Administrative Bloat

Benjamin Ginsberg is discussing administrative bloat in academia:

Carlson confirms this sad tale by reporting that increases in administrative staffing drove a 28 percent expansion of the higher education work force from 2000 to 2012.  This period, of course, includes several years of severe recession when colleges saw their revenues decline and many found themselves forced to make hard choices about spending.  The character of these choices is evident from the data reported by Carlson.  Colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors and, yet, found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers.

Administrative bloat is a problem in every organization.  It would be nice to think that organizations can stay right-sized at all times, but the reality is that they bloat in good times, and have to have layoffs to trim the fat in bad times.

The difference between high and low-performing organizations, though, is often where they make their cuts.  It appears from this example that academia is protecting its administration staff at the expense of its front-line value delivery staff (ie the faculty).  This is a hallmark of failing organizations, and we find a lot of this behavior in public agencies.  For example, several years ago when Arizona State Parks had to have  a big layoff, they barely touched their enormous headquarters staff and laid off mostly field customer service and maintenance staff. (At the time, Arizona State Parks and my company, both of whom run public parks, served about the same number of visitors.  ASP had over 100 HQ staff, I had 1.5).

This tendency to protect administrative staff over value-delivery staff is not unique to public institutions - General Motors did the same thing for years in the 70's and 80's.  But it is more prevalent in the public realm because of lack of competition.  In the private world, companies that engage in such behaviors are eventually swept away (except if you are GM and get bailed out at every turn).  Public agencies persist on and on and on and never go away, no matter how much they screw up.  When was the last time you ever heard of even the smallest public agency getting shut down?

I would love to see more on the psychology of this tendency to protect administrative over line staff.   My presumption has always been that 1) those in charge of the layoffs know the administrative staff personally, and so it is harder to lay them off and 2) Administrative staff tend to offload work from the executives, so they have more immediate value to the executives running the layoffs.


  1. Tim:

    It depends on how you define "value delivery staff". How much of that middle layer administration provides the mandatory reporting to other agencies to demonstrate compliance to mandates?

    For example, our host closed his Ventura County operation instead of dealing all of the compliance reporting and permitting requirements for the facility. Could a university stop their Title IX or VII reporting to the Department of Education, or do they see value in keeping that administrative layer around?

  2. Gattsuru:

    I'd /expect/ that the perceived marginal value of an individual front-line worker is also lower. Cutting out a department head reduces your department head workforce by a tenth, where cutting out a professor reduces your teaching workforce by a hundredth.

  3. Orion Henderson:

    This is a very valid point. Universities may need the bloat to keep feeding from the public trough. So there is value, even if it is obscene.

  4. Chris Smith:

    Megan McArdle pointed out that many of the administrative tasks handled by the growing college bureaucracy used to be handled by tenured faculty. The tenured folks have been pushing off all tasks not related to their areas of expertise which has led to a growth in administrative staff to manage the college and "Post-Grads" and Adjunct professors to teach the classes.

  5. curmudgeon:

    Government rules and regulations do account for a significant part of the administrative bloat as do diversity requirements, which may get worse if idiologues such as SOL
    Thomas Perez have their way. "* studies" programs are another example of bloat. An acquaintance of mine held an endowed professorship in mathematics at UVA and
    just before retiring his salary per the UVA website was $125k/yr. Salaries of an assistant vice provost started at $150k and up as one ascended the heirarchy of administration.
    Salaries were found by drilling down into the UVA website several years ago, not easily found on a recheck a few years later. These numbers are ~2007 or so.

  6. NL7:

    Could also be that some of the administrative staff serve functions that tend to increase donations, grant receipts, or funding receipts, or to increase student qualification for program funds, internships, or job placement. In which case those staffers would be front line - if they generate revenue (even if it's from the government) or if they improve student outcomes (placements, experience or government disbursements).

    Though I imagine a big part of the effect is part empire-building and part professorial slacking. Universities are professionalizing, which creates real bloat, but to some extent it makes more sense to make twentysomething grads do some of the grunt work and let the professors do other things. That increases professor actual total compensation (less work they hate - job improves but compensation is not reduced) and probably produces better results. But no doubt some substantial portion of college administration is wasted spending on work that didn't really produce much value.

  7. ErikTheRed:

    I generally avoid government work like the plague, but a friend of mine roped me into helping his company out with an IP PBX deployment on a government agency network (the network was a complete disaster and they needed additional expertise to figure out some features). This agency had five full-time technicians "serving" around 30 end-users and a small handful of servers, and despite this everything in that building was a complete and utter clusterfuck of a disaster. I don't think I saw anything there that looked like it was the result of an even marginally good decision. With that much staffing we could service the average 750-1000 end-user company and have things running pretty close to flawlessly. It's simply disgusting.

  8. lelnet:

    3) The administrative staff are, either officially or through a uniform executive practice of simply rubber-stamping their reccomendations, themselves the decision-makers about who stays and who goes.
    4) The administrative staff are in meaningful part on the payroll to comply (either because their work consists of providing and demonstrating compliance, or because their mere presence is itself part of a compliance strategy and their work is irrelevant) with government mandates. Such mandates are, after all, written by bureaucrats, and it is unsurprising that they tend to systematically advance the career interests of bureaucrats.

  9. Matthew Slyfield:

    The value in "value delivery staff" is value to the customers, not to the administration.

    Do the students gain any value from those administrative layers, or would they be better off going to a less expensive institution that puts more money into instruction and less into administration?

  10. Matthew Slyfield:

    There is one very simple driver for this in all large organizations private or public. When it makes comes time for a large organization to make cuts, who is making the decisions on what to cut? The administrators of course are the ones making the decisions. Administrator Adam has to make a decision. His organization doesn't have enough budget to cover both his salary and the salary of production worker Paul. Should Adam cut Paul's job or his own? You don't suppose there is a conflict of interest here do you?

  11. slocum:

    My presumption has always been that 1) those in charge of the layoffs
    know the administrative staff personally, and so it is harder to lay
    them off and 2) Administrative staff tend to offload work from the
    executives, so they have more immediate value to the executives running
    the layoffs.

    And, perhaps most importantly, 3) cuts to the front-line staff will be the most obvious and felt most strongly by the public -- making the best possible argument that funding must be increased in the next budget. If they cut the bloated administrative staff, nobody outside the organization would notice or care, services would be unaffected, and that would be a disaster for the bureaucrats.

  12. MingoV:

    In the 1980s and 1990s a significant number of hospitals closed. Almost all others reduced the number of beds and thereby cut nursing, clerical, janitorial, patient transportation, phlebotomy, and other staff. During those times of personnel cuts, the average administration staff increase was 25%

  13. Bram:

    Picked up my kid from a sports camp at Penn State. The dorm she was staying in had a wall of pictures of middle-aged professionals. I asked if they were alumni - turns out they were all full-time "counselors" who worked there? I exclaimed "you mean RAs?"

    Paying career track professionals to do what college juniors and seniors used to do for a pittance probably explains much of the tuition bloat we have seen,

  14. irandom419:

    That confirms my suspicion that government middle management is the place to be in anti-business states like the left coast.

  15. Prof B:

    I wish. Actually it is quite the reverse!

    Fifty years ago a professor could ask their (shared) secretary to draft a letter of recommendation, retype a manuscript with marked corrections, file paperwork, pre-sort mail, etc. Now we do all that stuff ourselves. And a lot more too: progress reports on grants, detailed budgets for proposals, entering our CVs 12 times annually in 12 different systems. The list goes on. We don't even have secretaries anymore, just "dept administrative assistants" whose job is not to offload us, but to make sure we fill out the paperwork we're supposed to.

  16. Craig L:

    Well, it is hard work to make those cuts ;)

  17. john mcginnis:

    "I would love to see more on the psychology of this tendency to protect administrative over line staff."

    There is a much simpler solution. Most teaching in higher ed is done by adjuncts, not full time profs. Adjuncts == contractors, if one will permit me the cross over analogy for a moment. It is rare that any corporate entity would commit a VP level position where the only personnel reporting to them is mostly contractors. Rolling back VP == Assistant Dean or Dean. In order to justify their outrageous salary they have a propensity to maintain staff level pyramids to buttress their retention of position in the hierarchy.

  18. john mcginnis:

    In that beast right now. In most govt situations the doers lack the clout to over turn what was dictated in the conference room by management.