The PC Behind the Bloat

The Wall Street Journal also reports today that a number of larger universities are starting to make cutbacks in the bloated ranks of administrators.  As is well known, the number of highly paid administrators at colleges and universities has grown much faster than classroom instructors over the last decade or two.  Between 2001 and 2011, the Journal reports, the ranks of college administrators grew 57 percent, while the number of teaching faculty grew by 37 percent.  Many administrative positions pay far higher salaries than classroom professors.

Ivory Tower copyAdministrative bloat is not a new story, but there are two aspects of the causes of bloat that I seldom see discussed.  First, how much of the growth in administrative ranks is driven by political correctness along with federal mandates?  Most larger universities not only have large offices policing “diversity,” sexual harassment, and so forth, but often have deans and vice chancellors for these programs, usually paid at dean and vice chancellor salary levels.  Any many colleges now have administrative officers for “sustainability”—ironic since the cost model of higher education is clearly unsustainable.  (And insofar as any sensible notion of “sustainability” refers chiefly to simple resource efficiency, why isn’t this a prime candidate for outsourcing?)  The point is, liberals who moan about the high cost of college education today need to look in the mirror, for much of this cost expansion is probably the result of catering to the pressure groups who demand special programs to scratch their itch.  It would be good to see a detailed study—perhaps from our friends at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity—into this phenomena.  And it might be nice to break out the cost into line items; that is, include separate charges for “diversity” services at universities, and watch the backlash grow.

A second curiosity is a different kind of PC: how much of the higher administrative cost is accounted for by the technology needs of universities today?  World class universities need world class IT services.  The University of Colorado at Boulder, where almost 3/4ths of the students are majoring in STEM fields (thank goodness), the IT staff is very large and spread over several different offices.  I asked one IT director how many IT personnel the university employed.  He couldn’t say, because it is spread over so many discrete offices (and there are probably good reasons why IT services are not centralized in one office), but he thought the number was easily over 200.  That’s 200 skilled people that universities didn’t need when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s.  Combined with the hardware cost, this has to be a substantial factor.