Is “administrative bloat” a problem at the University?
The Editorial Board
Twenty years ago, the executive cabinet at the University looked something like this: president, provost, three VPs and four deans. Today, however, the administration has a much greater fleet: president, three deans, vice president and general counsel, vice president of university advancement, chief of staff, vice president of mission, diversity and inclusion, vice president of enrollment management, marketing and communications, vice president of finance and administration, provost and vice president of academic affairs, vice president of student affairs and enrollment and, most recently, executive vice president. Yes, it’s a mouth full. Twenty years ago, La Salle had roughly the same or slightly more students than it does now. In 20 years, how exactly did we get to this point, and are we better off now or then? Does the big government model for the administration work for La Salle? A large, complex administrative structure at La Salle creates several potential problems for the University. Firstly, it’s a costly operation. Secondly, it cripples the model of shared governance. Thirdly, the model lends itself to the pitfalls of bureaucracy.
The first issue is that these administrative roles are not just titles; they are big paychecks for the University. Often surpassing $200,000, the salaries of these administrators double (sometimes triple) those of faculty. Since the pandemic, the University has laid off 53 employees and eliminated 51 vacant staff positions; this decision has translated into greater responsibility for faculty. How can it justify this decision while simultaneously creating a new role within the administration? If faculty members can assume greater responsibilities with fewer colleagues and same or decreased pay, the administration should also be able to do so. More than salaries, a larger administration is accompanied by a plethora of administrative costs, such as distinct reports and new rules and regulations.
Ballooning administrative costs are not a unique problem; they’re a higher education problem. According to a 2017 Forbes article “Bureaucrats And Buildings: The Case For Why College Is So Expensive,” administrative bloat in the past 30 years has resulted in a disproportionately heavy emphasis on administrative costs: “During the 1980-1981 school year, public and private institutions spent $20.7 billion in total on instruction, and $13 billion on academic support, student services and institutional support combined, according to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics. By the 2014-2015 school year, total instructional costs had climbed to $148 billion, while the same grouping of administrative expenses had risen to $122.3 billion…Put another way, administrative spending comprised just 26 percent of total educational spending by American colleges in 1980-1981, while instructional spending comprised 41 percent. Three decades later, the two categories were almost even: administrative spending made up 24 percent of schools’ total expenditures, while instructional spending made up 29 percent.” The top-heavy corporate model is not the most efficient one. A better long-term management model might be to hire fewer top-paid, senior administrators and more administrative assistants whose salaries quarter those of the senior members.
Secondly, a large administration cripples the model of shared governance within the University. A university should rely at least partially on the consultation of its most important and in-touch asset: faculty. With a larger administration, the administration will likely be less dependent on faculty and even deans in decision-making processes. This has already proven to be true, given that the faculty senate was not consulted in the creation of the new executive vice presidency role or the hiring process for said role. Moreover, in recent years, faculty members have been blindsided by administrative decisions countless times, such as the sale of artwork from the art museum and the firing of administrative assistants to name a few. With the administration’s growing control over (specifically) academic policy, the unbalanced power becomes a problem within the University. The disconnect between the administration and the faculty creates an excessive tension that is both counterproductive for the University and conducive to cynicism among faculty (ultimately affecting students). Before adding more decision-makers to the pay-roll, why would the University not tap into its existing resources?
Lastly, the system lends itself to the pitfalls of bureaucracy. One of the ways in which this manifests are the intricate and euphemistic titles. If the university is focusing on “best practices,” “strategy” and whatever other buzzwords are popular in the modern landscape, the student experience is not necessarily better. When a student has a simple request or need, he may be tied up in bureaucratic red tape: contacting multiple offices, abiding by complex rules and regulations, etc. Also, many decisions made within the bureaucracy do not benefit current students, but future students. The issue of a bureaucratic administration is connected with the aforementioned problems as well. The nature bureaucracy lends itself to higher costs as well as increasingly unbalanced power.
One could argue that, in recent years, the landscape of higher education has greatly changed and that these changes have thus transformed the roles of administrators, perhaps urging schools like La Salle to develop new roles for niches it must address. Is this the case for the creation of the executive vice president role? The justification will be there if the ends justify the means. In other words, the University is financially struggling. It hired a man with budget-balancing experience for a reason. If he can get the University back on track, the University’s hire is an ultimately good decision. It met a need. If not, it worsens the problem. Only time will tell.
Administrators serve a critical rule at universities. Given the current situation of La Salle University and the consensus about trends in administrative spending, however, the Editorial Board is cynical about a growing administration at La Salle. While we believe that the University should get back to the basics in the long-term, we also recognize that the University’s decisions concerning the administration are attempts to address critical needs for La Salle. So for now, much rests on the outcomes of new administrators; if they cannot deliver returns on the investment, La Salle’s got a few more problems on its hand than before.
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