Seems like everywhere you look, people are tightening their belts—or trying to. The obese are told they must slim down or face a soda-pop tax. Lots of businesses in Connecticut and elsewhere have simply given up trying to grow and are in a holding pattern — or worse — until economic conditions improve.
Even government has been forced to do more with less. The state of Connecticut, for example, is expecting a biennial deficit in excess of $2 billion and will have to whack away at the budget rather than go to the well once again and soak the state’s beleaguered taxpayers. School districts in the state are typically holding down budget increases below the rate of inflation, which means cuts in programs in order to pay the modest raises of administration, faculty, and staff.
But there is a notable exception to the austerity trend — one that critics of runaway spending find maddening. Spending on higher education administration has continued to grow at breakneck speed on the storied campuses of America’s ivied elite. To my delight, the issue has attracted lots of attention in recent days, most notably in the Wall Street Journal, which published an appalling analysis of the University of Minnesota’s salary and employment records since 2001. Minnesota’s clueless practices are typical, we are told, of what’s going on nationwide.
The U.S. Labor Department reports that between 2001 and 2011 the number of people hired to manage programs and regulations grew 50 percent faster than the number of classroom instructors. Administrative bloat, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is a significant factor in why tuitions have risen. The median income of Americans has grown 6.5 times over the last 40 years, but the cost of attending even a state college has skyrocketed 15 times.
What’s going on here? It’s actually pretty simple. The presence of all that federal money (student loans and Pell Grants) has distorted the market, allowing universities to hire administrators and consultants they don’t really need. Aided by well-intentioned lawmakers, our institutions of higher learning have turned into jobs programs.
The University of Connecticut is a perfect case in point. According to Bloomberg, which highlighted UConn in a report last year, the state’s flagship university has a $312,000-a-year provost and 13 vice, deputy, and associate vice provosts, including one overseeing “engagement” — whatever that is — who makes almost $275,000 a year. The university has seven vice presidents and 13 deans. President Susan Herbst, who receives a $500,000 salary, has a $199,000 chief of staff and just hired a $227,500-a-year PR flak. That guy earns more than any of Connecticut’s community college presidents.
Until recently, UConn’s top cop made $275,000 a year — more than the salary of the police commissioner of the nation’s largest city. His deputy made $202,000. What was the university’s response when called out on its bloated payroll by the New Haven Register? A UConn spokesman essentially said, “Everybody does it, so leave us alone.”
And the waste isn’t limited to administration. Some elite colleges now offer paid sabbaticals every third year instead of the usual every seventh. In 2010, for example, Harvard had 48 history professors, 20 of whom were somewhere else that year.
And how, exactly, has this explosion in spending benefitted students? According to InflationData.com, since 1986 tuitions have risen nationally at two and a half times the rate of inflation. Most tellingly, that trend continued even into the 1990s when the dotcom boom was pushing college endowments to unheard-of heights.
How do we fix this mess? No matter what others are doing, UConn should start by not hiring so many administrators and, to the extent possible, tie their pay to performance. Outgoing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels set a fine example when he recently accepted the post of Purdue University president. Daniels insisted on an innovative contract that included a base salary 30 percent lower than his predecessor’s. But Daniels can recover that difference by meeting specified goals in such areas as graduation rates, student affordability, faculty hiring and achievement, and philanthropic support.
Daniels’ approach contrasts sharply with the hire-at-all-costs mentality that has become so common in higher education. For every associate dean of inclusion or vice provost for sustainability, how many instructors could be hired to enhance offerings or reduce class sizes? And how many students have been bankrupted by excessive borrowing for college — the result of profligate college spending of the sort Daniels will no doubt work to correct?
Go get ‘em, Mitch. And after you’re done, come to Storrs.