Administrative Overkill

Years ago, there was a story in ANALOG about a “political engineer” who, despite his engineering degree, knew little about engineering and who had reached a position of power in his organization because of his “political” and “administrative” expertise – who dies when his undersea dome implodes on him because he didn’t understand that there are indeed times when subject matter expertise is vital.  I was reminded of this when reading Sunday’s New York Times education section, which documented the growth of professional administrative staff members in U.S. colleges and universities.  During the time period from 1976 to 2008, the number of professional administrative employees has doubled – from 42 such employees for every 1,000 students to 84, while the number of full-time faculty has dropped from 65 to 55 professors for every thousand students.  Put another way, more than 60% of college employees are not involved in actually teaching students, and the numbers often exceed 70% at private colleges and universities, whereas thirty years ago, those percentages were reversed.

Now… I’m probably very old-school, but I do have the belief that higher education ought to focus on educating students, imparting both knowledge and understanding, and for all the lengthy and considerable rationalizations for the need of more administrative personnel, I think such rationalizations are largely just that – a way of justifying positions and excessive administrative salaries.  At the colleges and universities with which I’m somewhat familiar, the majority of “administrative” personnel above the clerical level – and that number is considerable – make salaries well in excess of actual professors of similar age and experience [except for business department professors, who apparently live in a la-la land of their own, despite the rather dubious record of this discipline in the real world in recent years].

One critical point seems to be continually overlooked – all that administration isn’t what teaches students.  In fact, all those administrators create more non-teaching workloads on faculty rather than easing faculty workloads.  The number of reports, assessments, committee assignments, etc., placed on college and university faculty has possibly quintupled over the past generation – and those reports and assessments not only haven’t improved the quality of teaching, but have decreased it, because they reward faculty who are politically and administratively adept over those who are most adept at teaching and they take time away from actually pursuing greater scholarship and improving teaching skills by requiring more and more forms and assessments for the administrators.

So… while recent reports have surfaced showing that, despite all the advertising, British Petroleum has collected something like 97% of all the “severe” violations for shortcomings in offshore drilling, their political and administrative experts have been busy trying to convince the world that their engineering shortcomings are merely “unavoidable risks” of drilling.  All hail the political engineers!

Likewise… despite study after study that shows the single key factor in effective education is the level of subject matter expertise and the capability of the individual professor, colleges and universities have consistently short-changed the teaching faculties to support an ever-increasing administrative structure.  All hail the administrative educators!

And… when, exactly, if ever, will we stop rewarding excessive administrative growth and get back to rewarding actual skill and accomplishment in doing rather than administrating?

4 thoughts on “Administrative Overkill”

  1. hockey fan says:

    Could not agree with you more. At my local college, which I attend, I am going to be interviewing for a student-tutor job, so if things go well I will be getting paid to actually help students learn rather than to just file paperwork.

  2. Brian says:

    Just a nitpick: be careful in reviewing statistics for oil-drilling violations. While BP is certainly not exemplary, it is very possible that the other companies are just as bad but haven’t been caught or have otherwise escaped public notice (you can do a lot if your relationship with the auditor is friendly). Anecdotal evidence from a relative of mine suggests that the drilling rigs of other companies are just as bad: ticking time bombs every one of them.

    Humans are hard-wired to exaggerate the perceived importance of disasters. See the below link. It’s a wonder that humans can make large societies with high-technology work at all.

    Having said that, I don’t want anyone to think I’m defending BP. It’s just that this disaster may be obscuring a larger issue by white-washing the other petroleum companies.

    Also, LEM is entirely correct in pointing out the political engineering that BP is using. We have moved from valuing people/companies on their excellent production/service/activity to valuing a great narrative. See our recent presidential campaign as both parties struggled to alter perception by forwarding their own narrative rather than revealing great accomplishments or skills.

  3. christoph says:

    The predominance of administration over education and practice was one of the primary downfalls of Tibetan autonomy. Long standing cultural and political ties with China didn’t help, of course.

  4. Ken says:

    Mr. Modesitt, you do make a good point, but I do wonder out of all those who are getting these administrative jobs, how many are/were professors and know a thing or two about the classroom. Case in point, a professor I had at Ohio State (probably be best one I had during my career in Columbus, and I had some good ones) who I had for my turf pathology courses. The year I graduated he went from an associated professor to the head of the plant pathology department. Now, besides all his administrative duties, he still did research, taught classes and is often on committees for masters and PhD students. About two or three months ago, he became the vice provost of the entire college of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Science. Now I have not talked to said professor since this happened, but I am sure that, despite the administrative duties, he’ll continue to do research, teach, and always, always makes time for his family as well. Now, someone like this, while becoming more an administrator has vast experience in the classroom, and I would think that the more administrators that have similar experiences would be well suited to knowing the needs of students as well as being effective in running the college.

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