With Harvard in the news even more than usual, I’ve been mulling which Harvard personage best exemplifies the narcissism of our nation’s oldest and most prestigious college where, too often, rules are viewed as “for thee, but not for me.” There’s Buckminster Fuller, who was expelled for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe, readmitted, then expelled again for missing midterms. Admissions retread and self-styled savior Jared Kushner isn’t a bad representation of privilege run amok. There’s also RFK Jr., who clearly wasn’t vaccinated against thinking he knows better. Dr. Oz ran for a Pennsylvania senate seat as a resident of New Jersey and Viet Dinh, Rupert Murdoch’s top lawyer, hubristically (and fatally) told the Fox board that any defamation damages owed to Dominion Voting Systems would be de minimis. Harvard environmental law professor Jody Freeman comes closer; Freeman served as counselor for Energy and Climate Change in the Obama Administration before jumping onto the ConocoPhillips board for more than a decade, generating excessive heat for both her bank account and the planet. But for sheer hypocrisy, it’s hard to beat Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau was a Harvard legacy. His grandfather was the leader of Harvard’s Butter Rebellion of 1766 prompting the student body to rise up in protest at constant provision of rancid butter; as Thoreau grandpère famously told the administration: “Our butter stinketh. Give us, therefore, butter that stinketh not.” Thoreau’s classmates thought him self-aggrandizing even by Harvard standards. After graduating in 1837, he tried his hand at teaching, writing, being a handyman, and working in his family’s pencil factory. Nothing stuck save his connection with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose children he tutored, and who happened to own prime pondside property in Walden. So, for two years sandwiched between accidentally setting a fire that consumed 300 acres of Walden Woods and Emerson yelling at Thoreau to get off his pond, Thoreau lived in a cabin on Walden Pond, away from “the mass of men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation.” Thoreau’s retreat to nature was a consequence of his misanthropy; time didn’t improve his ability to make friends. Nevertheless, subsequent generations have viewed Walden as the definitive paean to simplicity and self-sufficiency. The book has also attracted its share of critics, deriding Thoreau’s insufferable arrogance. And that might be the most severe censure of Walden but for one thing: while he lived on Walden Pond, Thoreau had his mother do his laundry.
Fast forward 170 years and Harvardian hypocrisy has spawned and mutated through every prestige-seeking university. A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published a report analyzing the spending of all 50 flagship public universities over the past two decades. For those who haven't opted to pay Rupert Murdoch for access to his second favorite New York paper (behind the New York Post), here are the salient conclusions:
After reading the Journal report, a friend of mine commented “everybody is a dean of something.” That may not be far from the truth. Ohio University’s Richard Vedder complains that when he started teaching, “there were typically around two faculty for every non-faculty support person… Today there are more administrators than faculty at most schools.” UNC Chapel Hill has nearly 250 administrators making an average base salary of $165K (total expense over $50M). A prior Wall Street Journal analysis of University of Minnesota spending found the system added more than 1,000 new administrative positions from 2001-2012. A decade ago, higher education gadfly and Johns Hopkins political science professor Benjamin Ginsberg had this Swiftian response to the ostensible rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses): since most of the spending binge is due to the “deanlet boom” – the fact that “hundreds, even thousands, of vice provosts and assistant deans attend the same meetings and undertake the same activities on campuses around the U.S. every day” – a more momentous development would be MOOAs (massive open online administrations) where “one experienced group of administrators making decisions for hundreds of campuses at once would eliminate the need for colleges and universities to deal with the same administrative issues independently.”
While many higher education pundits have commented on massive administrations, no one has disliked deanlets to the point of locking oneself in a woodland cabin for a couple years to think deeply about why. Although I’m neither woods- nor water-adjacent, I’ll do my best in a couple minutes. First, federal and state governments have promulgated a raft of new laws and regulations mandating paperwork (and paperwork completers) at colleges for matters of financial aid, student privacy, crime, and sexual assault. Second, colleges are expected to cover more ground for students e.g., mental health, transforming career services theater into actually helping students land good first jobs. And as the Chronicle of Higher Education noted: “Once, faculty performed many of these non-instructional functions, from guiding students through internship searches to maintaining diversity in classrooms and clubs. Now, administrators do.” But these are rounding errors – not core to higher education’s administrative bloat.
Emulating Thoreau in the 21st century means not only physical reclusiveness, but also unplugging from phones, social media, and commonly used communication platforms like Slack. A few months ago, I read an interview in Fortune with Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s founder and CEO. Questioned as to why Silicon Valley startups over-hired, ultimately resulting in hundreds of thousands of layoffs, Butterfield pointed to two factors: (1) Fed-enabled easy money resulting in effectively zero interest rate, leading companies to believe they couldn’t afford not to bet the farm; and (2) what he called “ the root of all excess”:
You hire someone, and the first thing that person wants to do is hire other people… it’s a very obvious signal, and it’s very true, that the more people who report to you, the higher your prestige, the more your power in the organization. If you’re a manager, you want to become a senior manager. If you’re a senior manager, you want to become a director. It’s a very powerful incentive.
Prestige-seeking universities – i.e., flagships and many others – have more in common with tech startups than they might care to admit. First, low interest federal student loans provided colleges with a comparable era of easy money – an era that, despite a doubling of rates, lives on zombie-like thanks to much more generous income-driven repayment plus dribs and drabs of student debt relief coupled with seemingly permanent political pandering on blanket loan forgiveness.
More important, administrators want departments. They want to hire others who’ll report to them. Associate directors want to become directors. Associate deans want to become deans, who in turn want to become assistant or associate vice provosts. Like in tech startups, climbing the ladder often means hiring behind to build a little empire. The similarities may scare the bejesus out of academic critics at Harvard and public flagships who view Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as greed-seeking snollygosters. The main difference is that in tech startups, unnecessary managers and directors probably play a more proximate role in delivering a potentially valuable product or service.
Another difference is governance. When tech company founders control their boards, things can go off the rails. But university presidents don’t control their boards – particularly presidents of flagships. The Journal lays blame at the feet of trustees themselves – “[they] demanded little accountability and often rubber-stamped what came before them” – citing one study showing public university trustees approved 98% of cost-increasing proposals put before them. Last summer, rather than consider cost reductions after the state held funding flat, Penn State trustees voted to boost tuition and fees by 5%. The Journal also references University of Kentucky’s 2017 decision to raise tuition 4%. Trustees voted 16 to 1 in favor, with student government president Rowan Reid the only no vote. Reid recalls that the board’s default was to pass deficits onto students and that it felt wrong. She defends her vote as looking out for students’ interests and was “torn as to how she could reconcile that with what was best for the university.” Here’s a hint: when what’s supposedly best for the university is bad news for students, it may not be best for the university.
But given our current broken approach to higher education governance, this dichotomy is likely to persist. Because for part-time trustees who pay attention to university business only a handful of days each year, grappling with tangled and unwieldy budgets is an exercise in Thoreauvean self-abnegation compared to management’s alternative dream-of-ease: raising tuition and fees.
Like Silicon Valley startups, it worked pretty well in an era of growth. But for some flagships, that’s not where we’re headed. Witness West Virginia University (WVU) where a projected $45M+ deficit for FY ‘24 will result in elimination of 32 programs – including all foreign languages – and as many as 169 faculty. Like other flagships, and led by the most experienced college president in the country (to whom the board was even more deferential than usual), WVU had delusions of grandeur. But increased spending depended on growing enrollment, which has gone in the opposite direction in the Mountain State. Penn State isn’t facing the same enrollment chasm, but rather an enrollment valley, which paired with last year’s $140M deficit, is making Happy Valley a less happy place.
The vast majority of flagships are able to afford their profligacy because they’ve been hoovering up students from public regionals. So the immediate victims are less selective public universities that have played follow-the-flagship-leader only to find that excess spells disaster in a world of double-digit enrollment declines.
The root of higher education’s excess isn’t anything special or spectacular. You don’t have to be a misanthrope like Thoreau to see excessive hiring and spending is merely human nature, to which all organizations without solid governance are vulnerable. But times are changing, even for top public universities. Unless they gain governance capable of grappling with bureaucratic bloat, the coming era of lost confidence and demographic challenges will result in many more flagships spending years in the WVU and Penn State woods.