Probing the Political Economy of Higher Ed

The political economy of higher ed.
UVa President Teresa Sullivan addresses the Faculty Senate in 2012. In this case, faculty and administration united to buck control by the Board of Visitors.

Growing administrative overhead is a major force driving up the cost of higher education. While there is no simple, uni-causal explanation for bureaucratic bloat, George Mason University law professors Todd Zywicki and Christopher Koopman observe that growing higher-ed bureaucracy coincides with a long-brewing power shift in academe from faculties to administrators.

“Of particular concern and importance appears to be the relationship between the faculty and administration that has, in many ways, created a permissive culture in which administrative bloat has been allowed to thrive,” they write in a new paper, “The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in American Higher Education.” “The faculty is either unwilling or unable to take on the growing administrative bureaucracies.”

Zywicki and Koopman identify other forces at work as well. One contributor to bloat is the pressure to provide students with more luxurious accommodations — the so-called “Club Ed” phenomenon — and the increasing subsidies in the form of federal loans and grants to students to pay for it all. But the overarching theme in their paper is a shift in internal power from faculties to administrators.

“The faculty essentially ran universities for their own personal benefit, adopting policies that benefited the faculty and which they rationalized as being good for the university as a whole,” the authors write. “Faculty salaries and perquisites increased, teaching loads decreased, and faculty increasingly asserted control over many of the core functions of the university.”

In recent years, however, the balance of power has tipped to administrators who have captured the unprecedented flow of tuition revenue (financed by federal loans and grants) and lush endowments to pursue their agenda of expanding bureaucratic fiefdoms and enhancing institutional prestige.

Universities have plowed more resources into administrative hires and compensation than into faculty. Between 1980 and 2009, spending per student increased 61.2% for administration while spending on instruction increased 39.3%. Universities now have more full-time employees devoted to administration than to instruction, research and service combined. It takes 39% more full-time administrators to manage the same number of students than it did in 1993.

As administrators have taken the lion’s share of resources, so have they abrogated power, say Zywicki and Koopman. “Today the faculty has little or no input or control over student admissions, a task that has been completely delegated to bureaucratic specialists.”

Decisions with respect to hiring and promotion are increasingly hemmed by a raft of guidances and limits imposed by administrators, such as diversity mandates and the like. Perhaps most astonishingly, core policies regarding academic freedom for students and professors — such as the existence and terms of a university speech code — have increasingly been ceded to student life offices and other non-academic university administrators. Administrators have also unilaterally imposed student and faculty disciplinary procedures for certain controversial topics such as allegations of sexual assault, routinely overriding faculty objections. Thus, not only do university bureaucrats consume an increase amount of university resources, they also have gathered an increasing amount of power and decision-making authority.

What is driving the power shift? One explanation is increasing federal regulation and ever-expanding requests for information by state and institutional governing boards. Whenever federal legislation on higher education is enacted, Zywicki and Koopman say, the government establishes a new office to administer the law. Subsequently a “clone” of that office appears on most major university campuses.

Faculty members have largely acquiesced to the growing bureaucracy. One possible reason, the duo says, is that they have benefited from the outsourcing of traditional duties, such as advising students, to academic administrators.

The prototypical professor … has three related objectives: job security, freedom to spend his time on activities he prefers, and maximization of professional reputation and income. The prototypical administrator seeks to keep his job, build his reputation, and to free his own time for outside income opportunities. Further, the administrator also shares the goal common to all managers, such as the desire for status and power manifested in a large office and support staff.

Thus, senior professors devote more time to their own research and writing while sloughing off teaching and other duties to instructors, graduate students and others. Administrators are happy to take up the slack, expanding their spheres of responsibility.

The two GMU profs have no concrete recommendations to reverse administrative bloat, although they suggest that the non-profit structure of public universities is part of the problem. Under a for-profit model of higher ed, they suggest, equity holders would focus on efficiency. “In such a governance system, a runaway growth in administration is unlikely as it reduces the bottom line profit. … A for-profit ownership and governance model could better align the incentives of owner, managers and students in a way that the current structure does not.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Privatization is an interesting idea, although I think it demands closer scrutiny. The track record of for-profit education in an era of indiscriminate federal student loans has been less than glorious. And, unless privatization is handled properly, university administrators will control the process and enrich themselves. Think Russia, Yeltsin, privatization and oligarchs.

More rewarding for our purposes here at Bacon’s Rebellion, Zywicki and Koopman provide a useful framework for understanding public colleges and universities in Virginia. In all my scribblings on the topic of higher ed, I had never paid close attention to the “political economy” inside public universities, much less the balance of power between faculties and administrators. I had more or less assumed that the interests of the two groups were aligned in protecting university prerogatives against tuition-paying parents, soundbite-spewing legislators and other pitchfork-wielding Philistines who would claw back tuition, fees and state support. But I now appreciate that there might be an ongoing struggle between faculty and administrators over the spoils. I will be more attentive to this dynamic in my future coverage of Virginia colleges and universities.

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11 responses to “Probing the Political Economy of Higher Ed”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    Well, well, well … Bacon may have just hit the nail on the head. An internecine civil war between two groups of snowflakes. Oh, the humanity! On the left … arrogant, mollycoddled, utterly useless academics. Further left, more arrogant, more mollycoddled, more useless Educrats. I’m going to go with the academics here. Time to cut the administration by 50 – 75%. Some would say that would create a catastrophe. Hardly. The universities functioned just fine before administrative bloat. Some would say it won’t matter. Oh, yes it will. Remove the bureaucrats and reduce the bureaucracy. Some would say it would be good but how to make it happen? Where is Jared Kushner when you need him.

    Trump’s base (and many others) would love to see the Trump Administration take a hunting knife to the bloated carcasses of public secondary education institutions. Just hold up the federal funding until they capitulate with massive administration head-count cuts. Meanwhile, eviscerate the mindless snowflake regulation around colleges and universities.

    As for UVA, I’ve always seen Sullivan as far more of an administrator than an academic. Bye bye Teresa. Looks like Dragas was right all along.

  2. Excellent points. I’d say you’d need to get faculty back to teaching, less research. Sort of like medical education, which also has a lot of bloat.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” The two GMU profs have no concrete recommendations ”

    nor do they have any concrete data !!!

    I was looking for comparisons between now and a prior time or between current universities perhaps including ones like Liberty or other major private institutions ..and finally Community Colleges which strike me as pretty lean.

    No.. this is yet another stream-of-thought narrative driven mostly by anecdotal perceptions than real data.

    there’s irony here too- .. things that kids and parents WANT – like sports teams, upscale dorms and food, and loans .. they’re are what is causing “bloat”?

    The HECK YOU SAY! Oh and the horror – they’re SNOWFLAKES to boot!

    Good GAWD!

    and Trump is going to take a knife a surgically excise the bloat ?

    Oh that IS RICH! that man’s idea of a scalpel is a rusty fishing knife – he wouldn’t know a scalpel if he stuck himself in the eye with it!

    I do give credit to Jim… He is excellent at finding these “studies” and giving them respect they simply do not deserve… !!!

    I’ve got an idea though. You want results? When BH Media is finished with the RTD and other papers in Va.. appoint them to be in charge of reducing bloat at the Universities!

    1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

      It is from GMU after all…..They have poured money into their Economics Department. And yet, what happens when you flash the right wing donor cash only to right-wing ideologues masquerading as academics? You end up with an Econ Department ranked 78th. Which has to be one of the biggest failures in academia considering the squandering of resources. So, when you see anything from GMU, you can ignore it as right wing garbage.

      1. LocalGovGuy, Zywicki and Koopman are faculty on GMU’s law school, not its economics department.

    2. Larry, Please, go off and do some transcendental meditation, take a long, hot bath, and take your blood pressure meds. Then come back to the blog.

      The Zywicki-Koopman article is not a “study.” It presented little factual evidence, other than some broad statistical findings documenting the increase in administrative bloat. Rather, the authors provided an overview of theories on how to explain what’s happening in the world of higher ed.

      To quote from my post: “Zywicki and Koopman provide a useful framework for understanding public colleges and universities in Virginia.”

      The operative word is “framework.” Did I draw any hard conclusions from their article? No, none at all. But, thanks to the article, my higher-ed coverage will be more attuned to internal political dynamics that I had previously overlooked. I don’t see how anyone can disagree with the proposition that if you want to understand university behavior, it is helpful to understand the tension between the faculty and the administration.

      Don went a step further than I did, taking on the problem of administrative bloat with his inimical hyperbolic style. When he said that it’s “time to cut the administration by 50 – 75%,” I took that not as a seriously considered proposal to be applied to every university everywhere but as a gut sentiment that university administrations are seriously overstaffed and need to be cut back.

      I would agree with the sentiment behind Don’s statement even if I would not have expressed it the same way. If you want to assume the role of champion of university bureaucracies, well, that will make for an interesting dialogue. But I expect you will get pummeled.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        re: ” It presented little factual evidence, other than some broad statistical findings documenting the increase in administrative bloat. Rather, the authors provided an overview of theories on how to explain what’s happening in the world of higher ed.”


        This is Grade A stream-of-thought BLATHER absent anything beyond some off-the-backside “theories”.

        I’m NOT a defender of administrative bloat of any kind but I know horse manure when I see it and this is IT!

        let the poor eat pay-day loans and the middle-class? let them whine and whine and whine about “bloat” that denies them their “affordable” public ivy education. PATOOOOEEEE

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Good and meaty article. One that confirms my impressions.

    Am traveling today so will have to catch up with this circus.

    Meanwhile, keep gnawing and chewing.

  5. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Businesses regularly control and reduce overhead expenses. While support staff is necessary to any organization, it also burdens the operations, reduces resources for instructional programs and pushes up prices. I suspect every college in America could and should develop a plan to cut administrative costs, which will likely result in downsizing.

    I’m also quite interested in Larry’s comment about the cost of student and faculty amenities – sports teams, upscale dorms and food. Those costs and benefits should be quantified and good business decisions made.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Those costs and benefits should be quantified and good business decisions made.”

    This is a story about whiners who want Cadillac amenities at Chevrolet prices!

    It’s NOT LIKE – you can’t find reasonably-priced bare-bones education. It’s exists an it’s widely available – and nary a whisper about “bloat”.. no sireeee..

    but these folks want a specific product… all the “accessories” and at a bargain price or else they’ll holler “BLOAT” and demand that every last one of them pesky bureaucrats be yanked out of whatever rathole they’re hiding in and pillored .. dag nap it… !!!

  7. Their work is interesting to me from a couple of standpoints: the history of political economy in how the university system(s) evolved is rarely discussed, and pointing at administration not only for escalating costs but for gradually seizing power away from academe. When academe realizes that they’re losing ground to administrators both in terms of budget and control, the AAUP will rise up, and perhaps find a reason to align with middle class families who are squeezed out of some public institutions. Much of the time, faculty back administrators. I’d like to see the uncoupling.

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