It was another day, you know—back when President James A. Garfield could define a university as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.”  Which was to say, a great teacher—Hopkins being the renowned president of Williams College—needed only the opportunity to sit down, unencumbered, and teach.  You know, without special assistants, everyday assistants, assistants to assistants, vice presidents for this-that-and-the-other, directors, panjandrums, proconsuls, and so on to oversee and remunerate.

But, of course, it was a long time ago, as Prof. Jay P. Greene reminds us, inferentially, in his recent thumping of the modern collegiate infrastructure, “Administrative Bloat at American Universities: The Real Reason for High Costs in Higher Education,” a report undertaken on behalf of the Goldwater Institute.

Whatever does the gentleman mean by “bloat”?  He means the increase, at 198 major public and private universities, in administrative personnel, between 1993 and 2007—39 percent per 100 students, versus an increase of merely 18 percent in teaching, research, and service personnel.  The Greene study emphatically does not point to a huge increase in Mark Hopkins types; instead, to an eruption in the number of functionaries who don’t perform the central task of a university—that of teaching—but do support work of various sorts.  An army of support workers overshadows more and more the teaching corps.

“As universities increase their enrollment and receive more money,” Greene writes,

they expand the ranks of administrators even more rapidly.  Rather than achieving economies of scale in administration so that more resources can be redirected to core functions, America’s leading universities increased administration significantly faster than enrollment and almost twice as fast as teaching, research, and service.

The tendency of large institutions of any kind—governmental, military, religious, corporate—to pile bureaucrat upon bureaucrat is much remarked.  No one is entitled to much surprise, possibly, at Professor Greene’s statistics; but the oddity of the thing, in an academic context, is hard to miss.  A university exists, theoretically, to teach: to exhibit knowledge and inspire its acquisition.  For this you don’t need—do you?—an oversized backstage support force.  You need, one would think, not more clutter but less.

Well, hey, it doesn’t work that way.  Academia is into clutter of a very expensive but not necessarily productive character, financed in no small degree by students.  Take old President Hopkins’ own Williams College.  There, according to evidence recently noted by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in the Los Angeles Times, the price of logs seems to be rising astronomically.  Tuition at Williams is $41,434, “or an inflation-adjusted 3.2 times [the cost] 30 years ago.”  Hacker and Dreifus relate that “Tuition at public universities . . . has risen at an even faster rate.  The University of Illinois’ [sic] current $13,658 is six times its 1980 rate after adjusting for inflation.  San Jose State’s $6,250 is a whopping 11 times more.”  It doesn’t sound so bad when measured against the price of outdoor seating at Williams, but it’s a pile of money during a major recession.

If only student financial sacrifice equated somehow with academic progress!  Here and there it may, but you don’t take such suppositions on faith.

In the October issue of Chronicles I wrote an account of an ideological dust-up at the University of Texas, whose leadership voted to cleanse a dorm from the taint of racism by changing its name, in repudiation of its namesake’s role in organizing a Reconstruction era chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.  As the controversy over what to do about this affront to 21st-century sensibilities heated up and boiled over, I noted that a major player amid the ruckus was the university’s vice president for “diversity and engagement.”  For what?!  I think the university’s notion in creating the post, whenever that was, was to double down on the idea of UT as a place seriously confronting present and future demographic shifts.  Possibly “engagement” goes hand in hand with that mission—I couldn’t say.  The job sounds as much like a ministry of propaganda as it does anything else.  But in the modern academic context, that is hardly a surprise.

Jay Greene, who is professor of, yes, educational reform at the University of Arkansas, notes that university staff have blossomed with “diversity” and “sustainability” types, in line with society’s embrace of these causes—anyway, with those elements of society that see universities as obligated to a broader definition of the teaching function than Mark Hopkins embraced.  A modern university seems to think it must somehow become all things to all people, and not a mere cultivator of intellects and morals.

That would partially explain the new emphasis on administrators.  A complementary explanation, Greene says, is that universities plain can do it, given their reliance on government funds and private gifts.  Not to mention, I would add, those whopping tuition increases.  The universities have the cash, in other words; or they did before the market crash (which took place immediately after the period examined in Greene’s study) deflated their endowments.  If they relied more on tuition to cover their costs, he says, their aspirations might weaken.  Students might not enjoy funding vice presidencies for diversity and engagement.

I don’t entirely buy into Greene’s contention that the way to pop the bureaucratic bubble is to reduce government subsidies.  “If tuition,” says he,

had to cover a larger share of university expenses, families would be more cost-conscious and force administrators to trim administrative expenses while concentrating resources on their core missions of teaching, research, and service.

Maybe so, and maybe not.  If students had all that much say about tuition rates—or their parents did, for that matter—administrators across the country would surely be hiding under their beds from mobs swinging nooses and crying out for vengeance.

That lawmakers—politicians, in other words—are going to cut university subsidies for high-minded reasons like fighting administrative bloat seems to me a quaint notion.  Why not (from the legislative standpoint) just pass the money along to the schools and leave parents to figure out the consequences?  From tuition rates of 41K, as at Williams, there could indeed be parental recoil.  Still, the problem seems to me much deeper than mere, if I may so speak, money.  A college or university, in contemporary terms, is a public utility.  Who cares how much old-fashioned “teaching” goes on there?  Isn’t the basic utilitarian idea the degree itself—the certification of competence and readiness for the job market?  If not, what are all those millions of young people doing there, against the relatively small number drawn as recently as 60 or 70 years ago to the enterprise of learning?

Plenty of teaching still goes on in universities, but a plausible assumption is that if the average college student encountered some gowned and betassled scholar sitting on a log, with dusty volume in hand, open to Aristotle’s Ethics, the temptation would be to hightail it in panic.  Or, with more high-minded address, to call 911: “Better get here fast—some weird guy is trying to pick up students.”