Photographer: Michael Okoniewski/Bloomberg
Photographer: Michael Okoniewski/Bloomberg

Occasionally, I like to write about rising college costs, and what they mean for the students who are borrowing huge sums to finance their education. Whenever I do, I can count on at least one faculty member -- and often more than one -- to explain earnestly that he quite agrees: the problem isn’t the faculty, you see, but the incredible proliferation of administrators. In this telling, administration is like a gut bacteria that has somehow gotten out of control, reproducing itself merely for the sake of reproducing itself, and in the process doing considerable damage to the body that hosts it.

Tim Burke, a Swarthmore professor who is also a top-notch (if insufficiently prolific) blogger, has penned a long post that is a very useful corrective to this complaint. It isn’t that the professors are wrong, exactly -- administration has grown fantastically over the last 50 years. And empire building is undoubtedly some of the reason for this, because all organizations accumulate unnecessary mid-managerial retinues unless the leadership makes a regular effort to scrape off the supernumerary barnacles.

However, most of those administrators have been hired for two much simpler reasons: The faculty wanted to outsource their administrative responsibilities to professionals so they could focus more on teaching and research; and the demands placed on a university are much greater than they used to be.

I am not going to excerpt Burke’s piece because it is too multifaceted, and too good; you’ll just have to read the whole thing. He elaborates the many new things that administrators now do, from monitoring diversity to tending the mental health of the students. He touches on the legal changes that have made much of this administrative bloat into an expensive necessity, a sort of institutional immune system that defends against lawsuits. He also mentions the new regulations, like Title IX, that imply a whole new staff of people certifying that you have complied with their requirements.

Burke notes that this is not unique to colleges. When I started as a full-time staffer at Bloomberg LP, I went through a lengthy orientation with HR people who walked us through our benefits, various ethics and data security rules, and the process for enrolling in payroll functions like direct deposit and 401(k) contributions. Fifty years ago, at a similarly sized-institution, I might have had a half hour of filling out forms. Legal requirements were simpler. Benefits were simpler. Direct deposit and tax-advantaged savings accounts didn’t exist. As those changes have accumulated, companies have acquired a large staff of people who do nothing but manage the process of hiring, firing, retaining, and tending to, the rest of the employees. The economy has lost an army of payroll clerks, and gained an even larger army of “human resources professionals.” And information technology staff. And lawyers. You see the same at basically every large institution -- including the government behind the rules that require the compliance.

The most important point that Burke makes is that the complaining faculty supports almost all of these changes. How many professors want to dismantle the diversity initiatives, the support networks for students, and so forth? How many of them want to fire the vast administrative bureaucracies and go back to doing those (tedious) jobs? How many of them want to dismantle the computer networks, get rid of their fringe benefits, and throw themselves open to lawsuits by disgruntled students? Not many, I’d wager.

You can argue that most of the changes at universities are unnecessary bloat that doesn’t do much to get the students educated and graduated. That’s certainly open to debate, and I myself can think of more than a few candidates for the axe. But if that’s where you want to cut, then you should be arguing in the specific -- cut this useless program -- not against “administration” in general. Gut bacteria have an important place in our innards.

To contact the writer of this article:

Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article:

James Gibney at +1-202-624-1863 or jgibney5@bloomberg.net