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The Troubling Dean-to-Professor Ratio (businessweek.com)
103 points by cup 1699 days ago | hide | past | web | 110 comments | favorite

I hope some enterprising journalist works out some way to wiggle in there and try to figure out exactly what all these administrators are doing, because to me, it's not a merely a rhetorical question. What are all these administrators doing? I'm 100% serious. Really, what on Earth are they doing?

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.

> 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.

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 [1] 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.

[1] e.g. a decently-sized college at a state university

But the tone of the OP (and the article as well) isn't to get rid of all managers or tear down higher ed entirely (not to say that opinion isn't alive and kicking on HN, just I don't see it in the article or OP's comments). It's asking whether there's justification for the current ratio of upper management vs. faculty.

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?

I have exactly the same question. In attempt to answer it, I did a cursory search for job listings for "university dean" on monster.[1] While there are better places to search, this seemed like a good place to start.

The first result for a "Dean of the University College and Library" in Ft. Lauderdale.[2] 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.

1 http://jobsearch.monster.com/search/university-dean_5

2 http://jobview.monster.com/DEAN-UNIVERSITY-COLLEGE-LIBRARY-J...

Edit: this one looks good, too: http://jobview.monster.com/Associate-Dean-Academic-Affairs-J...

I'm doubt that many of these positions actually post job ads or do any headhunting, rather they're awarded as gifts for political favors.

The few that do, probably just do it as a formality or because it's required by policy.

They're honestly not doing much at all. These are quite cushy positions. Work usually gets sloshed around and offloaded onto staff who make much less but work much more.

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.

This reminds me of when I went to a legal symposium at a newly opened law school (UC Irvine). There were about 80 attendees sitting in a room with Aeron chairs. A lecture room with Aeron chairs, FFS. Many attendees were congratulating the Dean on the opening of the school, with more than one reference to 'that new law school smell.' This is why I can't afford to attend a real school :-(

You think that's bad? Check out NYU's Bobst library, where there are entire floors with Aeron chairs.

Aeron chairs in a place where you'd spend many, many hours studying are useful. Not for an hour-long lecture.

well you completely miss the point

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

Nonprofit institutions are not supposed to operate so exclusively on capitalist principles.

"Why does a law school need a fancy building? All you need is a room and a professor"

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.

You know, with just a room and a whiteboard you won't be able to convince parents that paying tuition is worth it. Universities need tuition, because the share of state and federal funds has dropped in the last decade.

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.

The problem is that nobody has been disrupting academia at all. Instead, everyone has chosen to disrupt job-training with for-profit job-training scams and to disrupt teaching with massive online video courses (which have rampant cheating and plagiarism problems).

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.

It is in need of disruption, and it's a wicked problem. There's no simple solution and no easy starting point. Perception is definitely something that needs to change, but unfortunately behavior is much harder to change.

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.

i'm sorry but i don't see tenure as a root cause problem here (unless someone can find figures saying tenured positions are growing at a rate comparable to admin).

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

Not necessarily a root cause problem, but it is still a problem that affects the quality of education and research.

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.

The problem with getting rid of tenure is that we have an up-or-out system in academia: you either rise to tenure, or you're fired. Permadoc positions would be nice, but if you eliminated tenure then academics would just become more abused, overworked corporate employees. Not because academic freedom would die, but because "if you don't publish X papers and bring in $Nx100 thousand research dollars this year, we'll get someone who will."

My college considered dropping its PE requirement back in the 70s. From what I heard, a major reason for not doing so was because all the PE teachers were tenured and couldn't be laid off.

That's unfortunate. For some reason that reminded me of high school. The AP English teacher was notorious for being considered almost crazy. Her son was a classmate of mine too and one time he decided to flip a compressed air can upside down during class and spray his own arm.

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.

PE requirement in University? It's... unusual... no?

Ga. Tech had one in the olden days when I went there. Survival swimming, which involved things such as swimming the length of the pool underwater with a brick and staying afloat for an hour. I think we had to do another PE course in addition, but that may have just been my choice.

MIT has it and a swimming test to graduate. No idea how wide spread it is

Caltech has a PE requirement.

AFAIK, it's actually significantly easier to fire administrators. My parents are both bio professors, so I've been around academia my whole life. Multiple of their friends at different schools discussed the downside of being "promoted" to a dean is that they lose their tenure. These were all private schools though.

Private universities exist.

If public universities were mismanaged and inefficient, we would see private ones providing a better product at a lower cost.

Education is not a market where perfect competition obtains (as for fungible commodities like oil or cotton or iron). Rather, it follows laws of monopolistic competition, so price doesn't automatically converge on a sensible equilibrium.

I would agree with this statement, but the prestige situation is a self ensured stagnation. You do see big private competitors such as Phoenix, but in order to compete they lose out in the prestige competition.

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.

Phoenix is probably does more harm than good to the for-profit or at least disruptive private college community. Their targeting of federal subsidies that often account for ~90% of their income and the stories of them doing things that basically trick low income people into spending more money than they will get from the degree give everyone a bad impression. Even if these stories are all exaggerated (which I have no reason to believe they are), they aren't entirely false and it makes people (reasonably) dubious of other for-profit schools. Someone should have made an elite for-profit school first that then expanded to what Phoenix could be.

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...

Good luck if you believe that Univ of Phoenix is a disruptor in the space and simply lacks "prestige".

That's quite an excuse. The newer University of California campuses have only been around for a few decades.

Private universities have found that there are other metrics they can compete in other than cost: ease of admissions, prestige, specialization, etc.

Public universities are hugely subsidized by the state.

You wish. It used to be that way, and it used to make up for the comparatively small endowment, but it isn't the case any longer.

In many places states are just another donor to their public universities, budget-wise.

" According to the Delta Cost Project, most of the nation’s public research universities had more than half their costs paid by tuition in 2008, and other four-year public institutions were hovering near the 50 percent mark. With three more years of tuition increases, they, too, have probably passed it, said Jane V. Wellman, executive director of the project, leaving only community colleges as mostly state-financed."


≈50% is a fairly large amount of subsidy.

But it's not 50% subsidy, it's just 50% things other than tuition. There's also various donations and grants.

Sounds like marketing, not education ;-)

Those deanships sound like sinecures.

> I hope some enterprising journalist works out some way to wiggle in there and try to figure out exactly what all these administrators are doing

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.

Dripping nourishing soap water on the thinning surface of the higher education bubble.

Beautifully put.

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.

Some major responsibilities you have not included: recruiting new faculty, stealing other universities' faculty, restructuring underperforming departments, handling promotions. And above all: raising money!

As you've mentioned, admin doesn't deal with scheduling really since it's mostly automated and what they do aren't worthless things, necessarily. What does happen, however, is mostly repetitive and overlapping work.

“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.

I worked for the office of the "Special Assistant to the Vice Provost for International Relations" (though that title has been changed many times since then) at my public University. Her job consisted of answering emails here and there between bickering faculty members or administrators in order to run interference before these emails reached the President or one of the Provosts (of which there were I think 13) and wasted their supposedly valuable time. She would also coordinate administrator/faculty "delegations" to other Universities abroad -- basically the president of our university and rich alumni going various countries pretending they were foreign dignitaries and signing various "memorandums of understanding" with similar individuals at other universities. This mainly involved getting her unpaid interns (or, members of her "Leadership Program", as she liked to call it) to create huge binders of useless information (basically printing out Wikipedia articles). From what I heard, the new President of our university has asked for these binders to be discontinued because they seemed like a waste of time and paper. Other than the binders (which she neither created nor read), she would have her assistants, who were making a few bucks above minimum wage, call and speak with the travel agents and party planners who would actually do the work of planning these engagements. She would also, of course, accompany the delegations at the university's expense to make sure everything was "running smoothly." Thus, the job of entertaining rich Alumni was delegated by the President to the Vice Provost for International Affairs, who then delegated it to her, who then delegated it to her poorly-paid assistants and unpaid interns. For this, the "Assistant to the Vice Provost for International Affairs" made 125,000 dollars a year, while the Vice Provost for International Affairs made $165,000 -- fully documented by the state for anyone who cares to see.

I'm curious what would happen if you cut out all administration of technical solutions entirely at universities with top notch computer science departments. Right now so many of the technical solutions are antiquated crap. If people had no choice but to solve this problem on their own, but had access to some good developers at their school, would some interesting open-source projects eventually rise from the initial confusion?

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.

Because 'scheduling' in the real world (as opposed to 'scheduling as an operations research problem') is not as simple as you make it out to be. Every department has their own requirements, about being able to schedule labs, equipment, people, timetables at which specific security personnel is available, rush hour avoidance requirements, and dozens of other factors. It is not impossible to abstract all those away into an algorithm that can come up with a solution, but at that point, you basically need a programmer to make the schedule. Which is why consultants come in to customize the software to the specific situation, leading to a number of solution providers, which is the situation we're in now.

(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.

I don't disagree that the problems are generally harder than one thinks at first blush. However, often many of the odd intricacies and rules people have around existing processes aren't necessary, and are there because they've always been there. The act of rebuilding a modern system can help root out some inefficiencies and streamline things.

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.

And my particular favourite: scheduling one off exam slots in medium sized rooms at unusual times of year (UK, further education, modular basic qualifications, externally marked exams). Last time, they put an exam in the room next to a music practice room...

Ah yes, spatial relationships between resources, the bane of every class scheduler across the world. The complexity of relationships between resources can explode so quickly to a degree that it becomes impossible to foresee every situation. So the software has two options: build in a Turing complete language to list this sort of dependencies (too hard to use for users), or allow large amounts of manual 'exclusion lists' for special situations. After a few years, those lists get so large that they start to contain internal conflicts. Then there are a few years of screwed up exam plannings, people get yelled at, new system gets implemented, and the whole circle starts again.

Bitter, who, me?

Yup, 'ask Fred' gets easier when you are dealing with one off events.

What you have is an obscure procurement process intractable to open competition , dominated by niche vertical players with fat rolodexes with a quasi monopoly on academic institutions. The result of which are incestuous business relationships not at all concerned with the interests of students or taxpayers case in point : textbooks.

This industry is beyond ripe for disruption. it's an institutional racket.

There is at least one open-source administrative systems effort going on: http://kuali.org/

The software is crap, and hated by most who actually have to use it.

what on Earth are they doing

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.

I haven't looked much into universities, but I'd check the similarities between deans and the managerial class (as well as other corporate bureaucracies, like marketing departments). Maybe books like Bousquet's _How the University Works_. (http://www.amazon.com/How-University-Works-Education-Low-Wag...)

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.

> what on Earth are they doing?

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.

my adviser happens to be the dean and it seems his job focuses on budgets, plans for improvements (direction of the department), and overall being the 'face' of the department for events between businesses and alumni.

Dean? Are you sure you don't mean department chair?

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.

Much of what they do has been mandated by governments at various levels, particularly the diversicrats. The Dept. of Education can force universities to cope with a whole new layer of bureaucracy without any change in the law by making student aid contingent on compliance.

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.

Unfortunately, it is pretty common. One school at the university I attended wanted to really hire someone, but his condition was that they hire his wife. They didn't think she "fit" their school so they asked around at other schools. Another school agreed to hire her since on the surface she seemed like she'd be a good addition. To this day, the dean looks back on that and regrets that decision.

Fundraising, or managing the primadonna tenured professors.

How is that supposed to help? Official responsibilities for Deans (which are hardly the only administrators who have been ballooning anyhow) probably haven't changed in the last 16 years, but somehow the work field has. Therefore, such a search is highly unlikely to produce any answers to my questions.

Less snark, more thought please.

The snark is shorthand for the observation that you don't seem to have bothered to look into your own question, and judging by your reply, it sounds like you still haven't. If you had, you'd likely find that academic administration is actually much more complicated than keeping enrollment records (in the days of yore, this would have been done by clerical staff). Sorry if that hurts your feelings.

I have. I asked a question. It's considered a valid move in many places.

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.

So you don't have any experience in the area, and you don't want to do any cursory research to figure out what a university administrator does, but you do want the juicy details of an "insider's apology" that confirms your suspicions (yes I know it's just an innocent question, the kind that college kids ask about CEOs) that they do nothing all day.

Look, you're being a jerk. Not every question need be a rhetorical attempt to prove a point.

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.

Just go to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The cruel mathematics of the web are not that restrictive.

I'm currently a student at a public university, where we just finished a multi-million dollar renovation of our five-story library. Previously all floors were study space for students, and you could almost always find study space, even during finals. The fourth floor is now exclusively administrative office space, and things are getting cramped.

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...

Sounds like my university (University of Calgary). The library is nice but packed. For a period they even had to reopen the old library for extra study space. Next victim appears to be Machall which is our student centre/cafeteria. The university is even planning to sell off unbuilt land for development. All while we have some classrooms with painful seating!

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.

Holy crap. I went to Purdue from 1999-2004 I was out of stat and I paid around $17k in tuition and $4k in room+board, so it did nearly exactly double since I went there. It's one thing to hear that college costs are going up really fast, but it puts it into perspective when you see the actual school you went to.

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.

It will be interesting to see what a conservative guy like Mitch Daniels does as president. As an ag and engineering school I'd guess Purdue is not as uniformly liberal as some universities, but he certainly won't get a completely welcoming reception.

When I was there at least, it was slightly right of mainstream US, and way right of the typical University.

At the college where my wife is a professor (small liberal arts school of perfectly average quality... very typical for its type) the pay of the administrators is considered competitive while that of the professors is considered less than competitive.

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.

Could this be perceived value of skills? Admins/managers can work outside the education sector and so a wider market governs rates?

I've never understood what it is that university administrators can do outside the academic sector. As far as I can tell, they're basically the most useless bureaucrats on Earth.

Disclaimer: I'm on the "dean" side of the ledger as a contractor for an Australian university.

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:




Well, for non-STEM majors at least the value of going to a top college is 70% being able to say you were good enough to get in. So you've got a positional good and thanks to the government lots of people who've been loaned the money to bid it up. And since most of these places are non-profit you won't see high returns to investors, meaning the one place for the money to go is to superfluous staff.

There's an element of Baumol's cost disease[1] 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.


I have no idea why they're using "average full professor salary" as a proxy for comparison, since full professors are a tiny minority of faculty.

Presumably because Deans are about the same level as full professors? I doubt that a fresh PhD would be appointed a dean anywhere.

Full professors are a tiny minority of faculty, but they're the ones with experience and job tenure comparable to deans.

That'll probably depend heavily on the department and the school.

Something I have always wondered is why deans and other administrators make such great salaries relative to professors. My hunch is that it is simply because they can, but I feel like I must be missing something. Does anyone know if these tough jobs in ways I don't appreciate?

There are many, many, many, many, many, many, many PhDs who aspire to professorship, particularly at flagship institutions, largely for lifestyle reasons. More of them are minted every year. Very few positions open every year. This guarantees a permanent oversupply of potential professorial labor, especially for those field for which a PhD does not provide obvious advancement potential in career paths other than academia.

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.

I've actually had that question for management in general. I'm sure that much of what management--reasonable management, anyhow---does is valuable, but is it that valuable? I really don't know.

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.

I think it comes down to being a manager basically sucks. A lot of people, all other things equal, would rather not do it.

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.

> I think it comes down to being a manager basically sucks. A lot of people, all other things equal, would rather not do it.

That hasn't been my experience at all; a lot of people like to be in charge.

A lot of the really high up positions are heavily involved in fundraising, and the argument there is that "If person X can increase our endowment by just 1% more than person Y, it justifies the huge salary"

Than you'd expect they'd be basically treated as sales, and actually account for the amount they bring in.

Also sales is often a hella hard job with high turnover.

Ah, the football coach argument.

Nah, the football coach argument is much easier: There is lots of money in college football, and nearly all of it is banned from going to the players. Therefore there are nearly unlimited funds for coaches.

Probably because wages of administrators are compared to what they could earn in business, and professors have no such leverage.

English professors maybe not, but for a lot of departments professors have good business options that should give them similar leverage, and it doesn't seem to help them at all.

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.

lot of departments professors have good business options

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.

"but for a lot of departments professors have good business options that should give them similar leverage, and it doesn't seem to help them at all."

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.

My wife is a professor, and has been for 12 years. The department head and the dean positions are often treated like a hot potato - nobody wants to give up research time to do administrative work. There is no glory in being an administrator, so time to write high profile papers, no time to get big grants that make you a hero in your department, no time for .....

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.

I think it's like most jobs: compensation isn't related to how tough the work is, but about the abundance of people who can fill those positions. Administrators earn more because there are relatively few people qualified and willing to do the work. If university compensation was based on the difficulty of the work, adjunct and assistant professors would make far more than they do.

There was a previous discussion about being paid in cool. Professors aren't paid in that but they are paid in freedom, security and if not cool then at least reputation.

That doesn't justify the salaries of the administrators but it does partially explain why Professors aren't typically paid spectacularly.

And they say education needs more money. Not when so much of it goes to waste like this, it doesn't. If they audited every school from top to bottom, they'd probably save at least 50% of what those schools are getting right now.

> And they say education needs more money. Not when so much of it goes to waste like this, it doesn't

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 scale of this problem varies quite a bit based on institution type and based on the primary sources of revenue for the institution. A medium size two year institution has a very different (lighter) organizational structure from a large four year residential institution. In general, emphasis on the full featured residential experience leads to more "programs" (product bundling) and more administrators to run those programs. This might not be a bad thing especially for endowment driven institutions that have chosen a high cost strategy. These schools can afford to pay the large number of administrators and pay their faculty well pretty much without trouble.

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.

I see this as a direct boost of confidence to Khanacademy, MITX, and the likes.

The bottom line: From 1993 to 2009, U.S. universities added bureaucrats 10 times faster than they added tenured faculty.

-- Makes sense.

Non-profit=The profits go out the door in "costs"

Wow that is almost, but not quite as bad as the Memphis City School system, which has more administrators per student than any school system on the planet.

I think it is rather laughable all the tea party kooks here stepping up to justify this kind of bloated top heavy organization. Little wonder US universities are headed south in terms of the quality of their grads. All part of the same sports virus infects all of US education. It it makes money, it gets priority. No wonder US education costs are so high, yet teachers and students get shafted.

Unfortunate that this thread will probably dissolve beforehand, but coincidentally there's an IAmA on Reddit by an assoc. dean of admissions at Colgate about to start: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/13vel5/im_karen_gianni...

Have a read of Daniel Bernstein's travails at UIC.


It's excruciatingly entertaining.

The problem extends way beyond the college level. I once saw a very small school (graduating fewer than 20 students from sixth grade) add a non-teaching position every year for five years.

And let me add that there were probably too many deans 40 years ago.

Sounds like a bubble.

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