. I remember a young freshman telling me that my class was his only class taught by a professor. His other teachers were poorly paid adjuncts and instructors who weren't even earning a living wage.  

Yesterday, Robert Kuttner posted an article pointing out that administrative bloat is a significant reason college tuition prices keep going up. He pointed out that Harvard has thirteen vice presidents. 

Mr. Kuttner is right. Universities are crammed full of administrators packed like sardines in campus administration buildings. Vice presidents for technology, enrollment management, diversity, and fundraising. Deans in charge of fraternity and sorority affairs, directors in charge of investigating sexual misconduct, associate deans to generate the paperwork demanded by the various accrediting bodies. And on and on.

Most of these bureaucrats make more money than associate professors. Administrative ranks are growing while universities shift more and more teaching to part-time instructors who are paid a pittance and don't get health insurance or retirement benefits.

"Executive bloat," Kuttner observed, "has gone hand in hand with the usurpation of the historical role of the faculty as the university's governing body, in favor of a corporate model."  Again, Kuttner is right.

Today's professors have very little say about how the universities are run. Faculty senates are purely advisory bodies and have about as much power as the Reichstag had when Hitler was Chancellor of Germany.

Kuttner suggests that the federal government limit college's non-instructional costs. The money spent on administrators cannot exceed a set ratio compared to instructional costs. That's a great idea, but the universities won't stand for such a rule. 

 Kuttner compares modern universities to hedge funds. But I think of them more like medieval fiefdoms where administrators lord it over student peasants who are forced to pay annual tribute to the manor lord with money borrowed from Uncle Sam.

image credit: Medievalists.net


  1. Or compared to medieval monasteries and monkdoms complete with usurous indulgences. There's a book chapter that I want to read that compares higher ed disruption with the demise of spiritual credentialing by the Church. With modern day monasteries and foundations and cloisters gone, What Comes Next?

  2. Thanks for writing, Glen. I think you may have made a good connection between today's higher education and the medieval monestaries.

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