Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ask the Administrator: How to Spot Bloat?

A thoughtful correspondent writes:

I really wish someone would figure out a useful guide for identifying bloat, so I can know it when I see it and know whether to get rid of it. I used to think, for example, that the lab techs were just people who scrubbed out the test tubes because lazy students didn't do it, and prepared slides because lazy profs didn't do it. Then I found out that some of those lab techs also ensure compliance with federal safety regulations. The last thing I want to do is to cut our compliance staff.

What I have in mind is a series of questions to ask of administrators in a spot-the-bloat exercise. How many hours a week do you work with students? How many students do you work with per week? How many hours a week do you spend on compliance with local, state, or federal laws and regulations? How many hours a week do you spend on compliance with accreditors' requirements? How many hours a week do you spend on compliance with regulations of voluntary organizations (I'm envisioning the NCAA or NAIA, but there might be others)?

But I don't get very far before I start bumping up against questions that are harder to resolve. Is this department secretary there to guide scared students, to manage the flow of paper for conscientious faculty, or to type up endless drafts of the department chair's cherished, and unpublishable, novel? Most schools desperately need development officers, but how many is too many? Does the college need an archivist? Two? Three?

Can you, or perhaps your wise and worldly readers, help out?

As it stands now, "eliminate administrator bloat" is an empty slogan. It allows people to fall back on one of several unproductive answers (all administration is bloat, lots of administrators are bloat except for the ones I personally know, nobody understands us poor embattled administrators). People who want to cut administrators should give us tools for separating the wheat from the chaff.

There’s a lot here, but I’ll start with a basic fact. A recent study showed that the growth in “administration” has not, in fact, been in people in high-level or supervisory roles. In fact, the number of people in those roles has decreased even more rapidly than the number of people in tenure-track faculty lines. So the Marc Bousquet-ish cartoon of rapacious deans living high on the hog while hollowing out departments is exactly wrong.

The actual growth has occurred mostly in three areas: IT, financial aid, and students with disabilities. The former is a predictable outgrowth of technical change, and the latter two are entirely compliance-driven. Critics of “bloat” are invited to specify which of those three areas is inessential.

The external argument from “administrative bloat” has resulted from a category confusion. If you lump all salaried non-faculty employees into a single category and call it “administration,” then yes, you see growth. But conflating financial aid staff or the people at the computer center helpdesk with deans and vice presidents is mystifying at best.

I’ve also heard ‘bloat” used to describe people who coordinate outcomes assessment or diversity programming. But those are really objections to outcomes assessment and diversity programming. If you’re going to do those things, you need people to do them. (And if you don’t do the former, good luck keeping your accreditation.)

I can’t imagine an intelligent way to identify “bloat” without knowing what people actually do. In my first couple of years as faculty, I had no idea what Human Resources did all day; my only dealings with them involved signing up for direct deposit, which hardly seemed to require a full staff. Now, of course, I see the necessity.

All of that said, the reason the “administrative bloat” argument feels right to so many people is that colleges and universities have taken on many more functions than they have in the past. Most community colleges are spared the administrative nightmare of dorms, but even here, we have to deal with ever-more-onerous regulations, increased student needs, increased reporting requirements, ever-tighter record-keeping and compliance requirements, and basic technological advances. For example, we have someone whose full-time job it is to manage and coordinate the human patient simulators for Nursing. When I was in college, those simulators (and that job) didn’t exist. Every grant-funded program needs a dedicated Director as a condition of the grant. (If you really want to strike a blow for efficiency, replace grant-funded programs with significantly higher sustained operating budgets, and let colleges figure out for themselves how best to use the money. But nooo...)

I’d suggest that the real issues are twofold.

The first is Baumol’s cost disease. As long as education remains a personal-service industry, its costs will increase more quickly than the economy’s as a whole. That is nobody’s fault, and there is no villain; it’s just a basic fact of economics. The adjunct trend has been an especially hamhanded and unfortunate way of dealing with Baumol’s disease. But objecting to the adjunct trend doesn’t make the underlying issue go away. Until we address that -- which means looking directly at such sacred cows as the credit hour -- costs will continue to go up.

The second is mission creep. Back in the day, even many community colleges used a “sink or swim” approach to teaching. We teach, they learn or they don’t, end of story. Now that colleges are charged with improving completion and graduation rates, we have tutoring centers (with directors), student support programs, disability services, and the like. Those all require people. On the curricular side, too, it’s soooo much easier to add programs than to subtract them. SUNY Albany took body blows in the national press for eliminating a few programs; nobody takes any for adding programs. If we’re really serious about getting costs under control, I’d advocate colleges making decisions about which programs they can actually do well, and pruning accordingly. That’s politically dangerous, but economically obvious. Yes, some senior people will be let go, just as happens in every other industry. But the alternative is just to mindlessly continue the hollowing-out trend of the last forty years. How’s that working out?

Railing against administrative bloat is an easy way to get mad about costs without actually having to make any tough choices. It’s a copout, and an increasingly expensive one. I’d encourage anyone who’s actually concerned about college costs -- a very real issue -- to direct their energies at the real causes instead.

Thanks for the note! I hope that helps.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.