An extraordinary student campus protest happened the other day at my school (Ohio University), one quite unlike any other I have attended in six decades of hanging around college campuses. A fairly large group (at least 200) of students were protestingnothing new there. Student protests happen multiple times each year, and my university is fairly typical in that regard. But usually the issue is unhappiness over some national policy (ranging, over my lifetime from the Vietnam War to some of Donald Trumps rather maladroit statements) or some unpopular university rules constraining student behavior.
What was unique was what the students were protesting: the downplaying of academic matters and the critical role of the faculty in university life, as manifested in proposed budget reductions. Amidst a period of enrollment decline and necessary budget downsizing (also rather commonplace in academia these days), students were protesting the projected dismissal of many popular professors, while the administrative staff is largely untouched. A second source of student irritation is the over $20 million my university spends subsidizing intercollegiate athletics (about $1,000 for each student on the main university campus) an amount roughly equal to the size of immediate budget reductions. The students message in summary was college is firstly about education and learning.
From my reading of national data, Ohio University seems pretty typical. Forty-five years ago when I was new minted as a full professor, there were over two faculty members for every campus administrator defined as persons with some managerial or professional responsibilities but who do not teach. Today, the number of administrators exceeds the number of faculty members. If we went just one-half of the way back to the faculty-administrator ratio of 1974, we could easily eliminate the immediate $20 million budget problem and run a wealthy budget surplus to help deal with likely future declines associated with falling enrollments.
Ohio University (OU) spends $200,000 annually for an administrator, highly competent to be sure, to oversee a relatively modest portfolio of real estate investments. A generation ago, OU had nearly as large a real estate portfolio, but somehow someone was able to handle those investments as part of broader administrative duties. OU has a new office of strategy and innovation with multiple six digit salaried administrators, to teach how to think about the future. Like most schools, while OU shows indifference or contempt for God, it worships at the feet of the diversity and sustainability deities, employing a double digit number of administrators concerned with those matters. It inefficiently runs a host of enterprises having little or nothing to do with learning, everything from a movie theater to a print shop and, of course, multiple sports teams who entertain usually very modest numbers of spectators at a gargantuan cost.
The statistics on administrative staff actually understate the trend. Virtually all self-respecting universities hire consultants for any slightly non-routine matter. Not only do we use consultants when we hire the university president, but also when we hire deans and other factotums. My universitys performing arts series hired a consultant to decide how it could change its program of cultural offerings, on a campus filled with creative people in the arts, theater, business, etc. Administrators hire consultants not only to reduce their workloads, but also to provide employment insurance: if the result is a disaster, administrators blame the consultant for the failure. Somehow a generation ago we did a better than decent job of hiring administrators through advertising and internal search committees. Why not now? Partly, because we are lazy: on my campus hardly anyone worked the day after Thanksgiving, and virtually no one will work between December 24 and January 2why not? They do in the Real World.
Why has this happened? The answer is simple: outside (third party) money made it possible. The biggest culprit nationally has been the explosion of federal student assistance in the form of grants but most importantly loans. The higher tuition fees that occurred has funded all sorts of things at the periphery of learning more than learning itself. Presidential candidates seem to try to outbid each other throwing more money at higher education (free college), rather than reforming a system that is highly inefficient, with few incentives to achieve excellence and efficiency.