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.