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Administrative Bloat Victimizes Students At UMass – And Everywhere

UMass Boston is reportedly facing a budget deficit that could reach $30 million by June. Pictured above, the campus center.
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It was doubtless a coincidence that Boston Globe reporter Laura Krantz’ remarkable series of front-page reports on the defenestration of now-former University of Massachusetts Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley, appeared at the same time that two George Mason University professors released their equally remarkable report on “administrative bloat in American higher education.”

While Krantz’ stories paint a picture of irresponsible administrators, including a lax system-wide president and an oblivious Board of Trustees who failed to see that construction costs at the Boston campus were surging out of control, George Mason Professors Todd Zywicki and Christopher Koopman make it clear that the chief underlying cause of the financial pressures at colleges and universities in Massachusetts and elsewhere around the nation is the vast increase in the number of bureaucrats employed in higher education.

Bureaucratic bloat at these levels is financially unsustainable and could one day bankrupt institutions. Even in those schools with the resources to pay for the bloat and still build spanking-new facilities and other amenities, the rise of these bureaucracies is eroding faculty power, a traditional guarantee of standards. Thus, even students who can afford to remain in school are being cheated of the highest quality education.

The most recent report from Krantz makes the point vividly. UMass Boston administrators are reported to be seeking to balance the school’s budget by eliminating “at least 20 courses set to be taught this summer, and more next fall.” 

Economics Professor Marlene Kim says, “It doesn’t seem to me that cuts are being made with consideration of the needs of the students.”

This is an understatement, but perfectly predictable since the cuts are being made by administrators, not academics. Courses have been cut in economics, history, and computer science, the Globe reports. Yet Krantz’ report says not a word about any administrative positions eliminated, although that could be a possibility.

UMass is hardly an outlier. Nationally, adjuncts have been replacing tenured faculty at a rate that threatens the heart of the educational system. According to the American Association of University Professors, adjunct and part-timers composed 70 percent of college faculties as of 2011. College teaching is becoming a part-time sideline rather than a life’s calling. Yet the ranks of full-time administrators continue to grow.

Zywicki and Koopman review available statistical studies and conclude that since at least the 1990s, universities have seen “the rapid growth of a huge administrative bureaucracy that appears to bear little relationship to the core educational mission of the university.”

Despite bourgeoning resources, some institutions have had to replace full-time tenured faculty with part-timers and adjuncts, weakening the academic core of higher education. In addition, with governance having “increasingly been ceded to student life offices and other non-academic university administrators,” academic freedom and other educational values have been watered down to the point where most colleges have “speech codes” that limit student, and sometimes faculty, expression.

Our campuses are in danger of becoming administrative-heavy training camps rather than true educational institutions. Bureaucratic growth thus impacts more than just the taxpayers’ or the student parents’ bottom line. It directly threatens the quality of the academic program.

One need not look too far from home to find evidence of the outsized growth of the student life bureaucracy beyond the UMass Boston campus. The UMass campus at Amherst, for instance, just hired an administrator to occupy a newly-created position, the school’s first “associate provost for student success.” The breathless announcement noted that the new associate provost “will play an instrumental role in overseeing the strategy and framework to student success, working closely with campus partners on critical initiatives.” None of those “initiatives” were detailed. Tellingly, nowhere in the announcement were the precise duties nor salary of the new administrator mentioned.

We will doubtless be arguing for a long time over the important question of how it came to be that despite the ample bureaucracy at UMass/Boston nobody, from the bottom to the top of the system, noticed that construction and other expenses (including normal operating costs) were combining to produce a serious operating deficit. But it is long past the time when the governor should appoint a commission of distinguished citizens, outside of the academic world and its increasingly bureaucratic culture, to examine the extent to which the growth of the administrative corps is responsible for the financial deficits that cause our state university to be milking students and their parents for constantly increasing tuition money. (The lessons learned will prove valuable for all public and private colleges throughout the country, since bureaucratic bloat is a national phenomenon.)

The inevitable conclusion of such a study likely would be that we are swindling the coming generation of citizens in order to pay for an army of administrators for which we labor to find, or to create, duties, all the while educational quality suffers.

Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 1999), and the co-founder and current member of the Board of Directors of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He writes his “Freedom Watch” column for WGBH/News. He thanks assistants Nathan McGuire and Rachel Davidson for their assistance.

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