In an Era of Increasing Fiscal Constraints, an Inexplicable Shift in Hiring Patterns in Higher Education

In this past week’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, there is a very revealing graph representing the changes in employment in colleges and universities from 1976 to 2011. The graph is based on an analysis of IPEDs data by AAUP’s John Curtis.


Full-Time Tenured and Tenure-Track Faculty

1976 – 353,681

2011 – 436,293

Increase – 23%


Graduate Student Employees

1976 – 160.086

2011 – 358,743

Increase – 123%


Full-Time Executives

1976 – 97,003

2011 – 233,368

Increase 141%


Full-Time Non-Tenure Track Faculty

1976 – 80,883

2011 – 290,238

Increase – 259%


Part-Time Faculty

1976 – 199,139

2011 – 768,071

Increase – 286%


Full-Time Non-Faculty Professional Staff

1976 – 150,319

2011 – 704,505

Increase – 369%


If we simply could not afford to maintain a level of faculty on tenure tracks proportionate to student enrollment, that would be one thing.

But, clearly, if we can afford such a massive increase in professional staff, as well as such an increase in executives whose salaries have been escalating very dramatically, the sharp decrease in the percentage of all instructional faculty who are tenured or on tenure tracks is a matter of a dramatic shift in priorities—in the conception of the university.

Clearly, our colleges and universities are no longer places where the primary focus is on instruction. Instead, they are places where the primary goal is to entrench and to expand administrative bureaucracies.

It is as if higher education has borrowed very selectively and poorly from the corporate model. Although we now have much the same ever-widening gap in compensation between upper management and the bulk of the employees, we also have the sort of burgeoning middle management that was more typical of American corporations in the third quarter of the 20th century and increasing eliminated from our corporations in the last quarter of the 20th century. If our colleges and universities were truly operating as efficiently as the best corporations, the increase in administrative staff would be among the lowest numbers on this chart and not the highest number.

I do not think that higher education, at its best, is a corporate enterprise, and therefore, I do not believe that it is effective to try to manage our institutions as if they were corporations. Higher education may meet the needs of business in a variety of ways, but it is not a business per se. Indeed, there is manifold evidence that the shift in priorities from instruction to administration is making it increasingly difficult, as well as much less cost-effective, for our institutions to meet the demand for an ever-larger number of college-educated people in the workforce. But our administrative class seems too inept to recognize that the model that they are pursuing and promoting is not just conceptually incoherent but also academically and economically unsustainable.


37 thoughts on “In an Era of Increasing Fiscal Constraints, an Inexplicable Shift in Hiring Patterns in Higher Education

  1. Many if not most universities are today mini-city-states where the education mission exists as an excuse for the massive construction projects and auxiliary services which are provided at these campus/resorts.

    Who profits at these so-called non-profits? Indeed, businesses and government (legislators themselves often own some of the corporations which provide the construction and services to universities). In short, the administration of a university, even a public university, is a node on a larger profit nexus with tentacles that stretch much, much farther than the classroom, laboratory or studio. Campuses are now resort areas, competing with each other for students based on the size of the swimming pool, the number of tennis courts, the gourmet quality of the food, etc. Once this is understood, the entire devolution of the American university becomes much clearer.

    In New York State, this is startlingly transparent: with Start Up New York (note the acronym is the same as SUNY the university system), Governor Cuomo has begun situating private businesses right on university campuses alongside regular university personnel and operations (some of which will thereby eventually be replaced) — granting these corporations and their employees ten years of tax-free operations as well.

    It is therefore a little late for the faculty — who have helped to enable all of this by their persistent refusal to do the hard work of governance — to suddenly cry foul. In New York State, even United University Professions, the faculty and professionals union of SUNY, was silent on the tax-free scheme until the last minute, putting efforts instead into duping the membership into ratifying a bargaining agreement whose language had not yet even been finalized.

    In short, faculty cannot have it both ways: eschewing meeting with boards of trustees, decrying their “culture,” cutting back-room deals, etc. and then railing against the corporate and corporatist decisions which have destroyed “the idea of the university” in America.

    It is long past the time for the faculty to resume their original roles as prime managers, to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty by engaging fully in the planning and organization that, in their willful absence, have instead resulted in these entrenched city-state resorts, bloated with administrative and professional staff excesses. However, because the tenured faculty have, by and large, for decades now refused a major role in governance, they do indeed now resemble more closely the adjuncts whose exploited labor is progressively replacing their own.

    In short: as the majority of all faculty are being slowly but surely transformed into adjuncts, providing the edu-tainment at these university resort-campuses, it is predictable that there may never again be a seat for them at the table of the university governing boards across the country. The fault, dear Brutus, is in themselves and not in their stars that faculty have become underlings….

      • Yes, many of us have never left the table. At times, we are very exasperated or even angry about what is transpiring at the table, but we haven’t thrown up our hands and walked away–at least not more than momentarily.

        And that, for me, is the most hopeful thing: even after these last three or four decades, some of us are still at the table, trying to preserve academic freedom, shared governance, and the other principles that AAUP has tried to sustain and preserve over the past century.

        I think that it is an abdication to assume that the trends over the last three to four decades cannot be reversed. Although we cannot turn back the clock to the way things were before the emphasis on corporatization began to take over our institutions, we can get to some place better than where we are now.

        But given the variegated nature of higher education, this is going to be a very uneven and even at times very messy process.

        And I don’t think that it is a matter of refusing to accept defeat–of being the equivalent of those soldiers who come out of the jungle thirty or forty years after the war has actually ended.

    • I beg to differ on one point: to lay any of this in the lap of faculty in the state institutions is rather unfair. In many of our institutions, the concept of shared governance has in fact been used as a whip to add to our workload by dumping mindless tasks on us that in fact only “justify” the growth of the newly-minted associate-deans/provosts/whatevers above us. As the “real work” of management grows out of proportion to the need, we’ve had valuable colleagues yanked out of our departments for this sort of work without being replaced, thereby further adding to our teaching load, as well.

    • “Shared Governance” between faculty and adminsitration might be more productive if ALL faculty were included, that is both tenure track and non-tenure track faculty members were welcome to participate.

  2. I think your logic has a problem here-“Clearly, our colleges and universities are no longer places where the primary focus is on instruction.”

    Clearly, our colleges and universities no longer consider the primary focus of Full time tenured faculty to be instruction. Most tenured and tenure track I know are happy with research and perhaps teaching one class a semester, if that. For better or worse, the model is changing.

    • My logic is sometimes all too obviously flawed.

      But I doubt that most tenured faculty teach one course per semester. Even in disciplines such as engineering and the sciences, in which externally funded research is very important, at most institutions that sort of very minimal teaching load would be dependent on the individual faculty members having generated very large research grants.

      Although I am willing to take your word for it that most tenured faculty whom you know teach such minimal loads, those faculty are not in my circle of acquaintance. In my experience, most tenured faculty at most institutions teach three or even four courses per semester–and are still expected to do substantial scholarship as well as service.

      But I also feel compelled to point out that in a state such as my own state of Ohio, in which the state support for public colleges and universities has dropped to little more than a third of what it was in 1980, research revenue has replaced much of the lost revenue. For instance at my own institution, Wright State University, I believe that 18%-19% of the institutional revenue is now generated by funded research, while 21%-22% derives from state subsidy. So even the tenured faculty in disciplines with a great deal of external funding available are now serving a broader institutional purpose, and not simply their own scholarly ambitions. (And I don’t know the numbers offhand, I am certain that state subsidy constitutes a much lower percentage and external funding a significantly higher percentage of institutional revenues at Ohio State and Cincinnati, the largest public research universities in Ohio.)

      So, absent that revenue, students would be paying even more than they are now paying in tuition and fees.

      Lastly, I am not trying to argue that tenure-track faculty don’t have it better than most other faculty. They very obviously do have it better. I am arguing, instead, that “better” is a very relative term, that most adjunct faculty and many full-time contingent faculty now work under very difficult if not abysmal conditions, but also that most tenured faculty have considerably heavier workloads than the general observer might appreciate.

      But, it is also very possible that I simply move in circles in which the less fortunate of the fortunately tenured move.

    • Running into this in health care, too. Cause them professionals are so dang expensive, and they have them obstructionist STANDARDS, if we hire nonprofessionals it will be so much easier to steamroll. Not, to me, inexplicable at ALL–just familiar.

    • I am a full time tenured professor and I don’t get to do research and teach one course per semester. This is in part because I work on Ontario which has the worst funding for higher education in North America. Perhaps faculty with named professorships or other funded positions “get” to do that. We don’t have (private) named professorships in Canada, and publicly funded research no longer gives researchers time off from teaching. In other words, it’s important to keep a comparative perspective. Tenure track and tenured faculty are under increasing administrative pressure to do more funded research (regardless of their course load) to advance the essentially competititve relationship between universities and university fundraisers as well as that encouraged between scholars. Of course, if universities weren’t so academically understaffed they wouldn’t have to rely on underpaid precarious untenured faculty to do the mass work of teaching.
      In my view the tension between research and teaching is instituitonally driven and often irrational, that is,, not a function of talent, motivation, or commitment. There are excellent scholars who are stuck in precarious or teaching-only positions; the market in the academy is not necessarily more rational than that in the corporate world. What we all seem to agree on is that the academy is now fully hierarchized, with part time and untenured faculty doing an ever higher proportion of teaching without time or space for research, and hardly anyone — particularly younger faculty — perceiving themselves as having time for governance issues. My university claims that a higher and higher proportion of the university budget goes to “compensation” but finds itself unable to specify how much of that increase is money going to non-academic staff. Most of it, obviously. Then thus staff busies faculty with performance reviews and restructuring to legitimate hiring even more middle administration while permitting faculty to “consult” on which sections of the academic organization will go next.

      • A recent report on course loads in Ontario universities noted: “The average course load during the 2012 academic year was slightly under 3 courses –equivalent to two courses in one semester and one course in a second semester.” This was for a sample only, but one that included disciplines from the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities in a range of universities.

        See here: Publications/Pages/Summary.aspx?link=128&title=Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty: Implications for Productivity and Differentiation

    • At a very small number of research oriented institutions tenured/tenure-track faculty may only teach one course per semester, but at most other institutions, especially teaching institutions, the average is probably closer to 3 or 4.

  3. Nicely presented piece. I do think, however, that the “let’s blame the administrators for everything” tactic is neither helpful nor even accurate. The biggest number on your chart is that last – the rise of the “professional FT non-academic” staff. These are all those people in the “student support” buildings; the “teaching excellence centers”; the additional staff in the registrar’s office; the IT (hello central) folks–that last, by the way, is one of the biggest drivers and the one least commented on by the foes of corporate U. The administrators didn’t ask for all this larding up of the universities–all these Directors of Leadership Success and Excellence Facillitators and so on. The voters did. The parents. THe tuition-payers. The lawyers. The culture of accommodation, social promotion, nobody fails here, etc etc. To say nothing of the explosion of overall enrolment. In terms of real dollars, the fancy-administrator salaries are a pittance compared to the professional FT non-academic category. The problem is much bigger than the Evil Administrator, who actually works pretty damn hard trying to keep the boat afloat.

    • I have no doubt–and I do mean this very sincerely–that many administrators work very hard and that the daily stresses that some of them confront would make the job very unappealing and even at times unbearable to most people.

      But–and you knew that a big “but” was coming–administrators are getting paid ever-escalating salaries that are ostensibly justified by their need to balance a great many competing interests all at once and to make very difficult decisions that serve the long-term interests of their institutions.

      So, to turn that argument around and assert that those who are getting paid so handsomely to make such decisions are essentially at the mercy of all of those competing interests is a very lame way to defend those administrators.

      Moreover, I have been in faculty leadership positions for a decade and a half, and I have seen very little evidence of any reluctance to hire these ever-expanding legions of administrative support staff. In fact, administrators seem very eager to pursue new initiatives in response to the trends of the moment–in part because doing so provides a basis for pursuing their next position and in part because it is a distraction from the really difficult issues that are much less photo-op friendly.

      What seems to happen is that a new upper-level position is created, and then to make that person’s segment of the bureaucracy comparable to others at the same level within the hierarchy, mid-level administrative positions are created, with each administrator at every level then requiring support staff–and on and on. And when everyone has moved on to the next academic fad, none of that bureaucracy is dismantled and, indeed, very little of it is even reoriented. Benjamin Ginsberg has, of course, very succinctly and compellingly chronicled this phenomenon in The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters.

      I don’t think that administrators are evil. But I do see a great deal of evidence that many, if not most, of them have priorities that from a faculty perspective seem very skewed and very destructive.

      I have made this case in other posts, but I will make it again here: if the people in these positions are so skilled at what they are doing, why have all of these very obviously destructive trends been allowed not just to continue over a very long period but to accelerate? And if the people in these positions lack the capacity to alter this course, then who has that capacity? And then why should they be paid escalating salaries for being, metaphorically, the engineers on what is a runaway train that they are completely powerless to slow down?

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  5. The corporate model bashing is a little misplaced because a lot of the need for administrators is the result of grant requirements. The grants implicitly or explicitly require whole departments of people who do reporting, compliance, etc.

    Funding for buildings and construction is often paid for out of capital campaigns and private donations – people who want their name on a building. Maybe capital campaigns need to focus more on teaching excellence and student research grants.

    • Trying to explain the increase in the number of administrative staff by pointing to the need to meet grant requirements would be credible, perhaps, if we were looking at short term variations in staffing, but it is not a credible argument when we are looking at such long-term trends. Grants simply aren’t renewed for such lengthy periods and there has been no recent spike in available funding; in fact, the opposite has occurred; over the last half-decade, there has been a serious contraction in many types of external funding.

      When faculty receive external research funding that requires hiring of staff to handle reporting requirements, etc., those hires are almost always temporary: that is, their employment continues until the funding is exhausted.

      In contrast, on the administrative side, the hires tend to be permanent: that is, once the bureaucracy is in place, it remains in place. Whether the initial impetus was a grant, a gift, or simply an allocation doesn’t seem to matter.

      Although some very large gifts have been designated for scholarships (I believe that Harvard recently received the largest gift in its history precisely for that purpose), few fundraising campaigns are ever focused on student scholarships, never mind on promoting teaching excellence or student research. Most campaigns that have used those phrases have been to construct buildings designed to facilitate those things, not for the things themselves.

      It is a broadly accepted truism that donors like to have their names on buildings and administrators like to have their pictures taken in front of new buildings. I think that that perception reflects the shift to corporatization or, more precisely, the capitalization of education: the emphasis on buildings and bureaucracy at the expense of the faculty (and especially the full- and part-time contingent faculty) is comparable to the corporate emphasis on profit margins and dividends at the expense of production workers.

      By the way, for anyone ready to pounce with the accusation, that last point doesn’t make me a Marxist. Since I am a faculty member, it simply makes me a realist.

    • The “overhead” portion of a grant actually subsidizes the administration of the grant as well as other grant-related expenses. While grants from the U.S. Department of Education often receive very low (i.e. single-digit) overhead percentages, in the sciences overhead can exceed an additional 50% of the grant itself.

      Indeed, the administrators of universities, together with their boards, set the agenda for the capital funding campaigns and the administration also determines which donations it will accept. The short-sightedness of administrators in academic matters is, of course, legendary. For example, there is an old story that Yale refused a cinema studies program offer which would have been fully funded by alumni back in the sixties or seventies — because the Yale administration at that time did not believe that film was a serious subject for advanced study. Buildings, on the other hand, have generally been more than welcomed throughout academia, whether there are faculty and grants to support their use or not. In state universities, the construction industry and its ties to the legislatures create a public debt for such physical plant expansion, all facilitated by eager, corporatist administrations.

      • Oddly enough, there is no “reply” function available for Prof. Gross’s comment below (which I have only recently discovered), as if it were “the last word” on the subject.

        Here is the reply: Indeed, serious scholarship in film studies now thrives at Yale (cf. despite its later start out of the gate.

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  8. I believe that the only way that this unconscionably foul set of employment practices will end is if every employee who is abused by this system refuses to work in it. It is time for all to coordinate massive walkouts across the nation, at the end of the Fall semester, and all who walk out should withhold reporting student grades for the semester.

    When that happens, the entire shebang will come to a loud and grinding halt.

    Nothing else has mitigated these practices. Refusing to assist in their continuance has the power to change them. If everyone helps one another to survive during an extended strike, then we can make it. Most communities have community gardens, thrift stores, discount bakeries, shelters, etc. If they are made aware of this effort, perhaps they, and others that they know, can help those who suffer by striking.

    Before the strike, employees can begin lining up other forms of work, if they can do so. Many of them already have one or more “side jobs”, just to survive. They can shift their focus more to those things.

    Tenured faculty can help their suffering compatriots, also, and they should do so.

    I welcome your feedback.

  9. Thanks so much for this very important article. Could you please provide a full citation for the article in Chronicle of Higher Education that you are using here? Thanks in advance.

    • “Data Point: Behind the Numbers in the News.” 18 Apr. 2014: A,23.

      I have not been able to locate the item electronically.

      • Thanks, that would explain why I couldn’t find it online. Will find a hard copy, Much appreciated.

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