Nobody Watching

Peter Wood

The most reliably interesting higher education blog, Erin O'Connor's Critical Mass, touched a tender spot on the rhinoceros. O'Connor wrote:

We know that most college courses are taught by non-tenure-track faculty -- either adjunct lecturers or graduate students. Now we also know that most full-time higher ed employees are administrators, not faculty. The ratio seems to be changing pretty fast, too -- in 2004, 50.6 percent of full-time higher ed employees were faculty (this doesn't count med schools); in 2006, that number had sunk to 48.6. Interesting, too, is a comparison between public and private four-year institutions. In the one, the faculty figure has gone from 53.1 percent to 51.1 percent. In the other, it has gone from 45.6 percent to 44 percent. (March 12, 2008, "Weber Rolls Over in His Grave")

The data come from the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, and have occasioned comments elsewhere about the displacement of full-time faculty members with adjuncts. O'Connor, however, draws our attention to the relative growth in the number of administrators.

The data reaches the U.S. Department of Education through something called the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which collects reams of material from "approximately 3,600 institutions of higher education," and another 3,100 other Title IV-eligible institutions. Much of this data is publicly available in electronic form, but few observers seem to pursue it. NAS's Academic Correspondent Tom Wood is among the few to gain some facility with the system, and we hope to use IPEDS data in our "How Many Delawares?" initiative and other projects.

The new report has pages upon pages of statistical tables and methodological caveats, which I'll avoid the folly of summarizing. O'Connor's eye seems to have been caught by Table 1, from which one can extract the nugget that as of fall 2006, there were 436,091 full-time instructional faculty in those 6,700 institutions (not including medical schools); 190,821 full-time executives or managers; and 508,037 full-time professional support employees, not including technical, clerical, secretarial, skilled crafts, or maintenance employees. When O'Connor writes that "most full-time higher ed employees are administrators, not faculty," she is using the word "administrators" as it is commonly used on campus to include positions such as the Registrar, the staff in grant-accounting, the folks who work in the alumni office, and so on.

In this sense, there are about 1.6 full-time administrators for every full-time instructional faculty member in American higher education. And the imbalance appears to be growing. Keep this in mind when next you read about the creation of new positions for ethnic counselors or senior vice provost for diversity. The rhinoceros of higher education administration grows thicker by the day.

O'Connor's observation drew a variety of comments, including this from Mike (he did not include his last name):

There's really nobody watching this stuff though, at most schools. Few faculty have the urge to delve into budgets and figure out what is going on, let alone the wherewithal to do something about it. And this assumes that they have access to the budget information in any digestible form. Somebody should be watching this more closely, but my take is it's not happening.

Yes, someone should. The National Association of Scholars aims to do just that. The only thing is that we are few and the sources of mischief are many. Our answer is to organize a grassroots project to find volunteers who, with a little training, can learn to penetrate the veils of obscurity in which college and university typically wrap their more doubtful conduct. We have some expertise in this veil-removal, having pursued countless freedom of information requests and having gained our own IPEDs proficiency. But we welcome additional help. He who would wrestle the rhinoceros best begin by finding some agile friends.

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