Bachelor in Bureaucratic Bloat

The relentless rise of management and administration in U.S. universities has become a real drag on faculty and students alike, as Yale's experience suggests.

Bachelor in Bureaucratic Bloat
credit: Yale University

In a recent essay decrying the state of American higher education (and explaining his involvement in a brand new institution, the University of Austin), historian Niall Ferguson singled out the steady swelling of managers and administrators on college campuses:

In 1970, U.S. colleges employed more professors than administrators. Between then and 2010, however, the number of full-time professors or “full-time equivalents” increased by slightly more than 50%, in line with student enrollments. The number of administrators and administrative staffers rose by 85% and 240%, respectively... bureaucratic bloat [has] since the 1990s...helped propel tuition costs far ahead of inflation.

Ferguson's time series stops in 2010, but there's plenty of evidence that growth in administration – with its layers of management, thickets of rules, and plethora of procedures – has continued inexorably over the last decade.  A piece just published in the Yale student newspaper provides a vivid picture of bureaucratic bloat in higher education, and it's worth a read:

A “proliferation of administrators”: faculty reflect on two decades of rapid expansion
Yale’s administration has grown rapidly, which some professors say negatively impacts faculty and students.

Between 2003 & 2019, total enrollment at Yale went up by ~2,500 (a 22% increase).  In the same period, the ranks of administrators grew by 1,500 to 5,000 (a 43% rise).  There number of administrators working at Yale is higher than the number of faculty members, and comparable to the number of undegrads on campus.

The article contains a number of choice quotes from Yale professors who are deeply worried by, and frustrated with, the bureaucratic creep at the university.  I'll reproduce several here because they are so telling (and damning):

James C. Scott, professor of Political Science (and author of classics like "Seeing Like a State" and "Against the Grain):

It’s a pandemic [of administrators], and Yale may have a particularly severe case.

Leslie Brisman, professor of English:

I had remarked to President Salovey ...that I thought the best thing he could do for Yale would be to abolish one deanship or vice presidency every year...Instead, it has seemed to me that he has created one upper level administrative position a month. I think we don’t yet have a Vice President for the rights of the left-handed, but I haven’t checked this month.

I think that if there weren’t so many people interfering with students’ lives (e.g., leave policy) and faculty choices (e.g., tenure review) there would be plenty of funds for more real teaching and research positions.

Joel Rosenbaum, professor emeritus of Biology:

The more administrators you have, the harder it is to get anything done and everything slows down. There's much more administration to fight your way through if you want to alter a course or a department wants to hire a new professor.

David Bromwich, professor of English:

Yale, like many other universities... wants to be known not only as a place for teaching, learning, & research, but also as an... an innovative corporate entity. The swollen self-image requires expanded oversight, and administrators are the overseers.

Nicholas Christakis, professor of Social and Natural Science (and author of several great books)

Growth in administration can often come at the expense of advancing our primary mission, [and] is therefore mis-spent and inefficient. It is in the nature of bureaucracies to grow relentlessly, unless actively checked.

Akhil Amar, professor of Law:

My sense is [that] we have more staffers and bureaucrats than we actually need, and they generate all sorts of paperwork for the rest of us.

The piece also quotes a Paul Campos, a professor of law at the University of Colorado and an expert in the economics of higher education, who makes the point that organizations end up with as much bureaucracy as they can afford (since (2003, Yale's revenue more than tripled, from $1.5 billion to $4.6 billion).  So more $$$ = more administrators.

“One [cause] is the tremendous increase in revenue generated by these universities that more or less has to be spent. This means that as revenues go up, there has to be found ways to spend them. And one of the most natural ways to increase spending is to increase administration, the size of it and the compensation of the top administrators in particular.

As many of these professors suggest, bureaucracy has a tendency to expand and self-replicate.  Here's how Gary and I summed up the core dynamics in Chapter 3 of Humanocracy:

  • In a bureaucracy, your power and compensation are the product of head count and budget.
  • No one ever downsizes their empire voluntarily.
  • Staff groups justify their existence by issuing rules and mandates, which seldom have a sunset clause. As a result, the clog of red tape grows ever bigger. Moreover, internal service providers can’t be fired by their so-called customers.
  • Every new challenge begets a new CxO or head office unit. These soon become permanent fixtures.
  • As the organization grows, more layers get added, and the ratio of managers to frontline team members creeps upward.
  • With every crisis, authority moves to the center, and stays there.
  • And as bureaucracy grows stronger, those who might resist it grow weaker.

These dynamics allow consultants, like gardeners, to make a good living. With every downcycle, they get invited in to prune the hedge of bureaucracy—a snip of overhead reduction here, a bit of process simplification there. But it’s always a trim, which is more than reversed with the next growth spurt.

So what do you do if you're a professor (or anybody else, for that matter) who's fed up with bureaucratic nonsense and want to roll it back for good?  A first step is to dimensionalize the problem. Here are a few practical ideas for how yuo and your peers can get started:

  1. Launch a survey where colleagues can easily estimate the time spent on low value-added processes and compliance tasks. You can use the Bureaucratic Mass Index (BMI) tool as a starting point.
  2. Put up an online discussion board and ask colleagues to identify the biggest bureaucratic bottlenecks--policies and processes--that are dragging down performance. Invite them to provide short illustration of how they've sabotaged change, innovation, and initiative.
  3. Start generating practical ideas for overcoming these bureaucratic ailments--what, specifically, would change in how decisions are made, roles are defined, and processes are structured?
  4. Share the results from steps 1-3 widely--for isntance through blogs, social media, email campaigns. This will help you draw attention to the cause, and build a pro-change coalition.

We're not powerless against bureaucracy.  But we need to stop moaning and start mobilizing, whether it's on campus or in the office.