College Whys

Nassau Hall, Princeton "Nassau Hall, Princeton" by Smallbones, cropped by Inabluemn - Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons -,_Princeton.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Nassau_Hall,_Princeton.jpg

Nassau Hall, Princeton “Nassau Hall, Princeton” by Smallbones, cropped by Inabluemn –  Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Inside Higher Ed, an online website of news, articles, op-eds, and position postings, has an amusing post today on 50 Questions About Higher Education all of which begin with “why”. You will get a chuckle out of many of them, and if you work at all around the higher education world, you will say “yep”.

One that probably evokes a chuckle but also masks what I think is a serious issue is:

Why don’t we conclude that if it takes 10 months to fill an important administrative vacancy and the place doesn’t fold in the meantime, then perhaps we could do without it?

The issue that this masks is the explosive growth of administrative positions at most universities that far exceeds the growth of full-time faculty positions on these campuses. One study shows that between 1976 and 2011, employees in the full-time non-faculty professional role grew by a whopping 369 percent while the number of full-time tenured and tenure track faculty grew by a mere 23 percent. Student enrollment in this same period grew by 52.3 percent according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

What’s going on here? Some of this reflects a trend toward “student services” which includes everything from enhanced academic advising to state of the art recreation centers with a variety of student “wellness” professionals to address both the physical and psychological wellness of students. A good part of this also reflects a growing number of deans, associate deans and a variety of other administrative levels between faculty and university presidents. Another article pointed out that the central administration of the California State University system has a larger budget than three of its twenty-three campuses.

Plainly, the bulk of rising university costs are have nothing to do with the academic mission of the university. In fact to control these costs (remember the 23 percent growth of faculty vs. 52 percent growth in students?), we have seen a 286 percent increase in part-time faculty and a 259 percent increase in full-time, non-tenured faculty. What is most troubling are the extremely low wages and lack of benefits many of these people receive, earning $2500 to $4000 per course and often having to cover any health care plan they are on out of these wages.

Another of the questions asked in this article was:

Why do adjuncts adjunct under such conditions?

I think the reason most do is that these people both love their subject area and love teaching. Many really care about students but often are more or less invisible within their own departments. One adjunct I know meets students at a local Panera. Many have nothing more than a shared office. Most of these adjuncts hold Ph.D’s in their field and aspire to tenure track positions, which may be one reason they don’t give up on teaching in universities. But as adjuncts or lecturers it is very difficult to continue to do the research and writing necessary to compete for these few positions. This week, for the first time, adjuncts staged a National Adjunct Walkout Day to protest these conditions.

Very simply, I would argue that American higher education is a broken and unjust system. What strikes me is that the most powerful, those in top administration in universities, while saying they are controlling costs, are protecting the privilege of high salaries among their own kind. Sadly, cost-cutting in higher education has tended to be at the expense of research funding and the hiring of the best of our crop of Ph.D’s to teach our children.

What is to be done? I do not consider myself an expert in these things but it seems several things follow:

1. State boards of regents and the university boards of trustees must tackle this problem and figure out how academic bureaucracies may be streamlined while hiring more full-time tenure-track faculty (while rigorously monitoring excellence in teaching). If we do not do this, we risk losing the best minds in this country from higher education and research.

2. If I were considering grad school in an academic field, I would seriously consider not entering this crazy and exploitative system until it gets its house in order. If one still decides to go to grad school, I would have an alternative plan for work other than adjuncting after graduation if you do try to pursue one of the scarce tenure track positions. The fewer people out there “enabling” this unjust system, the more it will be forced to change.

3. To some degree, universities and colleges are consumer-driven and this bureaucratic bloat reflects to some degree a sense of what students and parents “want”. Students and parents should realize that a significant portion of their ballooning debt loads have nothing to do with quality academic training in the student’s chosen field.

We have had one of the top university systems in the world. But other countries are rapidly gaining and other models are arising that do not indulge in this administrative “bloat”. Since it is time, and past time to address these questions, my concluding question is “why don’t we?”

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