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Senior Associate Vice Provost of Something
On the top-heaviness of universities
November 24, 2012

An article in Business Week has been making the rounds this holiday weekend, The Troubling Dean-to-Professor Ratio. It's about the top-heaviness of universities and the growth of senior and executive administration. The "money quote," so to speak, is this:

At universities nationwide, employment of administrators jumped 60 percent from 1993 to 2009, 10 times the growth rate for tenured faculty.

This is a topic that always strikes a nerve among faculty, who certainly do feel as if news of every cut corner or unpursued opportunity comes just before the announcement of a new Vice Provost or Vice President or Senior Associate Something. Every now and then I make jokes about it on Twitter: Senior Associate Vice Provost of Operational Efficiency; Vice President of Initiatives; Vice President for Leather.

No matter the case, there are still some connections drawn in the article that are more murky in reality. For example, the author cites Jay Greene, a University of Arkansas professor who argues that "administrative bloat is clearly contributing to the overall cost of higher education." Now, there's no question that an increase in expenditures is changing the overall budgets of universities, nor that administrative positions are paid more on average than faculty positions.

But reading that pull-quote, the public is likely to come to the overly simplistic conclusion that administrative bloat is directly related to tuition costs, perhaps even their sole cause. Indeed, the article ends by talking about how many student-years worth of tuition a Purdue presidential office renovation cost. In reality, things are far more complex, particularly at public institutions (which are the article's focus). In particular, reductions in state appropriations for higher education are the primary culprit of tuition increases.

The reductions in such funding have been ongoing for decades now, but particularly acute since 2008 in light of declining property tax receipts. One weird side-effect of those changes is that universities have been moving more and more toward soft money in the form of research funding, contracts, and philanthropy. These funds may or may not be easily used for practices outside the narrow focus dictated by their commissions. So even if it's also true that a $355,000 president's suite renovation might not be the best use of unrestricted funds at Purdue, it's also possible that those funds were allocated explicitly for that purpose (I have no idea, it's just an example).

Weirder yet, this issue has become its own positive feedback loop. The more the university corporatizes and privatizes, the more it has reason to act and operate like private corporations. And top-heaviness is a well-known feature of business today. Just consider the raging debate about executive compensation that's been raised in the past several years.

Additionally, the Business Week article seems mistitled. There aren't too many deans at universities, generally speaking. Maybe not even too many associate deans, especially since those posts often don't come with much of a change in compensation. Indeed, the job of dean is not one anybody ought to envy; and besides, most deans are not paid exorbitantly more than their seniormost faculty (business schools, as always, are the exception). Rather, there are too many other executives and administrators, many of whom hold posts that operate outside of the purview of faculty governance, and risk becoming political moves on the part of presidents and provosts who create them.

That's not to say that all such positions are useless. But given the flat or negative growth in the professoriate, the reduction of resources and staff positions in schools and departments, and the resulting rhetoric of efficiency that's turning all professorships into middle-management paper-pushing jobs, the top-heavy system insures its own continuance: once you've risen to the ranks of full professor, the only way out or up is through administration. Not only is this a classic case of "rising to the level of your own incompetence," but also it reorients the incentive structures of the profession around the wrong things—wrong from the traditional professional activities of teaching and research, anyway.

This situation is further exacerbated by the overall sponsored research funding climate, which is dismal. With less and less funding coming from institutions, the need to fund students via "new revenue channels" creates increased pressure for the life of faculty at research institutions to become more like hopeless sales jobs. Factor in the fact that professors are typically paid on a 9-month calendar (that is, we are paid for nine months and can optionally fund ourselves for the summer), and you can begin to see how "escaping" or even "selling out" into administration for a 12-month contract starts to look appealing even to those who find such a move abhorrent. Add to that the fact that performance or cost-of-living increases are limited or nil since the financial collapse of 2008, but that a change of role almost always assures a change in pay, and you can see whence the temptation arises. But then again, even if the temptation arises, it may not be possible to indulge it: candidates for these executive positions are increasingly drawn from outside rather than within, and often from more "corporate" candidates who neither know what a university is nor have a professional or personal affinity with the plight of its constituency.

Big organizations need leadership and operational support. And universities are big organizations. But like all organizations these days, more and more resources are getting stuck at the top and less and less are making their way to the faculty and students. Perhaps the worst feature of all in this state of affairs is that press and governments tend to turn the public against the professoriate, blaming them for outrageous salaries and wasted effort, since those are the only jobs ordinary people ever think about within a university. But that's like blaming the loan officers for big bank executives' enormous bonuses.

Comments (6)
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In particular, reductions in state appropriations for higher education are the primary culprit of tuition increases.

I ran some numbers on this, and it seems correct for at least some state universities. Here is the per-student state funding for the University of California system.

Assessment in all its forms -- of student learning, of faculty performance, of university quality and prestige -- justifies the existence of increased resource allocation to higher ed middle management.

To focus on just one manifestation of this self-perpetuating problem, as higher ed management culture trusts professors less and less to assess student work outside or beyond administrative purview, more work gets done (or bungled) in clunky CMS such as Blackboard, which seems to amalgamate all the affordances of each new interface it buys without editing for logic or usability. The result is a functionally illiterate interface optimized to facilitate administrative oversight, not the work of learning and information exchange between faculty-and-student, or peer-to-peer.

Kathi, I want to make sure I understand what you mean. Are you suggesting that there needs to be an increase in resource allocation to higher ed middle-management (ugh, I hate using the term, but it really has become apt), or that there has already been such an allocation and it is justified? I don't think you're saying the latter (I agree with the former), but I wasn't sure I was reading you correctly.

Related article, from last year: Administrators Ate My Tuition.

Thanks for asking me to clarify, Ian.

Far too much money has been allocated to mid-level university management personnel and their software proxies. I'm hardly alone in decrying Blackboard, but even a 90-minute meeting with my unit's web director about Bb's several specific fails this semester was insufficient to persuade her that maybe it's a bad investment. We came up with ways to hack Bb. An Orwellean contortion.

I have noticed that as mid-level management has become more top-heavy, the documentation of "learning" has lengthened. The language and purpose of syllabi, for example, have become contractual, naming the parties and the actions each will perform for specified "learning outcomes." Administrators have a federated view of learning among different units. Teachers are focused on the minds in their classrooms. Surely there's a better way to bridge the macro & the micro than for faculty to adopt the language and mindset of administrators. But that's been the effect of the 60% increase in administrative hiring and the simultaneous plummet in tenure track positions.

"One of the more mundane and therefore under-discussed aspects of the corporatization of the university," you note in a previous post, is the fact that the professoriate—once its wacky, creative assets—are being processed into middle managers." The stakes of remaining publicly, pedagogically wacky are acute for adjuncts and other disenfranchised higher ed laborers. That cohort is only growing.

Thanks for this clarification Kathi. Good comments.

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