Swarthmore Administration Grows Rapidly, Garnering Concern

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Swarthmore’s administration has grown 1,450% since 1987, according to data released in 2014 by The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR). This “problematic boom” in the size of administrative officers, wrote the NECIR, is “particularly dramatic at private, nonprofit universities.”

A Nationwide Trend

Over all, the NECIR found that between 1987 to 2012 universities and colleges across the country added 517,636 administrators and professional employees to their payrolls. The addition of so many employees who neither teach nor conduct research has struck some at Swarthmore as a frustrating trend, while others are less worried about the effect such changes may have on the college.

Swarthmore Provost Tom Stephenson called the rapid growth of college administrations “a national trend.” At colleges nationwide, he said, “there is a much greater sense of hierarchy and a sense of professionalization, for lack of a better word. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s definitely a change from the way things were in the 80’s.”

 Charting Swarthmore’s Growth

According to data provided to The Daily Gazette by the NECIR, Swarthmore had 93 full time administrators in the 2011-2012 school year (the last year for which data was available). In 1987 there were only six. There have been even more positions added over the past two years, as Swarthmore expanded its Office of Student Engagement, the Center for Innovation and Leadership, and the Title IX Office, among others. Looking further back, Stephenson said that he believed growth in the 1990s and 2000s was in the “general area of student services,” including Career Services, the Deans Office, and the Registrar’s Office.

admin growth

The rapid growth of Swarthmore’s administration in recent years has not been accompanied by similar growth in its student body or faculty. While the administration has more than doubled since 1999-2000, the student body has fluctuated in size between 1,428 and 1,524 over the same 15 year period, according to the Common Data Set. The faculty has seen even less change: while there have been a few dips in size, there are currently 206 full time professors teaching at the college, only 5 more than in 2000.

Political Science Professor Richard Valelly explained that this disparate growth is partially attributable to the way Swarthmore’s administration and faculty grows. During her tenure, Valelly explained, President Rebecca Chopp instituted a new rule for the creation and retention of tenure lines. When one professor (say, an Americanist who teaches about Congress and the President, like Valelly) retires, that professor’s line does not stay within the department, but is rather returned to a general pool. The department has to argue that they should keep the line, and other departments are able to petition for it. While Valelly said the lines have rarely been transferred in practice, this policy has been a way to “slow and regulate the process of faculty expansion, and to make that process centrally guided.”

The administration, on the other hand, is able to add new positions at any time, “grow[ing] itself by its own good judgement,” said Valelly. These positions, subject only to the approval of the Board, can be added in times of crisis, such as the spring of 2013, when multiple positions were added in the Title IX office.

What Drives Growth?

The professors and administrators who spoke to The Daily Gazette offered differing theories on what has driven administrative growth.

Compliance with federal law was a motivation cited by multiple sources. Tom Stephenson explained that expanded the Title IX office led to “led to some significant growth in student services,” but the Affordable Care Act and other employee benefit concerns have also caused some “compliance headaches” at the college. Vallelly echoed Stephenson, saying that campus has had to hire professionals to get the campus to comply with the the Americans with Disabilities Act as well. History Professor Timothy Burke said that institutions across the country have had to increase, for example, the amount of attention they pay to IRB procedures and other forms of risk management.

Religion Professor Steven P. Hopkins said that a growing need (or perceived need) for more student support has also led to more administrators. “If you really look at the deans that have been hired and […] what those people actually do,” said Hopkins, “it’s either assessments or student needs.” In a sense, he said, students here have a dean for every part of their lives, which has resulted in a sort of “micromanagement from the bottom up.”

While Hopkins was concerned about the level of management of student lives, Valelly said these increases were “not […] capricious expansions of administrations.” In Valelly’s view, “the administration is very lean. I don’t think there is any administrative bloat. I can’t think of a single instance where I’ve thought, ‘Hmm, the College could do without that person.’”

Growing Administration, Growing Concerns

This growth has, unsurprisingly, raised questions about what kind of college Swarthmore has become. In interviews with The Daily Gazette, many professors cited a change in tone as the college has grown. Linguistics Professor Donna Jo Napoli, who came to Swarthmore in 1987, said that the administration was more intimate when she started teaching. Swarthmore’s growth, Napoli said, has not necessarily led us in the right direction.

“We’ve always been a business,” she said, “but we are now a big business. We have become very, very wealthy, and for some reason, instead of that letting us revel in any desire of uniqueness, instead of that letting us be experimental or leading in any way, what it’s done is a strange thing. It’s made us want to grow even more. We want a bigger endowment. […] I find it bizarre.”

The college’s finances seem to concern many faculty members. According to Valelly, last year, for the first time, total compensation for senior administrators and staff was larger than total compensation for faculty. And administrations, said Valelly, “don’t shrink themselves very easily.” While he is not extremely concerned about how Swarthmore will react to growth in compensation packages, Valelly explained that some colleges have attempted to cap their spending by not filling faculty positions, creating top-heavy institutions.

The size or compensation of faculty and administrators is not the only thing that concerned professors. The feeling of campus, said many, was also important. Burke, who has been at Swarthmore since the mid 1990s, said that conversations about growing the college used to be much more “edgy” than today, because “faculty, students, and alumni especially were committed to the notion that this is a small place.” Now, many professors said, the college has less of a sense of faculty governance. Napoli said faculty can discuss issues, “ but when it comes right down to it, things are not going to happen unless they support the new goals of the college, which I think are very business-like goals.” While professionalization of some positions has been a welcome change, said Stephenson, he thinks it is a mistake to completely cut faculty voices out of the administration.

Looking Forward

Questions remain as to how Swarthmore will be affected by administrative growth. Some professors mentioned reviving the American Association of University Professors, a sort of faculty union, on campus, while others stressed the importance of student and alumni voices in leading the institution.

Napoli, on the other hand, offered a corporate solution to the problem: “An exercise that I have seen in corporate entities is asking the team ‘well, who are we?’ and ‘what do we do?’ […] I implore everyone at Swarthmore, from the students to the alumni to the administration, to ask themselves that question. Who are we? What is it exactly that we do?”

Allison Hrabar

Allison is double major in Political Science (Honors) and Film and Media Studies. When not working for The Daily Gazette, she cajoles people into watching the The Americans (Wednesdays at 10:00p.m. on FX).


  1. liberals want a nanny administration that takes care of everything for them; now they’re complaining about it?

    • And liberals want more government programs and then complain when it means there are more administrators. Classic.

  2. It might be good to examine exactly what an administrator is today versus what qualified as an administrator in 1987. There has been a tendency in business, including college business, to migrate what were formerly non-exempt positions into exempt positions. The work is only marginally different in a lot of cases but the expectation of added work hours without benefit of comp time or overtime on a fixed salary is part of the change.

    I will also point out that expectations for what gets done are vastly different than what was acceptable in the 80’s. Those were sleepier times for everyone. The College essentially closed in the summer. State and Federal authorities had only a fleeting interest in what took place in ivory towers and the college itself was physically much smaller. It is essential to periodically examine growth but it should be done while examining the changes that forced the growth.

  3. I hope that Swarthmore continues to work towards making its culture, its program, its opportunities unique among institutions of higher education. More money is great but I want Swarthmore to stay grounded and take the difficult route of working to challenge the status quo and to improve upon improvements rather than the easy route of basking in our reputation and privilege.

    I chose Swarthmore over Ivy League schools because Swarthmore was unique in its mission of inspiring social responsibility whereas the ivy league schools seemed like student factories that were getting lazy and drunk in their prestige. It’s important that Swarthmore maintains that youthful and vibrant startup mentality to continually push for the future of education.

    What’s most important is that although we are a college that serves to educate students, we can also be a tremendous social force for good works and deeds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading