Administer with Care


Every enterprise has its own in-jokes, I suppose. In academic circles, and by that I mean in ballrooms of tony convention hotels in Washington, San Francisco, Miami, or San Diego where porcine college presidents, vice presidents and deans gather for top-level meetings on issues of national importance. In academic circles you are guaranteed a chuckle or two of recognition from an audience of your peers if you make one or more of the following three jests:

• Leading the faculty is like herding cats
• A secret on campus is what you only tell to one person at a time
• Academic politics are vicious because the stakes are so low

I’ll pause for a moment while you wipe the tears of laughter from your eyes and the milk that shot out of nose from your chin. But I’m betting that you already knew that academic administrators, or “leaders,” as they prefer to be called, are a fun group.

Fun, but not exclusive. Oddly enough, in an organization that prides itself on thinning its faculty ranks through the gymnastics of the tenure process, packing the payroll with administrators is widely regarded internally as the mark of a successful, well, administration. If a leader is really, really committed to establishing the importance of his contributions to the campus, he (feminists, forgive me, but what I am talking about here is universally a male behavior) methodically begins building his empire by bulking up his troops with senior executive associate vice presidents, senior associate vice presidents, associate vice presidents, senior assistant vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, executive directors, directors, senior associate directors, and so on down the line until you reach coordinators and dog catchers.

Academic leaders sit in wonder at their latest creation, the 3-D organizational chart.

Needless to say, the addition of administrative expertise makes the institution stronger; after all, how could a college ever get along with just a “director” when it could hire an “associate vice president” or a “dean” to do the same job? Of course, along with the title change comes a significant change in salary (upwards) because after all you get what you pay for. Or, as a recently appointed vice president I had the all-too-brief pleasure of working with once said to a faculty that had lived for decades with below-market salaries, “people with my expertise don’t come cheap.”

With all this brain power, I deserve a couple of big paychecks.

Some experts have observed that academic administration, being the growth sector that it is, is a bright spot in our flagging economy, while others, the pessimists, have pointed out that

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent.

As long as all spending trends are up, I suppose everything is hunky-dory, except for the cash-strapped moms and dads who are picking up the tab—and the faculty who are patiently waiting to stick their mitts in the cookie jar for the crumbs the vice presidents et al in their largesse leave behind.

A handful of campuses are bucking this trend. At Washington State University, for example, university President Elson S. Floyd, PhD recently informed his faculty and staff that he was implementing a “new organizational configuration [that] reduces the total number of vice presidents from nine to six.” Floyd continues: “I would expect budget savings of between $700,000 to $900,000 resulting from these actions, although the ultimate savings will depend on a number of personnel actions and salary adjustments, which will be determined going forward.” He concludes his announcement of the vice presidential holocaust by saying, “Streamlining the administrative leadership of WSU will require all of us to work smarter, harder and faster. I have no doubt that the WSU family is up to the task.”

For those of you whose first language is not academic administrativese, allow me to translate for you: the Washington State Legislature slashed the university’s budget, so the president had to find some quick savings. Thinking fast, he collapsed three vice presidencies into one, and eliminated a currently vacant vice president’s position. Right away we know there’s something just a little fishy about the claim of “eliminating” a position that, being unoccupied, is not costing the campus anything. The piscine aroma grows a little stronger when we read the part about “ultimate savings” having to “depend” on “personnel actions and salary adjustments”; in other words, it has yet to be determined just how big a piece of the savings pie the surviving VP’s will carve up for themselves, given that they now must work “smarter, harder and faster.” The reward for the rest of the campus—the WSU family—for also working “smarter, harder and faster” is the comforting knowledge that their president believes they are “up to the task.”

It’s one thing, of course, for a large state university to be awash in administrators, and maybe even justifiable, given the multiple mandates the public trust demands it fulfill. But what about liberal arts colleges? Must these beleaguered institutions also beef up the administrative ranks in order to remain competitive in today’s diverse, multicultural, gender-neutral global educational market?

Of course they do. Take the fictional Liberal Arts College USA in fictional Collegetown USA as a hypothetical example. At LCA the president found a nationally recognized expert to lead a newly created dean’s office. The charge to this dean was to put the faculty on notice that its educational rubrics, learning objectives and classroom outcomes needed to be assessable, because assessment is, you know, important. Woe to the faculty member who could not break down Finnegan’s Wake into learning units, assigning each unit precise learning parameters, and ensuring each student derived the same learning outcome from each unit. Sayonara to the professor who believes students should be encouraged to establish their own educational goals. The point here is, LCA has a new dean, and he is a nationally recognized expert. On what, nobody is quite sure.

The national expert ponders his reputation.

Sometimes hiring more administrators makes a lean-and-mean institution even more efficient, and nowhere has this been more true than in the president’s office at LCA, where a year ago the then-president replaced one staff member with three, and announced plans to hire a fourth. Of the four, one failed immediately at the task she was given but was kept on anyway; one was an equal-opportunity hire, whose qualifications were based on her cohabitational preference; and one was a unusually sane appointment. The fourth is still in limbo, but will be, when (and if) he arrives, LCA’s newest vice president. And you thought administrative bloat was just for state schools.

I got my job the old-fashioned way!

Things are looking up at LCA, however. Its trustees are a remarkably dedicated group of people who are continuing to deliver on their promise to steward the college wisely. Their collective judgment will untangle the threads of the crazy-quilt organizational chart that has grown and grown over the last few years. More power to them!

NOTE to readers: “Administrative Bloat at American Universities: The Real Reason for High Costs in Higher Education,” a just-released report from the Goldwater Institute, makes for interesting reading if you want to get a sense of how universities operate and spend money. The link is above, where I have quoted from the report. I also remind readers that universities and colleges may look alike, but they are not alike, and efforts to run one as if it were the other are doomed to fail. I have drawn on the Goldwater report to make a general point, and not to compare university practice with what goes on on a well-run college campus.

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12 thoughts on “Administer with Care

  1. I make the following observations.

    A. Next time try and take it a little easier on the dog catchers, OK?

    B. Every 40 to 50 years armies around the world have to relearn a painful lesson. Armies with officer corps of 3 to 5 % almost always win. Armies with officer corps of 7 to 10 % almost always lose. (the U.S. Army is about to shed a respectable number of lt. colonels and brigadier generals) Officer corps over 10% have lived in Italy and Spain.

    • the like button on your face book page? the children told me about it. Italian and Spanish armies haven’t won any thing in the last 150 years. Fertile ground for college administration.

      • No; wordpress–my blogging platform–has a “like” button at the end of each post, but apparently it is only visible to other wordpress bloggers and since I don’t know any, I am not likely to get many clicks. But the fry are correct about facebook, but that’s different.

    • You forget, I said fictional campus, although I believe there are one or two well-run campuses out there. Where I used to work, for example, was well-run right up until my departure.

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