By Art Padilla
The non-athletic elements of the universities are also seeing their locus of control moving away from their scholarly centers. Failure to act in the face of bureaucratic bloat, excessive administrative spending, and a persistent critique over unwise policies, has resulted in an erosion of support and trust.
Two art history professors from the University of Illinois-Chicago have written a cogent analysis of how bureaucratic bloat harms freedom of speech, how it fosters a culture of student dependency and coddling and weakens student abilities to think critically.
As the number of administrators increases, a critical mass of bureaucracy generates its own inertia, its own campus political clout, that often results in unwarranted or coercive reactions to campus controversies. A routine response to student crises is the creation of broad committees that recommend the hiring of yet more deans and more staff.
Administrators point to laws and regulations as the causes of administrative bloat. To be sure, certain laws require campuses to report their crime activity and other regulations define procedures regarding sexual assault.
But there’s also a non-athletic “arms race” — the competition between universities to attract students with flashier residence halls for wealthier students, glamorous study-abroad programs, more counselors and advisors, expansive student health centers, the coolest rock walls and “lazy rivers.”
The growth in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) bureaucracies is illustrative of the bloat: Georgia Tech has over three times more DEI staff than they do history professors, and the University of Virginia has nearly ten DEI staffers for every 100 professors.
But it is not limited to DEI. Public universities have been funneling money toward administrative expenditures for years, often by cannibalizing the teaching lines.
According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, administrative spending was 26% of the total educational spending in American colleges in 1980-81, while instructional spending amounted to 41%. By 2010, the two categories were nearly equal: 24% of schools’ total expenditures were for administration, while 29% were instructional. By 2020 instructional spending had declined to 25% of the total.
At public research institutions specifically, there has been a marked rise in the number administrators. In 1990, there were approximately twice as many full-time faculty at public research institutions as there were administrators. In 2012, the two groups were nearly equal and today administrators outnumber the faculty.
Inattention to these issues, perhaps exacerbated by shorter and shorter presidential tenures, has had regretful ramifications, including sinking public universities into a bottomless political hole. Few observers can recall a similar level of intrusion by trustees and politicians in university operations as exists today.
Failure to act, to comprehend, and to anticipate are responsible for this unprecedented outside meddling.
Administrative salary levels have also contributed to external intrusion and to internal cynicism, a distrust evocative of the one that has led to stunning changes in college sports recently.
For much of the long histories of universities, administrator salaries have been similar to or only slightly higher than those of senior professors. As recently as the 1990s, the salary of a public major university president was about 1.7 times (70%) higher than the pay of a full professor at the same institution. Much of that difference was the result of the 12-month, year-round presidential salaries compared to the academic year, or 9-month, faculty pay. Full professors of course are the most senior faculty members, comparable in age and experience to presidents.
By 2020, however, most major public university chancellors had salaries between four and six times (or 300 to 500%) higher than salaries of full professors at their own campuses, and often even higher. The UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor’s salary is about four times (300%) higher than the average pay of Carolina full professors and NC State’s is nearly five times (400%) higher.
A curiously similar situation is affecting the health care industry, where the titles of the top hospital managers have changed from “Hospital Administrator” to “CEO” and where salaries of those individuals now vastly exceed those of the professionals with the knowledge and expertise – the physicians and nurses. The argument is made that these relatively recent differentials are market-driven.
There’s little evidence, however, that superstar salaries and former politicians morphed into college presidents have produced remarkable performances. There arguably would not be a shortage of qualified job applicants if chancellors (or coaches and athletic directors) were paid, say, only twice as much as senior professors. It was Stanford’s distinguished organizational scholar, Jim March, who provocatively observed that such officials were like light bulbs: you need them for light but they’re largely indistinguishable from one another.
In any event, administrative salaries have risen to a level where top jobs at public universities are seen as attractive “golden parachutes” for politicians and trustees, yet another challenge replete with conflicts of interest and disbelief among the faculty.
Before 2000, there were few ex-governors or trustees serving as presidents.
Today, politicians, businesspeople, and trustees regard university presidencies as high-paying career alternatives. A partial list of former governors, trustees, and assorted politicians who recently held or hold posts as public university presidents includes Janet Napolitano (California), Ben Sasse (Florida), John Thrasher (Florida State), Ray Rodrigues (Florida university system), Erskine Bowles (North Carolina), David Boren (Oklahoma), Robert Gates (Texas and Virginia), Margaret Spellings (North Carolina), Terry Branstad (Iowa), Peter Hans (North Carolina), and Mitch Daniels (Purdue). The list is likely to grow.
While administrative pay has climbed to remarkable levels, professorial salaries have lagged, especially in relation to those of their private university peers.
In the 1980s, full professors of a state’s public flagship (e.g., UNC-CH in North Carolina, University of Florida, or University of California-Berkeley) had similar salaries to, or slightly higher salaries than, their private university counterparts (e.g., Duke, Miami, Stanford). The major public American institutions compete for professors with their public and private peers on the national and even international level.
But today private universities have a significant or even an overwhelming salary advantage over their public peers.
According to the annual AAUP salary surveys of the professoriate (which exclude medical schools), UNC-Chapel Hill full professors were paid $38,000 in 1980-81 compared to $34,000 for full professors at Duke University. Similar relationships existed between the University of Florida and Miami, the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford, and other public-private pairs across the nation.
In 2022, full professor salaries were $224,000 for Duke compared to $157,000 for UNC (and $131,000 for NC State, which in turn used to have the same average as UNC-CH’s as recently as 1990). The Duke-Carolina reversal is impressive both for its magnitude and for the absence of public discussion about it. Using remuneration (i.e., including retirement plans, health insurance, and other non-salary benefits) would widen the gaps, as would taking into account the larger number of temporary or adjunct teachers being employed.
It’s tempting to blame legislatures entirely for this relative decline. Certainly, some legislators could care less that UNC professors have fallen behind those in Durham. On the other hand, NC State’s professor salaries have fallen by $26,000 relative to UNC’s and presumably both institutions have received the same yearly salary increase appropriations.
This is what’s indisputable: Administrator salaries have soared under the watch of legislatures and trustees while those of professors have not, and top jobs at public universities have become significantly more politicized.
Instead of chasing rabbits down thorny holes, trustees and legislators should instead focus on bureaucratic bloat and on the relative remuneration of their best scholars and teachers. They should stop messing about with curricula and classes.
Bureaucratic bloat didn’t happen overnight, and neither will it go away by sundown. But many trustees are accomplished organizational leaders in their own right and they are capable of re-directing administrative resources to the classrooms and labs. This seems more helpful than worrying about “tenured radicals,” which would only serve to drive away the very best scholars and scientists on the faculty.
Art Padilla: Failure to act, Part I – Big-time college sports
Dr. Art Padilla splits his time between his homes in Wrightsville Beach and Raleigh. He served as a senior administrator at the University of North Carolina System headquarters and later at NC State, where he was chairman of the Department of Management. He has taught at UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State, and University of Arizona, winning several teaching awards and recognitions, including the Holladay Medal, the highest faculty honor at NC State. He recently completed the 2nd edition of his book Leadership: Leaders, Followers, Environments and is at work on his first novel for Penguin.
David Genereux says
Great article. One additional thing: Erskine Bowles was mentioned, and when he was UNC system president, he had an intense focus on cutting administrative bloat. For example, see the August 29 and September 1 headlines in the N&O in 2009. Bowles literally made this issue headline news, top of the first page.
Paul Fisher Williams says
Well said. You have chronicled another tragedy of neoliberalism — what the replacement of scholarly values with commercial values does to universities. There is an opportunity to educate students but less so when students become customers.