A great deal of the truly hard work of running a University, like scheduling several thousand students into several thousand classes, is done either entirely by or with great assistance from computers. In the absence of prior knowledge of the situation, had you asked me whether a university would need more or fewer administrators today per student or professor than in 1960, I would have immediately answered "fewer".
Moreover, to be clear, I'm not trying to make an implicit argument here that they must be doing worthless things. That argument, if I were to make it, could only come after this question is answered. Further, I'm not asking for people to conjecture what they may or may not be doing from the outside; I can do that as well as the next guy. But if you have direct experience, I'm all ears. I'm especially interested in hearing about the experiences of people who are deep down in the system, removed from direct student or professor interaction, not a lab assistant or counsellor whose contribution is obvious.
The work you are describing used to be done by secretaries and office assistants -- you are quite right, and those jobs for the most part no longer exist.
When you ask what a dean does, it rather depends on the position. If we're talking about the dean of a particular college (say, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at a state university), then the answer is: _everything_. Every department with a problem comes to you, expecting it to be solved right now. Everyone always needs more money, and you have to figure out some way that no one's budget explodes (you will be talking to the Provost or Vice-Provost quite frequently). Oh, and you also have to fight all the other colleges over funding as well. And find out how to attract new faculty to your departments. And make sure that no departments are self-destructing, as they do every once in a while. Or perhaps the History Department has decided to phase out an antiquated method of teaching that has got some old fart alumni all riled up about a loss of traditions. Guess who's getting called? You.
The idea that an organization of 1,000 faculty and two or three times that in staff  would have no greater administrative worry than class scheduling is, frankly, laughable. Would you expect a corporation of that size to get by with no managers?
The positions that the original article bemoans (which are also deanships) appear to be higher up the food chain, and are almost certainly the result of severe bureaucratic bloat. And don't get me wrong -- it is in the nature of a state university to be incredibly bureaucratic, and they could always use a bit more slimming. I just wish HN wouldn't always take the bait of "OMG HIGHER ED IS SO BLOATED TEAR IT DOWN TEAR IT DOWN", which scans rather well but, as with any oversimplification, ignores all the interesting parts of the argument.
 e.g. a decently-sized college at a state university
Yes, there are important things that need to be done and handled, and I'm glad there are people with the talent to handle those (I know I'd be incapable of defusing faculty politics at a University scale), but is it really necessary for staff at the top tier grow at 10x the rate as staff at a lower tier? I always imagined the makeup of a business to be generally a pyramid, so you add multiples more elements in the lower ranks than elements at the upper ranks to sustain the pyramid shape.
Maybe the issue could use restating. I feel that we're really at a loss as to how to justify these positions. If you take janitors, you can justify their count by num-buildings vs. reasonable-amount-for-one-janitor. If your janitors outnumber the trashcans they need to empty, you know there's a problem with the formula. With teaching faculty, it's num-students-or-classes vs. desirable class size. With research faculty, it's grants-obtained-and-publications-and-grad-students vs. salary-plus-lab-costs. Perhaps upper management can't be explained in such simple terms, but is it really that much harder to justify? So hard that most student/faculty that have been in your vicinity for 4 years are still unable to understand what your value is?
The first result for a "Dean of the University College and Library" in Ft. Lauderdale. You can read it, but it seems to boil down to:
1. Ability to communicate.
2. Previous management experience.
3. Knowledge of finance (for budgeting).
4. Knowledge of libraries, and technology.
But actually I find this exercise too depressing, so I will stop here.
Edit: this one looks good, too: http://jobview.monster.com/Associate-Dean-Academic-Affairs-J...
The few that do, probably just do it as a formality or because it's required by policy.
For example, at my public law school (1,000 students), there was the dean (who many suspected had an alcohol problem and appeared drunk at commencement) who makes $330,000 per year. His job is to just go around the country/world selling the school to "recruit" (we don't actually need more faculty) in order to boost our "prestige" so we can climb up in the almighty US News rankings. He doesn't engage with faculty or students at all.
Then below him is another Dean, who is a prick. He makes something like $280,000 and also doesn't do much at all. He is also a "recruiter." At least he answers emails when you have a question.
Then there are other Deans, like Dean of "Student Affairs." She makes $130,000. Mind you this is just for a law school of 1,000 students situated on a larger university campus that will have its own Dean of Student Affairs as well. I have no idea what she does. She does get dressed up every day in fashionable clothes and walk around the building chatting up people. That's all I ever saw her do.
Below that is the "Director of Student Services" or something like that. This guy works his ass off, has a mediocre basement office, but literally runs the school. What does he earn? $80,000. Anytime anyone had a question, they had to go to him. After exams, he gets a pile of USB keys, one for each exam. Takes each grade for each class and logs it, curves the grades, reports them, etc.
It's all a big scam. A big one. Tuition at this school has risen every year -- they want to build a new building (Why does a law school need a fancy building? All you need is a room and a professor). They think it will boost their "ranking." Nevermind that "ranking" doesn't do anything for the local job market, which is still stagnant, and every year new graduates enter it looking for work to pay their $150,000 in loans (at 8% interest, non-dischargeable).
This school isn't even that bad compared to the other law schools out there, namely the private ones. Even a top school like Columbia states on its own site that students will spend $250,000 for their law degree (this includes a conservative housing budget).
The only thing more mind blowing than the scam itself is that we all sit around and don't seem to care as these people eat our young alive. In fact, they worship these institutions. It's their "alma mater," after all, it's like family, isn't it? Some even DONATE to them! The federal government enables the scam by flooding the industry with easily obtained credit, with no restrictions on tuition charged, and even letting for-profit "schools" get the money if they want.
This is a racket that is in big need of disruption. Where does it start? Perception. Once we stop perceiving these degrees as meaning anything, once we stop valuing prestigious names as absolutely required, and look more at individuals themselves when hiring, the racket will die.
the dean is a dean, because in the past he was more succesful in raising money(+ you need a ph.d), but more important is how much money you raise.
i can show you a bunch of guys whos resume consists exclusively of how much money they raised
Or in my subject, a room, a few whiteboards, some textbooks, plenty of scrap paper, and the attention of my students, which is getting harder to get.
Something has gone wrong in the UK as well, we have a culture of checking, inspecting, compliance, data driven quality &c and all it does is increase costs.
At my university they are renovating the teaching labs, and it took them half a year to replace the tiles that had rotted off the floor of my office.
I'd really love if someone could come up with a way to create a new form of nonprofit teaching and research institution not prone to the feudal staleness and scamming of real universities.
Mind, in a lot of places, they just call that a "publicly-funded university", and it often has no scamming problems at all. Still involves a stale institution and a stagnant job market, though.
Another aspect of the problem is tenure. It is (extremely) difficult to fire a tenured professor (or admin for that matter). When things get tough universities have a hard time downsizing if necessary.
A resulting, and somewhat funny, problem is what universities tend to do with tenured professors who just aren't good at what they do anymore. What do you do when a professor with tenure isn't good at teaching or research? You promote them.
tl;dr summary of academia: high failure rate, low salary (per unit brain power) and the only carrot on offer is that somewhere decades down the line you might get a salary that doesn't hinge on kissing up to this year's newest admin quality surge? seriously, tenure (done right, i'm not defending idiots) is the only safeguard that allows universities to fulfill their legal obligation of 'Conscience of Society'. I wish more professors had tenure and the courage to speak up against waffle and balderdash.
NB Conscience of Society may be a NZ only part of the Education Act but I suspect it was borrowed from the UK system wholesale back in the day
NB 2 This is playing out in NZ realtime as a scientist is being wailed on for having the temerity to point out some rather unpleasant facts about NZ's environment
Tenure was intended to allow for the things you're stating (i.e. academic freedom) without fear of backlash from donors. Unfortunately, as with all things there are downsides and one is having people who strive for tenure in order to ensure a stable job.
One thing that is a fundamental problem is how universities operate. There is inherent waste in everything that is typically done. Classes aren't designed so that the work you do amounts to anything beyond a grade for the class.
In a way, it relates to your point about perception. The perception of universities has changed because originally the university was for academics. College wasn't necessary to get a job. Now it's almost a necessity to find a decent job, but the way colleges operate aren't in a way that optimizes for that.
It was well-known that your performance on class work meant very little, and your only opportunity to get a good grade was to bet on the extra credit "opportunities" that arose towards the end of the year. Basically, it all depended on how much she liked you. One girl gave her a ride to the airport and her grade miraculously jumped to a 4.0 after nearly failing every assignment.
She also happened to be the chair of the AP committee, and tenured. It wasn't until well after I graduated that the school was finally able to do something about her, which amounted to having her teach non-AP courses and removing her from the committee.
If public universities were mismanaged and inefficient, we would see private ones providing a better product at a lower cost.
I think the only real disruptive players in the business timelines that Universities operate in are the technical school, but they have been around long enough to play the prestige game also.
Phoenix for example will need to operate for 100 years to even begin to sit at the table with the nostalgia crew.
It's like google and other companies with driver-less cars. Sure, their cars might be safer than drivers statistically, but if you get a few high profile accidents that a driver could have stopped, they will probably get swamped in bad PR and get delayed many years. Luckily, this hasn't happened.
random example from google: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/opinion/perspectives/vet...
That's quite an excuse. The newer University of California campuses have only been around for a few decades.
≈50% is a fairly large amount of subsidy.
The piece isn't really "journalism"-- it's basically an op ed. You are told the opinion up front and then given some supporting facts. In this case vague and with not much detail.
I am reading in horror the various fees involved - I have a doctorate in statistics and a couple of years postdoctoral experience and I have been living independently since 18, and have never taken a loan in my life.
Something crazy is afoot in the US.
“This is a $2.2 billion operation—you’ve got to have some people involved in administering it, managing it, running it, leading it,” he says. “We’re about as lean as we can afford to be.”
As Acting President Timothy Sands stated, they need people to manage things for the entire university. The university itself, however, is comprised of many different schools. Each of these have their own admin to function.
Some schools, however, overlap in what they teach and do. Other schools don't have the same demand as they used to. Others have difficulty in being self-sufficient (i.e. difficulty fundraising) and rely entirely on state funding. The same goes for departments within schools, which also tend to have their own admin. For all of these cases, it makes much more sense to consolidate in order to reduce reptition and overlapping work as well as costs. So why hasn't this been done? It does happen, but, as you can probably guess, bureaucracy tends to get in the way. Each school/department formed for a reason, and they don't want to be "acquired" in a sense, especially the admin because their jobs will be at risk.
I remember being told about a discussion between several deans and an alumni of the university who went on to become a billionaire. They were discussing several things with one of the topics being the budget and the university's future. The alumni suggested a plan to form a new school by consolidating a few of the schools and departments since what they did was overlapping or complimentary. No one agreed to it.
Take course scheduling for example. Are there any well known open-source course scheduling solutions out used by many universities? If not, why not? Every time we see an industry with a dearth of open source tools, we should be worried and be asking why.
(grump mode on) I wish everybody who wants to hit submit on 'how hard can this be? I can do it over a weekend!' type of posts on HN would come off their high horse and apply Occam's Razor. If a problem exists, and probably thousands of people have already devoted substantial parts of their lives to it, how likely is it that some amateur on HN would come up with a better solution in 15 seconds after reading a cursory overview of it? Answer: negligibly likely. So what's the more likely explanation? That the reality is not as simple as the abstract overview makes one think. Which is exactly what is going on here.
There are few if any workable OS scheduling packages because it's boring and situation-specific. 'Scheduling' as an abstract problem is solved, all that is left are implementations, which are all site-specific. Exactly the type of situation in which OS has little chances of being a realistic solution.
Secondly, most places with computer programs should have enough competent people to choose from to collaborate on internal projects like this to avoid the need for everything to be an outside consultant or purchase. If a small team of graduate students can't handle some of these problems, I would consider that an indication that the programs aren't doing a good enough job. I understand not every "computer science" person is a naturally good programmer - there's a distinction, etc. But there still seems to be a waste of available talent on-campus that could be tapped for some problems.
Bitter, who, me?
This industry is beyond ripe for disruption. it's an institutional racket.
The software is crap, and hated by most who actually have to use it.
Raising money. Grant money and donations and similar sources of income don't show up by themselves, someone has to hustle their asses off to get those. And by all accounts it's getting harder and harder to pull in each dollar.
Tech could be used to remove layers of management and empower the actual workers (as you mentioned you'd expect in 1960), or deskill workers and strengthen managerial control over production. David Noble wrote about these things.
Going to meetings about the need to write mission statements and assessment reports, to file for the accreditation team to read when they arrive in four years. They can't move up the dean ladder without good reports from the accreditation team.
It's not clear from your profile whether you're in grad school or undergrad, but if you're a PhD student and the guy's really a dean seriously consider changing advisors even if he's a "big name"---it would be exceptional for a dean to be on the cutting edge of research, or to be spending as much time on research as you'll need. If you're an undergrad or master's student, no worries.
And some of it is just featherbedding. When the University of California hired Denice Denton as the chancellor for its Santa Cruz campus, one of her conditions for taking the job was a tenured appointment (with a $192k salary) for her partner. I personally know two other people who got their spouses university jobs this way, so I think it's pretty common.
Less snark, more thought please.
I know enough about the Internet to know I'm not going to find my answer on it. Google searches will be full of puff pieces, job descriptions, all sorts of other things. It's hardly going to have an "insider's apology for college administrators" with the detailed breakdown of Bob the Administrator explaining exactly why and how he does nothing all day. (That search, by the way, leads back to the article in question, as the sixth link, after the first five are essentially garbage. Google being what it is, YMMV.)
This may shock you, but Google's ability to amplify certain types of signal above the noise are inexorably bounded by the cruel mathematics of the web
Besides, I'm going to guess based on your tone that you would have found reason to complain if I had spent three hours on Google, then dared to pontificate an answer based on indirect experience on the unreliable web.
The OP clearly had an honest question, was open about his bias, and invited rebuttal of his bias. I'd actually say it's one of the best, most open comments I've ever seen on HN, and yet somehow you are intent on reading into it an ulterior motive.
This story has played out over and over in various corners of the school. An office would spring up in a dorm here or there. The IT department wanted to expand one of their offices into our heavily-used English tutoring center. It's an epidemic, as far as I'm concerned...
On the plus side our tuition is only ~7k. In that regard I have no right to complain compared to many of the USA universities.
I picked Purdue partly because I could go there without incurring any debt, which wasn't the case with a lot of private schools. Had I been born a few years later I would have had to go to an in-state school to do this.
The average administrator makes a low 6 figures, the average professor makes about $50,000 to $60,000, teaching positions are constantly frozen, contributions to retirement frequently withheld (this way they can claim they maintain salaries while still cutting costs... looks better on the surface) while the number of administrators just keeps creeping up.
I suspect that as smaller colleges turn to a more business oriented way of operating, out of desperation to increase enrollment and raise funds, this trend will continue. The administrators at my wife's school operate more and more like C-level executives at a corporation while the faculty are becoming the worker bees of the hive. The two groups used to occupy a similar level with full professors being on par with the higher level administrators.
One of the bloggers on my little network calculated that approximately 28c of each dollar of public funding for Australian universities is spent on academic staff:
He went on to discuss reform options and possibilities:
There's an element of Baumol's cost disease too, but according to a paper I read recently (I'm too lazy to dig it up, sorry), that only accounts for >20% of the rising costs of tuition.
By comparison, college deans have a job which is less attractive in a lifestyle sense, a job market which is not by nature inundated with candidates, and skills which readily transfer into (and thus are priced by competition with) management of for-profit enterprises.
For similar reasons, a professor of computer science who is not good at grant writing (+) will earn substantially less than whomever is in charge of making sure the campus bittorrent delivery system doesn't go down.
+ Compensation for all employees at a university is, like all employees everywhere, very sensitive to "I have individualized skills which demonstrably bring more money into this organization." A CS prof who teaches CS101 and spurns grant writing will have a fairly unhappy career path. The successful CS prof will try to get CS101 taught by someone more junior to them and then spend time trying to nail 7 or 8 figure grants.
For programming, at least, I think it's partly just historical. That's how it's always worked. In a different setting, like a factory, this makes sense as no factory worker is going to have a big positive effect on productivity while a good manager might. But for programming, the ratio of productivity between programmers and managers is much less biased towards the latter.
I guess more progressive software development companies actually are changing this, paying programmers relatively more and reducing the amount of management. So perhaps it's just a matter of the industry adapting slowly.
I think there are going to be many parallels between professors and programmers, so the two questions probably overlap a fair amount. On the other hand, there are also many differences, so perhaps that sort of work is more (or maybe less) important in a university than in a software company.
Think about it, a manager is fundamentally someone who has to deal with everyone's problems all day long. The one reason many people do it is because it is an obvious path to better pay in many companies. Otherwise who would voluntarily deal with other people's problems all day long?
That isn't to say I think they are necessary but that if you have a crappy position the obvious way to fill it is via higher pay.
That hasn't been my experience at all; a lot of people like to be in charge.
Also sales is often a hella hard job with high turnover.
Also at Stanford my impression is that a lot of the deans and provosts and whatnot are just professors that have been "promoted" (in the salary sense, at least), so I think in some cases they are even being pulled from the same pool of people.
Most professors are professors because they want to be professors, not for the money. I had several professors when I went to school who'd left business (and taken a significant pay cut) for a chance to teach and research, and I have a friend who's turned down job offers to almost double his salary just because he really likes the university world. Enough people are willing to 'pay' for the opportunity to work at universities by earning less money. Being an administrator at a university on the other hand isn't much different from being an administrator anywhere else and thus you have to pay them full market rates.
LOL. Maybe I'm just a cynical old fart, but from my experience with most professors, they couldn't get let alone hold a job in industry if their lives depended on it, at least not the ones who have been in academia for 15+ years including their PhD's. Many (most?) of these people are spoiled beyond repair by the freedom offered by their positions, even if they invariably think they have it so bad.
Instead the dean and the department heads spend their time dealing with continual budget cuts, assigning people to committees that they don't want to be on (see above paragraph). In a publish-or-perish world, most academics do not want to give up publishing for a little extra money. So the universities must make it tempting enough of a position (pay, essentially) in order for the professors to give up their freedom of schedule, having to be on campus 5 days a week, and the added headache of trying to herd a bunch of academics who are lost in their own thoughts.
Also keep in mind that professors do not typically get the salaries that they could get in industry. Tenure is great until they delete your department. My wife does sociology, which really means she does a lot of statistics. There was a time 5-7 years ago when I found her some job postings that she would be qualified for as a statistics analyst and the pay was 50% greater than her academic salary to start. She coldly informed me that there was more to life than making money and that she enjoyed her work. So I did the good husband thing and shut up.
That doesn't justify the salaries of the administrators but it does partially explain why Professors aren't typically paid spectacularly.
What numbers are you using when making that statement? Do you think that the additional cost of administrators is anywhere close to the amount in reduced funding from the state?
The problem truly arises with the second tier of institutions that are trying their best to "keep up" with first their peer institutions and then the top tier in the US News rankings. Their budgets are generally more tuition driven which starts to put some constraints on what is possible. These schools build the same expensive high touch programs and resources to attract the best students and try to keep up in the rankings. Higher ed is like a school of fish - everyone wants to swim together but only a few really have the money to do it. This is where the cracks in the model really start to show.
There are definitely opportunities for disruption and change in higher ed. Intelligent application of technology both to teaching and learning and to the other elements of the current bundle (research, certification, etc.) will lead to disaggregation and (probably) reduced employment for higher education administrators. The wildcard is how accrediting organizations will respond to the changes on the horizon. They act as a brake on innovation, and since most federal and state funds are tied to accreditation, institutions are loath to change too quickly.
-- Makes sense.
Non-profit=The profits go out the door in "costs"
It's excruciatingly entertaining.