As colleges hire more admins, critics warn of bloat

Parrish Hall, which houses most of the college's administrative personnel.

According to the college staff reports, in 2011 the college employed 699 full-time employees. Of these, according to Director of Institutional Research Robin Huntington Shores, 242 were full-time professional administrators, while only 162 were tenured and on-track faculty members at the college. Critics of higher education have pointed towards what they call “administrative bloat,” the consistent growth of administrative positions. 

Shores, Vice President of Human Resources Pamela Prescod-Caesar and President Rebecca Chopp claim not to have a concrete definition of the word “administration” and declined to give this year’s equivalent number to what Shores calculated two years ago, though the number of tenurable positions has grown to 169.

“Swarthmore is very wealthy,” said Andrew Hacker, political scientist and author of “Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – and What We Can Do About It.” “When last I saw, it had more endowment per student than any comparable college. So it spends on bloat because it has the money to do so. That’s what we found at Williams. In a related bloat, they also overpay their faculties because the money is there, in part to perpetuate the illusion that they are top people in the fields.”

Professor of History Timothy Burke does not completely agree with Hacker’s perspective. While he acknowledges that the trend in administrative growth is faster than that of faculty growth, Burke does not think this strongly applies at Swarthmore.

“Because some of the growth broadly speaking in large universities especially has been in top-level positions, [this mirrors] the degree to which top-level executive positions in private industry have multiplied and become excessively compensated,” he said.

Listing the driving forces behind this growth, Burke mentioned federal and state mandates, student demands, growth in financial and infrastructural intricacy, as well as more complex information technology, and “professionalization of the white-collar economy generally plus an end to ‘amateur’ faculty participation in providing administrative services.”

Professor of Economics Mark Kuperberg believes that some of these expressed reasons, such as more government regulations, may apply, but thinks that the largest reason for this growth derives from student demands.

“You need to ask how much of what students want of their college experience is just what happens in class versus having a big psychology services department, having a lot of coaches, etc. There are a lot of amenities. Part of this race to the top [that people strive for] isn’t just hiring more professors; it’s building buildings and amenities. Many years ago, when people went to colleges, it was less amenities and more studying. But students want these amenities.”

Burke added that, in the past several decades, students and their families demand and expect more services from their colleges or universities. He named residential life as a domain in which this is particularly true.

While Prescod-Caesar and Chopp both said that the college does not have a classification called “administrators,” two predominate domains in which administrative growth has occurred over the past several years are the Provost’s office and student’s physical and mental health.

“Staff growth in the Provost’s area over the past five years has been focused on two major initiatives: enhancing our [Information Technology] support and academic support,” Provost Tom Stephenson said. “Of the roughly 11.5 positions added, over 50 percent have been to directly support academic departments or study abroad, 35 percent have been to improve our network, web content and media services support in ITS and the remainder have been to expand our support of athletics, research compliance and a small increase in administrative support in Parrish.”

Examples of academic departments that receive such support, he said, are peer-mentoring in the sciences, language resource center, writing center and theater production.

Dean of Students Liz Braun added that, over the past four years, the administration has also focused on enhancing student mental health and wellness, diversity and inclusion and violence prevention.

“The department in our division that has changed the most over the last four years is Counseling and Psychological Services,” she said. “Over the last four years, we have increased the CAPS staffing model to three paid senior clinicians plus the Director [David Ramirez], two paid postgraduate fellows and two interns. We are now in a much better position to address the needs of the current student body related to counseling. Some of these positions were paid for through re-allocations of divisional resources and some of it came as new funding through the budgeting process.”

In addition to increases in full-time administrative positions, the college also currently has 182 part-time staff who work fewer than 17.5 hours/week on the 35-hour schedule or fewer than 20 hours/week on the 40-hour schedule. These positions range from seasonal employees, such as waitstaff, to assistant directors.

“There are a great many reasons why a position may be part-time,” Prescod-Caesar said. “In some instances, positions are made part-time to accommodate the needs of a particular employee while also filling a college need. In other situations, positions are seasonal or temporary. We also have positions across campus that support departments or offices during high-volume times of the day or academic year.”

Prescod-Caesar mentioned the library and the development office as two departments with several part-time staff members. The college has decreased the number of full-time library staff, curators, and archivists from 32 in 2011 to 28 this past year.

When economists Robert E. Martin and R. Carter Hill conducted a study in 2012 to calculate real cost changes per student at large, public universities, they found that an optimal staffing ratio is one administrator for every three tenure-track employees. This result caused some colleges and universities to calculate their own administrator to tenure-track employee ratio. What many, including Swarthmore, found was that their ratios did not match this “optimal” amount.

A November 1, 2012 blog post by Shores analyzes the 2011 data of administrators and tenure-track faculty with respect to Martin and Hill’s study on public universities. Noting that the ratio may be different among liberal arts colleges, Shores wrote, “If that three-to-one ratio were desirable here, we would need to add 564 tenure-track faculty. I don’t know how the 242 administrators would manage all the new buildings and infrastructure we’d need. And our student-to-faculty ratio would drop to about two:one. Alternately, we could get rid of about 188 professional administrators to drop their total to 54. In that case, our 162 faculty would have to start managing housing, administering grants, raising funds, supporting IT, doing [Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System] reporting, etc., in addition to all their regular responsibilities.”

Providing general examples of positions that some colleges and universities have, Hacker said that it can be difficult to find administrative positions without rationale. Still, he does not think that indicates a necessity for each of them.

“Gay students may feel isolated and misunderstood, so the college should provide a trained adult to help them,” Hacker said about administrative bloat. “Students with eating disorders are far from home, so the college should provide services that parents would have secured. The lacrosse team has had a spectacular season. So shouldn’t there be someone to alert media outlets and show them around when they arrive? So bloat is sustained by the apparent rationality of every claim for a service. That’s how it starts and why it grows.”

Burke, on the other hand, does not think there are any positions that are unnecessary enough to dispose of so easily. While he agrees with Hacker that Swarthmore can provide more resources than some other academic institutions, he does not see this as a negative.

“If you look at less wealthy, less selective institutions, you’ll typically find that they begin to have to make much more careful choices that Swarthmore so far hasn’t had to make: to have fewer departments, to have fewer faculty in less popular or well-enrolled subjects, to have higher teaching loads and therefore less attention to students, to have markedly weaker services in some critical area,” Burke said. “But this is pretty much Neoliberal Ideology 101: impoverish wherever you can, because you can.”

For Kuperberg, however, it is not so much a question of the necessity of current administrative duties as it is the necessity of how many people are required to carry out these duties. In fact, he feels that the existing system is almost too efficient.

“I think things are done now very professionally on the administration’s side that really don’t have to be done very well,” he said. “Let’s say I submit for reimbursement. I get that reimbursement back before the credit card company even bills me. I don’t need it that fast. They probably have people who can get to things quickly because they don’t have much else to do.”

While at a slower pace than that of administrative positions, the number of tenurable positions at the college is also increasing; during the 2003-2004 academic year, there were 158 tenurable positions, whereas this year there are 169.

“Historically, the growth in the faculty has been to accommodate new areas of the curriculum and the historic slow growth in the student body,” Stephenson said. “Over the next decade, we will be adding faculty positions to implement the strategic initiatives adopted in 2011 [and] assure continued student-faculty engagement in one-on-one and small group settings such as research and thesis supervision, directed readings and community based learning opportunities.”

Academic departments that have developed over the past 30 years include computer science, Arabic, Japanese, Islamic Studies and film and media studies.

Kuperberg believes that there may be an unspoken incentive not to increase tenure-track positions as quickly as administrative positions are rising, though.

“Adding a tenure-track position is forever, so there’s less room for getting rid of positions,” he said. “If they hire a staff person, [however,] they can fire that person tomorrow. When they think of expanding, it seems that adding faculty members is a fixed cost and less flexible, whereas adding administrators allows a kind of bias that, as we try to increase quality, we don’t have to think as hard when adding administrators.”

Burke thinks that the majority of Swarthmore faculty knows about these administrative and tenure-track trends, and some worry about the college’s ascribing to these trends. “There is, however, also an extent to which griping about administration is as generic to faculty life as griping about food in the cafeteria is about student life,” he added.

1 Comment

  1. “I think things are done now very professionally on the administration’s side that really don’t have to be done very well,” he said. “Let’s say I submit for reimbursement. I get that reimbursement back before the credit card company even bills me. I don’t need it that fast. They probably have people who can get to things quickly because they don’t have much else to do.”

    Or, they’re trying to be respectful of people who are being reimbursed for a quantity that they would be unable to pay if the reimbursement didn’t come through before they were billed. Or they’re trying to be respectful of people who have to make charges close to the end of a billing cycle. Or (heaven forbid!) they’re trying to be respectful of the fact that many students use this system to get reimbursed when they make charges on debit, rather than credit cards, and that being slow with a reimbursement can leave people seriously strapped for cash.

    However, Kuperberg is spot on that the college spends on admin instead of tenure-track faculty because it’s less of a commitment. One area that I would have liked this article to address is the trend towards hiring more 3 to 6 year visiting professors, rather than tenure-track faculty.

    There were a lot of things about Hacker’s stance that seemed unprofessional (really, you’re going to take pot shots at gay students and students with eating disorders and say that their requests for services seem trivial to you? really?) but I think a lot of it boils down to his failure to put himself in other people’s shoes and see why given services are in fact NECESSARY. Fundamentally, services that promote financial, physical, and emotional well-being are valuable educational supports. (Or at least, they can be, when they operate well. It’s worth pointing out that CAPS is far too self-congratulatory in their comments here, given that I and numerous other students I know have attempted to get appointments at CAPS only to be told that there would be no available times for several weeks.)

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