Why is there so much university administration? We kind of asked for it.

The latest commentary on the rising cost of college tuition is by Paul F. Campos and is titled The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much. There has been much debate about this article and whether Campos is right or wrong…and I don’t plan to add to that. However, I wanted to pick up on a major point of the article that I felt got left hanging out there: The rising levels of administrative personnel at universities.

Campos argues that the reason college tuition is on the rise is not that colleges get less and less money from the government (mostly state government for state schools), but rather that there is an increasing number of administrators at universities that need to be paid in dollars and cents. He cites a study that shows that for the California State University system, in a 34 year period, the number of of faculty rose by about 3% whereas the number of administrators rose by 221%.

My initial thinking when I saw the 221% number was “only that much?” I’ve been a faculty member at Johns Hopkins now for about 10 years, and just in that short period I’ve seen the amount of administrative work I need to do go up what feels like at least 221%. Partially, of course, that is a result of climbing up the ranks. As you get more qualified to do administrative work, you get asked to do it! But even adjusting for that, there are quite a few things that faculty need to do now that they weren’t required to do before.  Frankly, I’m grateful for the few administrators that we do have around here to help me out with various things.

Campos seems to imply (but doesn’t come out and say) that the bulk of administrators are not necessary. And that if we were to cut these people from the payrolls, that we could reduce tuition down to what it was in the old days. Or at least, it would be cheaper. This argument reminds me about debates over the federal budget: Everyone thinks the budget is too big, but no one wants to suggest something to cut.

My point here is that the reason there are so many administrators is that there’s actually quite a bit of administration to do. And the amount of administration that needs to be done has increased over the past 30 years.

Just for fun, I decided to go to the Johns Hopkins University Administration web site to see who all these administrators were.  This site shows the President’s Cabinet and the Deans of the individual schools, which isn’t everybody, but it represents a large chunk. I don’t know all of these people, but I have met and worked with a few of them.

For the moment I’m going to skip over individual people because, as much as you might think they are overpaid, no individual’s salary is large enough to move the needle on college tuition. So I’ll stick with people who actually represent large offices with staff. Here’s a sample.

  • University President. Call me crazy, but I think the university needs a President. In the U.S. the university President tends to focus on outward facing activities like raising money from various sources, liasoning with the government(s), and pushing university initiatives around the world. This is not something I want to do (but I think it’s necessary), I’d rather have the President take care of it for me.
  • University Provost. At most universities in the U.S. the Provost is the “senior academic officer”, which means that he/she runs the university. This is a big job, especially at big universities, and require coordinating across a variety of constituencies. Also, at JHU, the Provost’s office deals with a number of compliance related issues like Title IX, accreditation, Americans with Disabilities Act, and many others. I suppose we could save some money by violating federal law, but that seems short-sighted. The people in this office do tough work involving a ton of paper. One example involves online education. Most states in the U.S. say that if you’re going to run an education program in their state, it needs to be approved by some regulatory body. Some states have essentially a reciprocal agreement, so if it’s okay in your state, then it’s okay in their state. But many states require an entire approval process for a program to run in that state. And by “a program” I mean something like an M.S. in Mathematics. If you want to run an M.S. in English that’s another approval, etc. So someone has to go to all the 50 states and D.C. and get approval for every online program that JHU runs in order to enroll students into that program from that state. I think Arkansas actually requires that someone come to Arkansas and testify in person about a program asking for approval.

    I support online education programs, and I’m glad the Provost’s office is getting all those approvals for us.

    • Corporate Security. This may be a difficult one for some people to understand, but bear in mind that much of Johns Hopkins is located in East Baltimore. If you’ve ever seen the TV show The Wire, then you know why we need corporate security.
    • Facilities and Real Estate. Johns Hopkins owns and deals with a lot of real estate; it’s a big organization. Who is supposed to take care of all that? For example, we just installed a brand new supercomputer jointly with the University of Maryland, called MARCC. I’m really excited to use this supercomputer for research, but systems like this require a bit of space. A lot of space actually. So we needed to get some land to put it on. If you’ve ever bought a house, you know how much paperwork is involved.
    • Development and Alumni Relations. I have a new appreciation for this office now that I co-direct a program that has enrolled over 1.5 million people in just over a year. It’s critically important that we keep track of our students for many reasons: tracking student careers and success, tapping them to mentor current students, developing relationships with organizations that they’re connected to are just a few.
    • General Counsel. I’m not he lawbreaking type, so I need lawyers to help me out.
    • Enterprise Development. This office involves, among other things, technology transfer, which I have recently been involved with quite a bit for my role in the Data Science Specialization offered through Coursera. This is just to say that I personally benefit from this office. I’ve heard people say that universities shouldn’t be involved in tech transfer, but Bayh-Dole is what it is and I think Johns Hopkins should play by the same rules as everyone else. I’m not interested in filing patents, trademarks, and copyrights, so it’s good to have people doing that for me.

Okay, that’s just a few offices, but you get the point. These administrators seem to be doing a real job (imagine that!) and actually helping out the university. Many of these people are actually helping me out. Some of these jobs are essentially required by the existence of federal laws, and so we need people like this.

So, just to recap, I think there are in fact more administrators in universities than there used to be. Is this causing an increase in tuition? It’s possible, but it’s probably not the only cause. If you believe the CSU study, there was about a 3.5% annual increase in the number of administrators each year from 1975 to 2008. College tuition during that time period went up around 4% per year (inflation adjusted). But even so, much of this administration needs to be done (because faculty don’t want to do it), so this is a difficult path to go down if you’re looking for ways to lower tuition.

Even if we’ve found the smoking gun, the question is what do we do about it?

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