Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy

Half of me is reluctant to write something harshly critical about higher education in the United States because I’m such a true-blue believer in, beneficiary of, and insider to the system.

I’m an outspoken apostle for the small liberal arts college (SLAC) form of education, a distinctly American institution. But that institution is falling fast into desuetude. Only about 1 percent of the nation’s twenty million undergraduates are educated these days in a SLAC. I assert that this form of education ought to be recognized as the gold standard for undergraduate education (rich, poor, white, black, religious, secular, you name it).

The comparative advantage of the SLAC’s “business model” has been that it is small and intimate. The smallness facilitates face-to-face forms of teaching and learning. It thus showcases an interactive mix of personalism, relationalism, and localism.

Much ado has been made about administrative creep and bloat at big universities across the country, the proliferation of vice presidents and deans and assistant directors and supervisors and others with executive-sounding or middle-manager puffed-up titles. That cancerous disease has infected small colleges too, and its damaging effects are particularly pernicious there.

An autonomous managerial class has emerged whose immediate and ulterior motives are occupational as opposed to educational (a distinction that ought not to be collapsed), and whose mission is to serve administrative as opposed to teaching purposes. Perhaps worse of all, the managerial model of organization, in trying to bring small colleges into the fold of purportedly national “best practices” is destroying the distinctiveness, the very raison d’etrê, of small colleges.

For the rapid destruction of the American small college, I could wag my finger at a number of culprits and conditions. But I want to focus my ire here on one main responsible party: their presidents. They bear the bulk of the blame.

The board of trustees bears the legal and fiduciary responsibilities for good stewardship, but in fact, the president holds the keys to the Chevy and can drive it pretty much wherever he/she wishes. The president enjoys a great deal of formal and discretionary power and isn’t constrained, as would be a CEO of a for-profit company, for overriding concerns about bottom-line profit.

If a college president wants to build a big new art museum and can divert the money or debt to do so, he doesn’t need much consultation beyond the board and will receive vocal support and functional complicity from the confederacy of at-will, yes-men administrators at his behest. Oh, faculty committees can write reports and hold meetings and make a small ruckus, but the president is in charge and can ignore or squelch the noise below.

Here’s my saddest revelation: small liberal arts college presidents don’t know what they are talking about, and yet they talk as if they do. They are to promote the college as a place of teaching. But they are not teachers. They are to sing the praises of the liberal arts classroom. But most of them have never set foot on a liberal arts college campus before heading one up. Most of them, I dare say after perusing their track records and career choices, would never have sought out a presidency at a SLAC but for the enormous pay and status that now come attached to those jobs.

Of the SLAC presidents making more than $400,000 in 2014, 65 percent are not SLAC alums, and 82 percent never taught in a SLAC. A majority never set foot on a SLAC campus, either as a student or a professor. What’s more, the less previous experience you have had in a SLAC, the more likely you are to pull down a big salary as one’s president. Of the top thirty best-paid SLAC presidents, twenty-one had absolutely no connection to a SLAC before heading one as president.

Some of my market-minded friends might at this point lecture me about the irresistible market forces that have compelled these presidents to accept these lavish salaries so prudently offered to them. You want to get the best people for these jobs and thus you have to pay the going rates because these top people are in demand and have options and special experience and ultimately pay for themselves because of their superior managerial and fundraising abilities.

They know how to preside over complex institutions and oversee budgets and spreadsheets and to sweet-talk potential donors. Besides, the national executive search firm we hired, whose recruits scrutinized the nominated CVs sent to them, tell us that the applicant pool was rich and wide, but in the end we have to pay top dollar for the right person, which, incidentally works out for a higher finder’s fee for the search firm.

Turns out on closer inspection, however, that none of these SLAC presidents on the 2014 compensation scale was ever a CEO in the business world (nor do any former SLAC presidents get CEO-business offers upon retiring), so the “market pressures” for ratcheting up salaries come largely from some conjured trajectory from within academe. What the executive selection system has created is a national SLAC president network of climbers, carpetbaggers, careerists—and liars.

Small wonder so many colleges are struggling, even as their presidents are paid so handsomely.

The most conspicuous change I have seen over my years at Pomona College is that the number of administrators has ballooned. When I arrived in 1990, the catalog named 56 persons as members of the administration, 180 faculty members, and 1,487 students.

Cut to 2016. The catalog is no longer printed in hard copy. Everything is on the web, accessed through something called a “portal.” Pomona College now has, by my careful count, 271 administrators. The number of faculty is 186, and the number of students has increased to 1,640.

The Dean of Students Office has gone from six persons in 1990 to sixty-five in 2016, not counting administrative assistants. The Office of Development, which formerly included Alumni Affairs, counted sixteen persons; now those renamed offices tally forty-seven persons. A few years ago Pomona created a new position, Chief Communications Officer; there are twenty-two persons working for the CCO—yes, we now have twenty-three people working for Pomona’s PR!

Summary overview: the number of students has increased 12 percent; the number of faculty has increased 3 percent; the number of administrators has increased 384 percent; and tuition has increased 253 percent.

Some attribute the mushrooming of administrative positions to an onslaught of federal regulation (e.g., Clery Act, VAWA, ADA, FERPA, Title IV, Title IX) and increased scrutiny by accrediting agencies.  Some point to increased competition for students owing to the emergence of ranking services, globalization, helicopter parenting, and so on.

The net effect of all these macro-explanations is to conclude that the administrative overthrow of the erstwhile SLAC model was inevitable, and all we can do now is shrug our shoulders, learn to speak the prevailing jargon, and watch reruns of The Office for comic relief.

Tuitions are skyrocketing and educational integrity has been compromised because administrators, not educators, now run the show.

Editor’s note: This essay is a shortened version of one that appears under the same title in the Summer 2017 issue of Modern Age, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The full essay is available here.

  • Rob Jenkins

    John, thank you for this. Much of what you say here applies to community colleges as well. I wrote a piece about that for The Chronicle a few years ago titled “A Song of Vice and Mire,” comparing community college governance to Game of Thrones.

  • Jan Susan

    All true, sadly. This, coupled with the egregious exploitation of academic labour in the form of contingent and “term” faculty, will destroy what we cherish most about higher education. It’s NOT a business. Colleges and universities are NOT corporations. Anyone who says otherwise (and who probably gets a fat salary) is contributing to this demise.

  • OldJarhead03

    Unfortunately the SLAC acronym has been taken to heart, and they now produce SLACkers.

  • DrOfnothing

    Yes, this is exactly what happens when free-market philosophy, managerial ideology, and corporate bureaucratic practices are aloud to run rampant in an institution formerly run by amateur and part-time administrator/scholars.

    Welcome to the neo-Liberal HE “market.” What amazes me is that most observers on the right don’t put two and two together and realise that the same ideology they praise is also responsible for the institutional changes they deride. The market is most definitely _not_ the answer, and market-based solutions will only worsen the problem. The more you try to make colleges compete against one another, the more they will collude in adopting similar managerial structures that erode their distinctive identity and approach to education.

    • Perseus

      It’s nothing close to a free market when government subsidies and regulations have proliferated so greatly (but shouting “neoliberalism” as an epithet is a way to indicate one’s tribal affiliation among certain academics).

      • DrOfnothing

        Neoliberalism isn’t an epithet, it’s simply a desciption of a particular relationship between the public sector and the private sector.

        • Perseus

          So your response is to post a tendentious video trashing neoliberalism, thus confirming my point.

  • Truth Squad

    John Seery must be too close to the problem, because he lacks the ability to diagnose it properly.

    Yes, there is administrative bloat. This bloat is a byproduct of government regulation. Private schools have become, sadly, private in name only. Whenever the federal government offers money, there are strings attached. And, today, there are precious few colleges that could remain in business without taxpayer subsidies.

    These subsidies take the form of government loans to students, which the colleges scoop up as tuition revenue.

    This endless supply of government revenue enables colleges to raise tuition at 2 or 3 times the rate of inflation. The higher a school’s advertised tuition, the more loan money its students are permitted to borrow. Thus, the colleges are incentivized to raise tuition. Institutions of “higher learning” have become ‘rent seekers.’

    But this flood of federal money also permits the government to impose a massive regulatory scheme — to ensure compliance with affirmative action, Title IX, etc. And in order to comply, schools must employ an army of administrators.
    So, yes: colleges cost more than they should, and the administrative ranks have grown much more rapidly than the faculty ranks.
    All of this can be laid at the feet of the government — which, until the late 1950s — kept its nose out of private higher education. Today, however, private colleges and universities are, de facto, run by the government. Witness, for example, the Obama Administration’s threat to withhold all federal aid to institutions that dared to refuse to operate “rape crisis” kangaroo courts — which involved the denial of basis due process rights, and substituted a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard of proof for the usual standard (beyond a reasonable doubt) in adjudicating criminal charges of sexual assault. As noted above, any school that failed to comply with the government mandate would face insolvency.
    But Mr. Seery, in decrying administrative bloat and fingering college presidents as the derelict parties, fails to take responsibility for his own shortsightedness — and that of his uniformly like-minded colleagues.
    SLACs are in trouble today because they no longer provide an authentic liberal arts curriculum. Faculty have abdicated their duty to educate.
    Instead, 18 year olds are told to take whatever course they want to take, in any order. There are virtually no requirements, and there is no coherent curriculum. In effect, students are told, “educate yourselves (if you can), and have fun. Just don’t bother the faculty. We don’t care to teach foundational survey courses; we prefer to spend 15 weeks flogging our narrow research interests in specialized courses — subjects that could be covered adequately by having students read a magazine article.
    So, Mr. Seery, stop whining. You and your colleagues are as culpable as anyone else in the sad demise of the SLAC (and probably more so).
    In fact, you’ve managed to turn SLACs into LACINOs (liberal arts colleges in name only).

  • DrOfnothing

    The author is accurately identifying trends, but completely incorrect in identifying the causes. The author also ignores the quantitative studies on these issues. The perception is not the reality (see below).

    College tuition has risen largely because the market will bear it (and rising tuition is compensated for with rising financial aid). This is why the tuition at the top tier of private LACs and universities cluster so closely. Market forces also dictate increasing investment in marketing, development (i.e. fundraising), and student services–hence the growth of administration.

    Federal spending on education in real terms has grown, but only to replace declining state spending.

    Lastly, the cost of compliance is much smaller than the author estimates, since the majority of compliance expenditure is on research, largely scientific and medical (11-25% of all research expenditure). Given the inherent health and safety issues of such research this is understandable, though probably not ideal.

    Compliance on other matters, depending upon the institution, can be as little as 2% or as much as 8%.

    For those wishing to read an accurate, detailed study on the costs of compliance, I recommend the 2015 study published by Vanderbilt University.

  • Perseus

    Prof. Seery is right on the money. It is not simply the availability of more money from government and other sources that has contributed to administrative bloat. Most of that money could be spent on hiring more full-time faculty or reducing the net costs to students. It is ultimately a governance issue of what sort of people are in charge and what are their institutional incentives. Administrators have managed to increase their power at the expense of faculty yet benefit from the aura of academic autonomy accorded to faculty (despite not being faculty), which buttresses their discretionary authority against trustees (who are generally not very familiar with higher education) and others who seek to reign in their bureaucratic empire building.

  • allencic

    I’m a retired professor. When I started teaching in 1965 the top administration at my state university (25K students) numbered well under a dozen. When I retired in 2001 it was well over 100. Through all those years I never could figure out what they did or why. Except for pointless reports that we didn’t want to write and they didn’t want to read I thought they were totally useless. I can’t think of a single thing they did that affected what or how I taught. They certainly didn’t improve things and generally were nothing but a PITA.