Two recent stories raise an important question: How much longer can the administrative bloat in higher education last?
In January, Higher Ed Dive reported on a new survey of administrators conducted by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. According to the survey, 34 percent of “non-supervisors” are “likely” or “very likely” to look for other employment in the next 12 months. For “area supervisors,” defined as the top-most leaders in their units, the percentage was about the same. For “other supervisors,” a group consisting of administrators with at least one direct report but no areawide authority, the figure was slightly higher—37.4 percent. Taken together, these numbers suggest an impending crisis in the administrative ranks. Does a tree falling in an empty Student Affairs office make a sound?
Meantime, last week, Inside Higher Ed noted the burnout currently being experienced by DEI officers on the nation’s campuses. Though not supported by survey data, Inside Higher Ed’s DEI story is at least as somber as the Higher Ed Dive report. According to the diversity officers who spoke to IHE’s reporter, DEI staff across the country are increasingly suffering from “a general sense of discouragement and frustration.” Presidents and other top-tier administrators regularly “show a lack of appreciation . . . for their work, leading them and many of their colleagues to leave higher ed burned out and disillusioned.” Often, DEI employees feel “used and abused by their institutions” and hunted by conservatives. The result, one source insisted, may well be a mass “exodus” of diversity-office employees from America’s universities.
Common to both stories is the implication that something must be done to turn back these resignation tsunamis. For adherents of the managerial revolution, any thinning of administrative ranks is necessarily disastrous. An institution can no more function without its bureaucracy, the thinking goes, than a human being can live without a spine. Were one-third of college administrators to flee their posts, universities would crumble.
Such managerialism is misplaced. If administrators are unhappy with their lot, they should seek fulfillment elsewhere. Just as Twitter has done under Elon Musk’s leadership, universities will find a way to persevere. When institutional fat is offering to trim itself, one shouldn’t decline the proposal.
Neither must one look far to see that such bloat on America’s campuses has grown thick indeed. As has been widely reported for years, administrative costs now outpace instructional expenses at many universities. Nationally, administrative spending has pulled within 6 percentage points of instructional spending at public four-year colleges (20 percent versus 26 percent of total expenditures) and within 1 percentage point at private four-year colleges (29 percent versus 30 percent). A search of open positions on HigherEdJobs.com turns up 25,732 full-time faculty positions (the vast majority of which are not tenure-track) and 50,129 full-time administrative positions. Stanford now has more employees than students, as well as more than six times as many administrators as faculty.
Though diversity-office spending has not yet reached these epic proportions, give it time. As the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal recently reported, DEI administrators in the University of North Carolina system take home more than $11 million in salary annually, a sum that could pay the in-state tuition of 1,600 UNC–Chapel Hill undergrads. It is not clear what the DEI expenditures of all the nation’s colleges add up to, but that dollar amount is no doubt in the hundreds of millions. It would be one thing if DEI offices turned our campuses into paradises of racial harmony, but something like the opposite is the case. The Manhattan Institute’s January issue brief on the subject tells the tale: “Students feel less welcome, not more welcome, at universities with larger DEI staffs.”
Not all administrative positions are unnecessary. Someone really must pay the light bill each month and file the reaccreditation paperwork. But the administrative sector has wreaked havoc on tuition rates, faculty morale, and campus climates.
One of two futures awaits America’s colleges. Down one path, top-heavy institutions fight among themselves over a demographically declining customer base. Down another, lean operations make do with less while recommitting to the foundational business of teaching and learning. I used to think that taking the better road would require mass layoffs, as universities shake off a generation’s worth of superfluous staff. But maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe they’ll all just quit.