A Newspaper Report on Administrative Bloat: Some Remarks on the Sum of the Details and on Some of the Specific Details

On September, 17, an investigative article by Lance Lambert and Josh Sweigart was published in the Dayton Daily News. Its title is “’Bloat’ Driving Rise in Tuition; Administrative Pay Rising Faster than Cost for Instruction.”

For too long, administrators have been, at best, acquiescing to and, at worst, reinforcing to state legislators and to the public the notion that faculty are over-paid and under-worked and primarily responsible for the increase in tuition costs. It is overdue that the media is taking a much closer look at the numbers, and it is almost certain that the media attention may lead to a more knowledgeable perspective among both our public figures and the public.

This news article opens as follows:

“Soaring compensation for college presidents and high-profile coaches has fueled public backlash in recent years, but those costs aren’t alone in contributing to a double-digit increase in the payrolls of Ohio’s public colleges and universities.

“An I-Team analysis found that the payroll for 14 Ohio public universities grew by nearly $1.4 billion over the past decade to $4.6 billion in 2013. That is an increase of more than 40 percent, or 12 percent when adjusted for inflation.

Pay for vice presidents, deans and lower-level administrators has swelled–contributing, experts say, to inflated tuition and taxpayer expense.

“Critics have a name for it: administrative bloat.

“The largest spike came in institutional support, or administrative jobs, which grew 25 percent with inflation. Instructional payroll and benefits also increased, though by a more modest 11 percent.

“At Ohio State University, more than 1,100 of 31,000 employees have the word director in their title. Another 95 titles include the word president; 99 include the word dean.”

The reporters then document the large growth in student services and tech-support professional staffing, and they report the administrative contention that this increase in staffing has been driven largely by increased federal and state regulation. Likewise, they report the administrative contention that the increases in administrative payroll costs have been driven to a significant degree by increased healthcare costs.

I’d like to note here that, even if healthcare costs have increased, they have not increased disproportionately for administrative staff in comparison to instructional staff. So, healthcare costs are really a non-issue in this context. Likewise, since Ronald Reagan’s inauguration—that is, over the last 35 years–there has been a steady erosion in federal and state regulation of just about everything. So those who have been arguing that increased regulation of higher education has been a major driver of costs are, in effect, arguing that higher education has been almost singularly the target of increased regulation. That may very well be the case, since those devoted to weakening corporate and environmental regulations have also been focused on dismantling public education. But the argument almost always has the negligible substance of a truism—that is, it has been off-handedly asserted much more often that it has actually been statistically studied and supported. And, as I have pointed out in a number of other posts, in this data-obsessed period, if there is a lack of clear data on something, it is expedient for those who control the collection of data to obscure the data on that issue.

Nonetheless, although the reporters challenge neither of these commonplace administrative assertions, they do point out that although someone can argue over the accuracy of the specific numbers reported for a given institution or over the selection of the period for which the numbers have been gathered, the overall pattern in the growth of administrative staff and administrative payroll—and the disproportion between that growth and the increases in instructional staffing and payroll—is so obvious as to be indisputable.

Later in the article, the reporters include the following statistics:

“Payroll increased by 28 percent at Cedarville University, 25 percent at Central State University, 24 percent at the University of Dayton, 13 percent at Wright State University and 7 percent at Sinclair Community College.

“For the majority of Ohio schools, the largest payroll increases took place within the administrative ranks. For instance, Ohio State’s administrative payroll swelled 53 percent compared to a 22 percent jump in total payroll.

“But while payroll costs of deans and vice presidents have outpaced pay for instructors, it’s not always the case. At Wright State, administrators’ pay dropped 9 percent while instructional costs jumped nearly 18 percent.”

Since my own institution, Wright State University, appears to be an outlier—and that really irritates me–I would like to address what I believe are statistical anomalies due to some sort of changes in reporting. I think these anomalies are more broadly illustrative of the efforts that have been made to disguise this problem.

For instance, between 1987 and 2011, a 25-year period, rather than the 10-year-period used for the article, Wright State reported a 66.4% reduction in administrators, from 250 to 84. This reduction seems almost certainly due to a reclassification as “administrative staff” of coordinators, directors, and the slew of other mid- and lower-level administrators. There has simply been no decline in administrative positions at my university. Indeed, there is currently one administrator with “vice-president” or “provost” in his or her title for every 500 or so students at our university, and the number of people in that group has been steadily creeping upward.

Over that same period, from 1987 to 2011, the institution reported a 210.7% increase in administrative staff, from 271 to 842. Even if one includes the 166 people formerly classified as “administrators” but now almost certainly reclassified as “administrative staff,” there has been a 51.9% increase in administrative staff. And, although it almost goes without saying, I doubt that the reclassification entailed any reduction in compensation.

Over that same period, there was a 39.2% increase in FTE at the university.

I doubt that there has been either a 40% or a 50% increase in the number of full-time faculty positions over that period. I do not have statistics going back to 1987 because our chapter was formed and started tracking this data not quite two decades ago, but if there has been any increase in the total number of full-time faculty, it has very clearly been among the non-tenure-eligible faculty–when the tenured and tenure-eligible faculty unionized, there were about one-fifth the number of non-tenure-eligible full-time faculty as there are today–and some of those faculty are very clearly on budget lines that were once tenure-track.

So I do not believe that “instructional costs” jumped 18% while administrative payroll declined by 9%–unless “instructional costs” include things beyond salary and benefits. The salaries of everyone in our tenured and tenure-eligible bargaining unit amount to about 10% of the total institutional budget of $420 million. If one adds the cost of the benefits provided to those faculty, the percentage increases to a little over 13%. If one adds the salaries and benefits of all of our non-tenure-eligible but full-time instructors and lecturers, the percentage increases to between 19% and 20%. And if one adds the compensation per course received by our 480-800 part-time or adjunct faculty, the percentage increases to a little over 22%. (The implications of that last statistic are a whole other issue.) So, given the reported percentage of the institutional budget that is allocated for personnel costs, there is between a 2.5-to-1 to a 3-1 ratio in the cost of administrative personnel versus the cost of instructional personnel.

In sum, statistics can be easily distorted, especially if they are reported as percentages and especially if the distribution among the categories of expenses has been altered.

To give one much narrower but instructive example, across our state, the compensation of public university presidents has ballooned. In each of the last half-dozen years, the compensation of the presidents at those ten universities—at Akron, Bowling Green, Cincinnati, Cleveland State, Kent, Miami, Ohio U, Ohio State, Toledo, and Wright State—has ranked them in the top 100 in the United States (though in several years, salaries of outgoing and incoming presidents have had to be combined). In the posts that I have done on the annual reporting of their compensation by the Chronicle of Higher Education, I have repeatedly noted that I do not believe that there is another list—anywhere and on any topic–that includes all ten of those institutions among the top 100 universities in the country.

But, even more to the point here, the compensation of those presidents has been much higher than their base salaries—and the difference between base salaries and total compensation has been increasing fairly rapidly and dramatically. Gordon Gee seems to have started that practice. Even when he was the highest paid public university president in the country, with an annual salary of over $1 million, his deferred compensation and “allowances” gave him a total compensation of two to three times that salary.

But, given how compensation is being reported, the presidents can argue truthfully that their salaries have been increasing relatively modestly.

Which is a good talking point, but it is not actually illuminating—unless it helps one to begin to understand that the numbers are being manipulated and distorted in all sorts of ways.



3 thoughts on “A Newspaper Report on Administrative Bloat: Some Remarks on the Sum of the Details and on Some of the Specific Details

  1. Pingback: Tuesday Night Links! | Gerry Canavan

  2. Pingback: OCAAUP President John McNay Addresses Administrative Bloat on Dayton-Area Television | The Academe Blog

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