Administrative Bloat: What We Know and Where Libraries Fit | From the Bell Tower

Administrative bloat is often blamed for the spiraling cost of higher education. Is this a real or imagined problem? In what ways, if any, do academic libraries have an impact?

Administrative bloat is often blamed for the spiraling cost of higher education. Is this a real or imagined problem? In what ways, if any, do academic libraries have an impact?

At the end of a conference presentation in which I discussed trends in higher education, possible future scenarios for alt–higher education, and new opportunities for academic librarians, an attendee rose to make a point about my mentions of rising tuition and how it was creating opportunity for new competitors offering more affordable models. The attendee insisted that the primary cause of high tuition was administrative bloat, claiming, as do many within and beyond higher education, that if colleges and universities just drastically cut the ranks of non-teaching, high-level administrators and middle managers, it would eliminate the problem. While the data supports that higher education institutions across the spectrum have added considerable numbers of administrators, it’s less clear that this trend is the sole cause of, or even a contributing factor to, the growth of tuition costs. If it is true that administrative bloat is a problem in higher education, to what extent do academic libraries contribute to the problem? 


No doubt, it can be frustrating to look at your institution’s organizational chart, see a proliferation of Assistant Vice-Provosts and Executive Assistant Deans, and wonder what the heck all these folks are doing. When I saw that the Chronicle of Higher Education produced a new ranking about managers (paywalled) in higher education, I was curious to see what sort of institutions were on the list and where my own university ranked. While having access to a ratio of managers-to-FTE students by itself does little to support or refute claims that administrative bloat is the cause of high tuition, it does provide a baseline of sorts for what we might consider an example of a bloated administration. This data in particular offers a clear definition of who is a manager:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Standard Occupational Classification Manual defines “education administrators, postsecondary" as people who "plan, direct, or coordinate research, instructional, student administration and services, and other educational activities at postsecondary institutions." On college campuses, "managers" may include such job titles as president, provost, dean, department chair, research director, registrar, director of fund raising, director of student services, facilities managers, and computer and information-systems managers.

Reviewing the list reinforces the distinction between the haves and have-nots. Highly selective private, nonprofit institutions have the most managers per 1,000 students. They also have the highest tuition. My own institution has 20 managers per 1,000 students. That works out to $2,152 in salary for every one of our students. The University of Pennsylvania, a private Ivy League university on the other side of town, has 55 managers per 1,000 students at a cost of $6,545 per student. There is almost no explaining how the small, private Bryn Mawr College, in the Philadelphia suburbs, needs 91 managers per student while public West Chester University, also in the suburbs, manages with only 3.4 managers per student. While it is an interesting ranking, making sense of it is elusive. 


It would be easy to simply conclude that a school with anything more than a few managers per students is suffering from administrative bloat and that is contributing to both high tuition and a bad educational experience. After all, when there’s more money being spent on managers, there’s less being spent on educators and supporting resources. However, I suspect it is more complicated than that. We would need to understand who those managers are and what they are doing. If one school has a corps of professional advisers, which mine does, those administrators might be contributing to student retention and persistence to graduation. At small, private institutions, where faculty must do the advising, that extra administrative burden could detract from teaching quality. At my own institution, it was students, not the administration, that demanded more counselors to provide enhanced mental health services. Students also demanded the institution add on-campus addiction counselors and rehabilitation services after too many students overdosed on opioids. 


What about academic librarians? Is there an administrative bloat problem at the library? It’s safe to say that the majority of academic library staff would hardly be considered “management” according to the BLS definition. My experience is that, excepting top tier private institutions, most academic libraries run as fairly lean operations, with small numbers of staff per students—and even smaller numbers of administrators. Still, academic libraries are hiring more staff in areas such as information technology, digitization, publishing, and research management. While their work may ultimately benefit community members, some might perceive it as an expansion of non-frontline administration. Many library administrators, like me, still do frontline educational work a few hours a week, something I expect is not the case in other campus administrative offices. I do worry that students, faculty, and other administrative staff, having a poor understanding of our operations—particularly the educational mission—may assume the library is largely administrative overhead. An outsider, looking at our organization charts, may conclude that the academic library is one giant piece of the campus administrative machinery. 


Based on anecdotal evidence and oft-repeated claims, one might conclude that administrative bloat is a persistent and pervasive disease infecting higher education institutions. If that is the case, is it a primary factor, or even a minor contributor, to the escalation of tuition? Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University, is a higher education researcher who has previously shared data on the issue of administrative bloat, or rather the lack of it. With respect to rising tuition, Kelchen acknowledges, “how difficult it is to pin the rising cost of providing a college education on any given factor?” His data on higher education spending reveals that the ratio of full-time faculty and administrators per 1,000 students is fairly steady over time. There’s no indication of a point when the hiring of administrators suddenly shot up. While there is an increase in the hiring of low- to mid-level administrators, Kelchen finds it is done primarily to provide academic support and student services. Kelchen believes the increase is a response to students wanting and needing more services, while faculty are performing less of those traditional services, such as student advising. Kelchen concludes that administrative bloat is largely a myth that is easily dismantled with the appropriate data.


It might seem there is some personal bias when a long-time academic library administrator takes on the topic of administrative bloat, particularly in order to refute its connection to tuition costs or to deny that a problem even exists. Few are the administrators who would gladly submit that they contribute to or cause unaffordable higher education. I’d be less than honest if I said that news columns and blog comments that blame administrators for all that ails higher education don’t rankle me every time I encounter them. What disturbs me most about an issue like administrative bloat, especially when it comes from academic librarians, is that it establishes an “us versus them” mentality in our libraries and institutions. With no concrete evidence that administrative bloat contributes to high tuition or a diminished higher education experience, or even exists, the only purpose it serves is to provide a convenient platform to attack administrative colleagues and partners. Rather than exert our energy that way, let’s eliminate that “us versus them” mentality and instead demonstrate that academic libraries are the place on campus where everyone works together, regardless of organizational position or status, for the good of the institution and all stakeholders.

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Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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