In the last year or so, we have seen a high number of articles or blog posts with a scathing attitude toward the 1) increasing number of administrators at universities, and 2) high salaries they make, relative to other employees of universities. According to the American Institutes for Research, higher ed institutions added an average of 87 administrators or professional employees every work day between 1987-2012. Most recently, people have been responding to a study that showed student debt grows faster at the universities whose leaders are paid the most. There’s a lot more out there if you just do a quick Google search, but suffice to say: there’s merit to this conversation, and I think it’s good that it is happening.
However, I’m increasingly dismayed by the vitriol and often (but not always) highly simplistic attitudes toward the discussion. As academics, we learn that the world is not black and white (eg. “Get rid of administrators completely!” “They are paid Himalayan salaries!”) but instead has many, many facets that require deep thought, much conversation, and serious consideration of all the elements in play. Above all, we as academics are taught to ask why. Why do we have so many administrators at universities?
I can’t answer that question in just a blog post, nor even as just one person at one school. But let’s consider some issues that could contribute to understanding the situation. Universities have become really complex working operations. Faculty play a key role, and ideally, universities could have a large majority (or even all!) of their faculty in tenure-track positions. Faculty contribute to the research, teaching, and service requirements at an institution, and the faculty I know do a great job at this. They are one of the reasons that NC State is a top school.
So who are the administrators? Yes, there are the standard President/Chancellor, Provost, and Deans whose jobs provide leadership for units on campus. There’s the grayer area of Vice Provosts, Vice Chancellors, and so on, who provide leadership within those large units or across several. Very often these are former faculty who have risen up the ranks. Some of these roles are the new ones that have been created over the last couple of decades and contribute to the statistics from the study mentioned above.
Then there are other administrators and professional employees at the university, like Head of the Libraries, Director of Information Technology, Director of Distance Education, Head of Human Resources — these are all people whose titles and roles at the university get them lumped into this category that people attack when they use the term “administrative bloat” or to assign as the cause of increasing college costs. These people also supervise other employees in this category as well, like Instructional Technologists, Librarians, or Human Resource Officers. These people almost always need advanced degrees for their jobs (or at least, at my own public institution in NC, that’s the case). Does anyone want to argue we don’t need librarians?
All of these titles I’ve mentioned, and there are many, many more, reflect the complex nature of a university. Yes, faculty play a key role in conducting research and making important contributions to knowledge with what they do. And yes, emphatically yes, students are here primarily to attend the courses taught by our faculty and earn degrees. But even those acts require other processes that necessitate people who serve other roles around the institution. Here’s a basic example: Let’s say a faculty member earns a multi-million dollar grant to run a research lab and uses some of the funds to hire some grad students, postdocs, and research assistants. Does that particular faculty member know how the minimum salary she can offer her postdocs is calculated? Whether dental coverage is a required part of a postdoc’s healthcare benefits? Does she know how many hours per week her graduate students can work if they are international students? And perhaps the most complex example: does she know how many hours a research assistant could work before certain Affordable Care Act regulations kick in, and how much of her grant monies she would have to set aside to account for the ACA changes that will take effect in years to come? (This last one is perhaps the best example, because the ACA has changed a lot since first enacted and will continue to change as different elements come into effect over the next few years. All of these examples include important legal requirements that are critical to get right.)
Generally, the answer is no, faculty don’t always know the answers to these questions. Did you get that kind of training in your PhD program? I didn’t. Certainly many PhDs do not get that formally, perhaps slightly informally if you worked in lab and your PI was open about these kinds of things. The point here is that higher education is subject to many different practices, regulations, and requirements, many of the same ones that other workplaces are subject to–because a university is a workplace, too! Is it practical for faculty to be primarily responsible for knowing all of these? Along with their research, teaching, and service responsibilities? Or is it more practical to have some administrators who are responsible for these things? Often, people in administrative roles bring knowledge, experience, and skills that are valuable for the university.
Here’s another example, one I thought of after reading Rebecca Schuman’s June 16 column for Slate in which she discusses the situation of 56 Canadian academics applying in groups of 4 for the University of Alberta’s opening for its next President. She includes in her discussion the example of a highly-paid former Ohio State President who received a retirement package worth nearly $6 million. She writes,
“If Gee had selflessly capped his buyout at, say, a meager $1 million, the university could have offered $10,000 scholarships to 500 additional students (or hired 100 new faculty at $50,000 each, give or take).”
I totally get her point — that’s a ton of money!! — and I agree with her in principle to critique that kind of retirement buyout. But this isn’t quite how it works to fund scholarships or faculty lines. Let me explain. In her piece, she’s suggesting Gee take $5 million less for the buyout and saying what universities could otherwise do with the money. Yes, you could have 500 $10,000 scholarships, or 100 faculty paid $50,000 (but no benefits! and who would pay the EI tax?) — but they would all just be for ONE YEAR. And then the money would be gone. More accurately, $1 million dollars for financial aid could get you just THREE $15,000 scholarships for students for one year, but they would last over many, many years. That’s because you don’t just immediately spend all of the money you’re given, but you invest the $1 million and then use the annual returns to pay for the scholarships. (My calculation assumes a conservative 4.5% rate of return on a $1 million investment.) Then, you can maintain the scholarships every year.
Funding graduate students is even more expensive — the rule of thumb around here is that a $1 million dollar donation can get you ONE annual fellowship for a graduate student. Just one!! Schuman’s commentary reminded me of this good example of why universities need an administrator who serves in development. These people understand how much money you really need to fund student scholarships AND how to make them last a long time.
My point with these two examples is that the situation of having many administrators at universities is really complex, and it’s because the university is a highly complex organism. We need some of these people to coordinate the complexities, and having some of these people leave faculty to more freely to pursue their research and teaching. Is the system perfect? Of course not. But I’d love to see articles that reflect these issues and interrogate the complexities. Don’t just hate all of the administrators. (And don’t assume they are all overpaid.) Is our university changing? Seems to be. What’s changing about higher education to have more professional staff? I think it’s important to have these conversations, which help to shape the future of our universities as we are tackling important issues like contingent labor, student-athlete unions, and the globalization of higher ed. But let’s do it with the nuance and strong research that we as academics have been taught to do.