As colleges slash budgets, who's taking the hit?

September 14, 2011 - 12:05 AM
Higher Ed Fat or Meat

ADVANCE FOR RELEASE WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 14, 2011, AT 12:01 A.M. EDT - FILE - In this Wednesday, April 13, 2011 file photo, college students, faculty and staff of the California State University system protest state budget cuts to higher education on the campus at California State University, Long Beach in Long Beach, Calif. Colleges and universities are cutting budgets by the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. But what exactly are they cutting - fat or lean? There are two new contributions to the debate, which is more like a shouting match on many campuses. The two key questions: Are the masses of administrators and executives who sprouted across higher education in flush times taking their fair share of the pain during the current crisis? And will the crisis really force higher education to be more efficient? (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Colleges and universities are cutting budgets by the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. But what exactly are they cutting — fat or lean?

There are two new contributions to the debate, which is more like a shouting match on many campuses. The two key questions: Are the masses of administrators and executives who sprouted across higher education in flush times taking their fair share of the pain during the current crisis? And will the crisis really force higher education to be more efficient?

Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg has buttressed his acerbic attacks on higher education's "bureaucracy gone wild" with a new book. But a report out Wednesday from a research group offers a more positive take. It concludes that compared to previous downturns, colleges have better resisted the temptation to balance the books with easy cuts to teaching, and are trying to make structural reforms.

"These guys know that doing the usual round of across the board cuts and waiting for the money to come back wasn't going to work this time," said Jane Wellman, executive director of Delta Cost Project, which studies university spending patterns and has sharply criticized "administrative bloat" on campus in the past.

To be sure, college teaching has taken an unprecedented hit during the Great Recession. Universities have cut tens of thousands of mostly part-time teaching positions. That means fewer and more crowded classes, and much more work for the teachers who remain.

The University of North Carolina system has eliminated more than 3,000 positions — mostly adjunct professors — to bridge a $414 million state budget cut this year. The beleaguered California State system — which has lost roughly $1 billion in funding — has turned away 50,000 otherwise admissible students in recent years for lack of resources to teach them.

But at the same time, major system reorganizations are under way in several states. Last week, the University of Wisconsin detailed plans to cut 51 jobs at its system HQ, giving more autonomy to branch campuses and shielding them somewhat from even harsher cuts. Missouri's university system has cut central-office jobs, while universities in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois are all at least starting to collaborate on bulk purchasing.

At Cal State schools, more than two staff and administration jobs have been eliminated for every full-time faculty spot reduction over the last two years.

Linda Katehi, chancellor of the budget-battered University of California-Davis, scanned a campus auditorium full of nervous employees last week, delivering a blunt message along with an update on plans for a massive re-organization that will at last bring the university's IT, financial and back-office operations under one roof.

"If we don't change, I don't think we will be able to survive" the financial crisis in higher education, she said.

The latest Delta Project report covers only spending through 2009, so it captures only the early stages of the latest budget pressures. But it does suggest universities have begun making important changes in where they spend money.

Over the past 10 years at public universities, instructional spending rose only around 10 percent per student, while spending on "institutional support" rose 15 percent and maintenance 20 percent. But more recently the figures have turned. In 2009, instructional spending rose 1 percent, administrative spending 0.4 percent and operations fell 5 percent.

"The first place that they're going is in those administrative areas," Wellman said. "There's big money in that. It's painful but they have to do it."

And yet, just when you think the budget battles of the Great Recession might be what finally tamed academia's sprawling bureaucracies, take a look at the job openings listed with The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. On the latter's website last week, fewer than 40 percent of the approximately 7,100 help-wanted ads posted by colleges and universities were for faculty jobs. The other two-thirds were for administrative and executive jobs, some with the kinds of titles that make higher education critics cringe: "Marketing Coordinator," ''Consultant-Talent Acquisition" and "Director of Discovery and Access."

Plenty of campuses still have their share of Ginsberg's stock characters — like the business-minded dean obsessed with starting new programs and writing strategic plans but out of touch with the basic business of teaching.

Ginsberg's book, "The Fall of The Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters," notes that in 1975, roughly 275,000 administrators and staffers supported 450,000 professors on college campuses. By 2005, staffers and administrators easily outnumbered teachers.

Ginsberg said he's glad to hear the Delta Project found signs of progress but doubts it will last. He says universities are treating the symptoms, not the disease.

"Senior administrators still have good reasons to extend the ranks of their administrative armies," he said in a telephone interview. "All the deans and deanlets and dingalings hire more of themselves and make work for one another."

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, sympathizes with Ginsberg's take on the sprawling higher ed bureaucracy — but also agrees things may have changed lately.

"There's been more cutting form administration in the last two years then I've ever seen before," said Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois who is also a vocal critic of high presidential and administrative salaries. "It's partly symbolism. If you're going to make the faculty and staff take furloughs, if you're going to cancel positions that are scheduled to be filled, and you don't want to be hung on the quad, you have to show some willingness to cut some administrative fat. But there's so much fat they've gotten nowhere near the meat on the administration side."

Ginsberg says universities could cut one-third of their administrative jobs with nobody even noticing the effects.

Few would go that far. The Delta Project data, for instance, typically make finer distinctions than Ginsberg between top-level administrators and support staff like mental health counselors and financial aid advisers who are inarguably front-line workers for the university's educational mission.

Meanwhile, few would count staff like IT coordinators or campus police — both of whose ranks have surged in recent years — in the same category as executives with titles like "director of institutional effectiveness" (one that particularly irked Ginsberg).

Meanwhile, the legions of fundraisers and grant-writers whose jobs barely existed 40 years ago probably would not have survived the chopping block this long if they did not usually bring in more revenue for the university than their positions cost.

A picture of the scope of the cuts in one state emerged last week when the University of North Carolina system detailed some of the consequences of the $414 million cut in state funding it is facing this year alone. Jobs lost include the equivalent of 880 full-time faculty and around 2,000 part-timers, but also more than 1,000 full-time staff and administrators.

Not all of those staffers work in classrooms — but they do affect students.

At UNC's Wilmington campus, the library will be open 35 fewer hours per week. Elizabeth City is cutting evening hours at its counseling center. And in one college of the Charlotte campus, advisers now must handle nearly twice as many student visits per year.

But along with positions working directly with students, prominent administrative job titles are among those that have been cut at UNC campuses, including associate vice chancellor for business affairs, vice chancellor for community affairs and director of university communications.

University of Wisconsin President Kevin Reilly says that between transparent public budgets and the steady state cuts — including $250 million the last two years alone — that he's faced, he finds the idea of an out-of-control academic bureaucracy incredible.

He noted top Wisconsin executives, staff and faculty alike joined all state employees in taking eight furlough days after the last budget, amounting to a 3-percent pay cut.

"We haven't been fat and happy and growing," said Reilly, whose system is cutting the budget 25-percent at system headquarters and 11 percent at branch campuses.

Ginsberg might concede the higher ed bureaucracy is no longer happy, and perhaps no longer growing.

But he stands by the charge of "fat."

"The university used to be run by the faculty," he said. "If they're run by administrators, they become General Motors — top-heavy entities that are saved from bankruptcy only by government money."