Hair of the Dog

Over the holidays the Wall Street Journal carried a story on administrative bloat in higher education, and its example was the University of Minnesota. (I teach in the state university system here in Minnesota, not in the U of M system.) That story might be behind a paywall now and so I’ll respect their copyright and avoid full quotations.

But the gist of the story is this:  a new president is hired with a request to hold down student tuition by cutting administrative costs. The president asks for spreadsheets and data, and is told “well, that’s complicated.” But administrators over the decade from 2001 on had grown 37%, twice as fast as the number of faculty. Meanwhile, the cost of tuition has risen faster than wages or prices more generally. The article has an interesting fact:  tuition and fees for a full-time U of M student in 1975 could be paid by a student working 6 hours a week year-long at a minimum wage job. Now, it takes 32 hours.

As those stories go, consultants are discussed as one of the additional areas of bloat. In one case, the university had spent $10 million on consultants to help plan a residential community … 20 miles from campus. President Kaler himself tells the story of an “inscription consultant” brought in to help decide exactly how 33 words would be inscribed on a building’s cornerstone. Inscription came 12 years after the building’s construction. 

Naturally, the legislature here in Minnesota is unhappy. Yesterday, U of M president Eric Kaler had to appear before its new higher education committees (in Minnesota, both houses changed from Republican to Democratic control.) He repeated what he told education reporters last week:

The University of Minnesota will hire an outside consultant to review its administrative structure and costs, President Eric Kaler announced Friday, Jan. 11. …

In a press briefing outlining the university’s priorities for this legislative session, Kaler said bringing in an outside consultant to do the review will give it “external validation.” He said he is not sure yet if the report’s cost will meet the threshold that will require bidding out the job.

So to help determine if you’ve hired too many administrators and consultants, you hire … a consultant, to give you “external validation.” This is akin to the beer you drink in the morning after a long night at the bar.

This trend happens far and wide. Sometimes we hire faculty to administrative jobs that the university feels it must fill, but then fail to replace fully the faculty member hired away.  Consultants are rife on campuses as administrators try to shift responsibility. Harvey Silverglate noted last year that Penn State’s reaction to the scandal in its football program was, in part, to lament that it didn’t have an Office of General Counsel. No wonder the ratio of faculty to administrators at major universities has fallen in 40 years from 2:1 to about 1:1, he says. 

The army of advocates for increased administration in higher education’s already bloated bureaucracies has landed on the Penn State scandal with considerable gusto. Self-interest motivates many of those who argue for more regulations and increased numbers of administrators at Penn State, including the increased use of professionals who provide “training” for campus student life administrators. …

General Counsels have taken charge of much that goes on at the modern university. At their order, universities operate largely on this theory of “risk reduction” – that is to say, things are done not because they are right, nor because they enhance the institution’s educational or scholarly missions. Instead, they are done to protect the institution’s reputation, to protect the jobs of the administrators (for whom general counsel works), to keep the institution from losing government funds, and to keep the institution from getting sued. Truth, principle, and the education and welfare of young people have little to do with it.

One can hope that a wise consultant gives that advice to President Kaler.

  1. King Banaian
    C
    Dave: Recently I asked a colleague for advice on how to advance my career as a professor so that I could better support a family one day. His response: become an administrator.

    I thought about becoming a dean.  I was told my politics were an issue.  And then I found out how much more they made and decided I wasn’t that cheap a date.  (There’s a joke that ends with “we’re just negotiating price” applicable here that would violate Ricochet TOS.  But if you know it already…)

    But yes, ’tis true.

  2. vb

    I got stuck on the inscription consultant.  Where could I get a grad degree in this field?

  3. Duane Oyen

    In fairness, Kaler is trying to clean up stuff left by his predecessor, who was an OK guy, but ran a classic big university 1980′s style in pre-higher-education-bubble fashion. 

    The consultant is a way to get more support to shut down some activities that have strong faculty ownership.  Like it or not, the U of Mn is ruled by faculty, as the most innovative and reform-minded UMn president in recent times discovered when he was deposed through a faculty mutiny over some sacred cow disputes.

  4. Z in MT

    If the faculty own the university, then why do the faculty support administrative bloat over more facultyhigher salaries?

  5. Duane Oyen

    Because the kind of administrative bloat they are talking about is largely approved by faculty.  There is a little bit of split between the liberal arts-education law types and the STEM types (UMn gets more than $800 mil a year in research grants; there are a lot of very smart people) regarding the various diversity officers, etc.

    But, if you actually look at the costs in the examples, they cite UMore Park and the student housing building spree, tied to a strategic shift to increase tuition to try to be more elitist, like hot shot public universities Michigan Ann Arbor and NC Chapel Hill, and use the extra cash thus generated by forcing student loans to provide scholarship aid to the diversity and poor student groups.  In other words, the industry standard price discrimination that has dominated higher ed since the GWU “revolution”.  They committed to blow a lot of money on fancy dorms, and then the economic downturn happened.

    There isn’t a lot of “bloat” in offices where people actually have to produce stuff.  They froze salaries for 3 years- you don’t do that if you have a choice, because you lose your best younger people. 

  6. Pseudodionysius
    King Banaian

    Dave: Recently I asked a colleague for advice on how to advance my career as a professor so that I could better support a family one day. His response: become an administrator.

    I thought about becoming a dean.  I was told my politics were an issue.  And then I found out how much more they made and decided I wasn’tthat cheapa date.  (There’s a joke that ends with “we’re just negotiating price” applicable here that would violate Ricochet TOS.  But if you know it already…)

    But yes, ’tis true. · 5 hours ago

    Whether in the modern multi-versity environment or the public sector anyone internal who advocates for a policy position is perceived as a “vested interest” whereas the consultant is billed as a “disinterested, objective” third party who will play his or her role as a noble 18th century era rationalist investigator and calmly table bullet point recommendations once they have been run through the ringer of prose dreck to balloon them up to olympian sized incomprehensibilty to minimize the offensiveness.

    The resemblance of my description to any actual initiatives — past or present — is purely coincidental.

    Enjoy the “synergies”.

  7. Pseudodionysius
    vb: I got stuck on the inscription consultant.  Where could I get a grad degree in this field? · 4 hours ago

    No degree necessary my good man, merely a brief tutorial in the Ancient Greek field of Anti Logic.

  8. Chris Campion

    Couldn’t happen to a nicer group of folks.  There’s nothing so insular and bubble-esque than a college, and so out-of-touch with the real world as are (most) of a school’s faculty and especially its long-term staff. 

    It’s funny how capitalism is said to appeal to the greedy.  I’ve never seen anyone more exemplify the “greed” motive when a college president jacked tuition up by 14% and told staff “If they want to come here, they’ll pay for it”.

    This is the result of K-12 and colleges creating the idea that everyone benefits from college, and should go.  This creates excess demand for students, colleges pick and choose, and whoever’s going will figure out a way to cough up the money for it.  Why?  Because they think they should, and they don’t know how much they’re really going into hock for, and the college keeps telling them “you’ll be able to pay back your loans with our fancy degree on your wall”.

    Garbage.  My experience is that a good chunk of what’s being taught can and should be tossed like yesterday’s salad.

  9. Ross C

    As someone who has worked with a large number of consultants over the years I think I can authoritatively say this.

    The callenge with hiring outside consultants is that they often confirm whatever biases of whatever organization or department is paying them.  All the while they hold out that other interpretations may be valid.  And they typically conclude that more work may be necessary to get a better view of the study’s conclusions.

    In the odd case where they offer actually firm guidance as to a course of action and that guidance is able to be shown to be defective, there is unerringly a “pretty compelling” reason why they did not get enough information at the outset to foresee their error. 

    And an offer for more consultation as to how to proceed in the future.

  10. Miffed White Male
    Pseudodionysius

     

     

    Whether in the modern multi-versity environment or the public sector anyone internal who advocates for a policy position is perceived as a “vested interest” whereas the consultant is billed as a “disinterested, objective” third party who will play his or her role as a noble 18th century era rationalist investigator and calmly table bullet point recommendations once they have been run through the ringer of prose dreck to balloon them up to olympian sized incomprehensibilty to minimize the offensiveness.

    The resemblance of my description to any actual initiatives — past or present — is purely coincidental.

    Enjoy the “synergies”. · 13 hours ago

    Consulting is also driven by a syndrome best described by the question “If you’re so smart, what are you doing working  here?”

  11. Whiskey Sam

    If the administrators are just going to pass on their responsibilities to a consultant, why not get rid of the administrator entirely?  What purpose do they serve?

  12. Z in MT

    One of the big drivers of administrative bloat is compliance with Federal regulatory requirements such as Title IX, ADA, NIH for grant funding etc.

  13. FloppyDisk90

    State government complaining that universities are inefficient.  Truly the pot calling the kettle black.

  14. katievs

    This is so depressing.  I hate that responsibility-shifting.  And I’ve seen a lot of it.  It’s among the things that drove me away from professional academia.

  15. Dave

    Recently I asked a colleague for advice on how to advance my career as a professor so that I could better support a family one day. His response: become an administrator. At our school, it’s the best strategy for a boost in pay. It’s how he was able to buy a new house!

  16. Dave

    This morning’s email brings notice that my university is hiring for a position directing a center for the success of women faculty.  The center is supposed to help women faculty through mentoring, events, advocacy, and advice/support for work life balance.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but weren’t the resources to help with all these issues once called “colleagues,” “family,” and “friends”?