Sunday, September 30, 2012

Administrative Bloat by Deans and Other Unit Administrators--An Overlooked but Important Source of Direct Attack on Shared Governance

I have been looking at administrative boat and suggesting its ubiquity within large public universities.  My counterpart at Purdue, J. Paul Robinson, has made an eloquent case for the perversions of administrative bloat--advanced, of course, for all of the most innocuous reasons.  (e..g. Administrative Bloat and Managing Faculty-Administrative Conflict; Address of J. Paul Robinson, Chair of the Purdue University Faculty Senate.

 (Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2012)

But administrative bloat is at its most pernicious when the number of administrative roles metastasize at the unit level--college, schools and campuses.  It is in the vast expansion of administration at the unit level, where deans, chancellors and the like seek to surround themselves with something that approaches the courts of medieval fief holders in imitation of the royal courts, that both the university and its commitment to shared governance is put most effectively at risk. 

What do I mean by administrative bloat at the unit level, and how can one connect the growth of administrative staff with a threat to shared governance? 

At its simplest level, administrative bloat at the unit level (colleges, campuses, schools and the like) can be understood as the growth in the number of positions that now serve the dean speciffically and the unit indirectly in the conduct of the administratyive functions of the unit. One can argue that as the range and quantity of administrative duties increase--including additional obligations to assess, monitor, report, assist, counsel and plan--additional staff are necessary to undertake these obligation.  Students look to the unit for counseling advice for job searches--that may require additional staff for a career office.  The number of applications to a unit may increase--that may require additional admissions staff.  A unit administrator may seek to add additional programming for overseas programs, the registrar may need to do additional checking for graduation requirements, all of these may justify additional staff.  The financial officer may need additional staff to undertake additional functions, or just to make the undertaking of current functions easier.  We have all heard constant variations on these themes as staff has grown.  

At another level, administrative bloat suggests not merely a growth of staff, but an inflation of titles and functions.  Where a unit might have had an associate dean for academic matters and an assistant dean for student matters, now there is a proliferation of decanbal titles that shows no sign of slowing: there are now deans for admissions, for foreign programs, for career planning, for student life and a host of other matterss limited only by the imagination of the dean (and her budgetary ambitions).  In the process, the distinction between associate and assistant deanships has disappeared in some units, with the title evidencing decanal favor more than functional distinction or job qualification or duties. But more pernicious--title profligacy and proliferation tends to compound bloat.  No self respecting dean can function without staff.  Where non titled staff might be justified by the need to serve emerghinf line positions, the proliferation of managerial classes in units then spawn an industry of staff hiring and a substantial increase in the scope and character of work that must be assigne dto staff.

At either level, administrative bloat has an immediate consequence--it represents a choice for staffing.  With limited budgets, an administrative choice to hire staff, and especially managerial staff positions that themselves generate the need for additional subordinate staff, produces a significant effect on unit budgets.  Funds that might be used for hiring faculty are diverted to hiring staff.  And the more staff dean's hire the greater the pressure to hire more staff, especially to satisfy the needs of managerial staff to have staff to undertake their charges.  These staff do not produce income int he sense of generating either revenues from students or form grants and research.  But their proliferation produces significant effects on faculty.  Larger staffs means more "mouths to feed" from revenue generating operations of the unit.  Revenue is generated, of course, on the backs of faculty--and not on that of administrators that "ride heard" on them.   The result is easy to understand--holding faculty constant while increasing staff puts greater pressure on faculty to generate more income.  That in turn puts pressure on faculty to teach more.  But teaching more puts perverse pressure on faculty whose value is also derived from their research productivity.  That, in turn, creates incentives toward hiring fixed term teaching staff and bifurcating faculty along functional lines. 

And it tends to create incentives to eliminate the least revenue generating aspect of faculty activity--their role in shared governance.  It is in this proliferation, created in part by the development of a hierarchical organization of unit administrative governance, that shared governance is attacked and overcome. In a leaner administrative structure, faculty served an important role not merely in advising and consenting to actions that affected unit governance; unit faculty also served an important administrative role in the governance of the unit.  But unit administrators can be substituted for faculty in a number of important governance functions--from faculty hiring (both fixed term and tenured), to course and program development, to the development and post graduate programs.  None of this is imaginary.  The substitution of administrative for faculty personnel is made easier by the adoption of fiscal models that tend to put pressure on faculty to produce more FTEs. That model, when combined with budgetary pressures created by the need to maintain FT-unproductive administrative staff, increase the pressures on faculty to produce class hours.  These in turn produce pressures that shape the composition of faculty ranks (incentives to hire teaching only fixed term faculty) and the diversion of faculty time from administration (service) to teaching and research. The combination of administrative and fiscal policies, then, contribute to a reduction fo faculty time for governance and the creation of an apparatus that can be substituted for faculty participation in governance.  

Administrative bloat at the unit level then produces a system that creates substantial pressures on faculty to retreat from governance tasks.  It produces a class of employees that do not produce revenue, creating greater pressure to move revenue producing staff (faculty) away from governance and increasing the need to shift teaching from a research related enterprise to an assembly line and contact hour maximizing project. And it then increases the power of deans to control their units in two ways--first by eliminating governance partners and then by permitting deans to control faculty activity through the device of financial model imperatives. Under this model, faculty are increasingly seen not as partners in a shared enterprise but as a factor in the production of value--money through FTEs, and prestige through carefully targeted research (measured in turn by the production of money).  Their governance role is usually reduced to quasi-staff or focus group--on occasion, and when it suits to satisfy the prejudices of outsiders, faculty may be asked their opinion (though often that request is couched in terms that suggest the "right" answer). As a consequence and increasingly in many large public universities, the realities of shared governance is disappearing at the unit levels even as its form is preserved and it is celebrated at the university level.  It does me little good to speak to the virtues of shared governance at the University Faculty Senate when many of my colleagues inhabit units with a mockery of shared governance, where for the best of reasons the realities of shared governance are disappearing, plowed under by financial modelling choices and the quite deliberate augmentation of deep structures of administrative machinery. 

Not all deans, of course, have succumbed to the allure of this model. Not all units are run in the form of a post-modern panopticon, and staffed on the model of the late Byzantine court.  For those deans, the rewards are significant--a more engaged and more productive faculty that enhances the reputation of the unit and facilitates the ability of a dean to effectively manage the organization without the need for constant and disciplinary monitoring. Penn State, like other large public universities has well known examples of both types; and all lament the extent to which central administrators, sometimes overly concerned with the bottom line, tend to be complicit in the metastasis of bloat and its consequences int he units. It is that complicity, and the willingness to emphasize finance in an overly narrow way, perhaps, that appears to suggest that the trend is toward the institutionalization of administrative bloat as the "new normal".   Its consequences for shared governance at the unit level is profound.  It is only a matter of time before that change is also felt at the university level as well.


  1. All very well, but you deal at the level of generalities here. What about all the unfunded mandates from federal and state governments that generate the need for more administrative staff to handle them? There may be some cases of departments where the heads are intent on empire-building for its own sake, but I suspect that the explanation for the vast majority of what you call administrative bloat comes from having to deal with far more responsibilities and legal obligations that departments have no choice but to deal with. Penn State always impressed me as a university that was relatively lean administratively--perhaps too lean, as the example of too long ignoring the requirements of the Clery Act has come to light as a result of the Sandusky affair. You could prove your case better by citing specific examples of where additions to administrative staff are not really necessary.

  2. Thanks Sandy. You are right of course, in part. First theory, then proof. Hopefully the Senate can begin to look at numbers and behaviors and report back in more concrete form. Still, it is important to remember that the "administrative burden growth" argument, now well worn need not necessarily lead to greater dependence on staff, nor even if more staff is required need it lead to the proliferation of managerial staff with staff of their own. Your point about the Clergy Act raises the second objection to your argument--there the deficiency wasn't generated at the unit level but at the university level. And the solution to the deficiency today is not the hiring of more staff at the unit level but the deputization of current faculty and staff. I look forward to a data driven conversation now that the matter has been put at issue.