As if to put beyond any doubt the validity of the analogy between President Obama and Jimmy Carter, inflation, which was at almost historic lows for the past quarter century, is now beginning to resurge to an unsettling degree. One inflationary trend, however, for which the current administration cannot be blamed is that of highter education, which has been shooting upward for almost precisely that same quarter century in which the general inflation remained so low. Of all the causes, however, to which people point for this rise in the cost of college education, none is so important, and so much overlooked, as the cost of administration.
When I went to college, cost was hardly a concern. Attending the large southern state university ten miles from my home, I was able to procure a very strong education for the cost of $500 per semester (I lived at home); for the final two years, I absorbed most of that cost through scholarships received because of my academic work. Hence, a solid education almost exactly twenty-five years ago cost my family $2000. Nowadays such money would hardly come close to paying for a semester at our most modest regional universities.
Many reasons contribute to this inflation. The fact that universities now, like never before, compete with one another for students and therefore simply require lavishly appointed dormitories, cafeterias, and wellness centers (the very name a perfect example of linguistic inflation, when one considers that these used to be called "gyms"); the fact that we have ever-more-lavish sports facilties, together with the people to staff them; the fact that we now require campus psychiatrists, medical staff, security, and a daily menu of institutionally-sponsored entertainments--all of this necessarily drives up the cost of living in the campus township that students will inhabit for four, five, or six years of their lives.
But another very important inflationary pressure (as the economists call it) is the rise in bureaucratic administration. At the school with which I am affiliated, we have a campus student population of, say, 2,000--more or less the same population that the school has had for several decades. Not very long ago, a man who had begun his career at this school in the late 1960s told me (with little exaggeration) that when he arrived on campus, the administration consisted of the college president, his secretary, five deans and several filing cabinets. At present, while the number of students has increased only slightly, the administration consists of a president, a handful of vice presidents, essentially twice the number of deans, a variety of associate deans (most of them created in order to satisfy the aspirations of unremarkably talented folk distinguished only by their unquestioning devotion to the senior administration), a veritable army of chairmen (called "chairpersons" as if to demonstrate an apparently iron law that language inflates to match bureaucracy), and logistical divisions supporting all these folk. The fact that the student population has remained fairly constant throughout these rapid changes leads one to suspect that the reason for all these new positions is not to serve the students.
The cyncial might say that the purpose of so many administrators is to serve not the students but the administrators themselves, since they are all handsomely paid for the mysterious and often vaguely-defined services they provide. This situation, deplorable though it is, does have the merit of raising a puzzle, which may at least help clarify thinking when applied to institutions around the country more significant than my own. The riddle is this: if administration is so grossly inefficient and sucks up so much money for so little return, how does it survive? It would seem, particularly in a day when universities are increasingly run like businesses, that such a system would prove unworkable, since businesses with bloated administration invariably implode sooner or later.
The answer I think lies in the fact that while universities pretend to be businesses, they really are not. They are often attracted to business models because university administrations, like all administrations, seek power, and the business model is essentially autocratic. While in the golden age of American education universities were largely run by faculty, administrations now favor a more hierarchical model of government--with its lack of transparency, its limited circle of those truly making decisions, and its emphasis on rank and chain of command. Ordinarily, in government for instance, hierarchical institutions do not compete as well as democratic institutions because over the long run free contributions by large groups of individuals tend to make smarter decisions than small groups closed off from free and open discussion. Businesses, however, overcome this inherent limitation because those at the top are constantly subjected to enormous pressure to succeed. The CEOs and their staffs are immediately responsible to shareholders, who like to see healthy quarterly earnings reports. If they don't, the CEOs lose their jobs.
But the modern university is not in this way analogous to a business. The CEOs of the universities have adopted from business a more autocratic model of governance, but they have not at the same time assumed the same responsibility to succeed. They are, to be sure, responsible to boards of trustees, but they are also cushioned from the effects of corrupt or otherwise bad decisions because, being funded by the state (if public) or by the endowment (if private) or both, they are rarely in a situation in which one bad deicion, or even series of decisions, will bleed the institution completely dry. No matter how bad things get (within reason), they are always assured of a stream of revenue--not of their creating--which will always shelter them to some degree from the pressures of reality that ensure that businesses make more efficient decisions.
The problem, then, seems to be this: the contemporary university has adopted the worst of two different systems. It takes the money that allows an open, democratic institution to function despite the inefficiencies inherent in such an open process of government and combines it with the more closed management system of the world of business. And it is precisely this closed system of governance that is inappropriate to a setting like the university. Best for all is an open system of governance, and its inherently higher cost is provided for by the guaranteed moneys that flow into the university no matter what decisions (within reason) are made there. Worst of all is the closed system of governance, but it is kept honest in business because it must constantly make sound decisions in order to assure its own survival. Unfortunately, in the current system of higher education in this country, more and more universities are adopting a closed system of governance, while maintaining the supply of money that assures the governors will be able to maintain their positions for considerable periods, despite results. And when that happens, the governors will be ever more tempted to make decisions in their own best interest, not in the best interest of the institution.
And so the public as a whole pays the price, in higher taxes and higher tuition, of subsidizing institutions which, so long as they accept public money, ought to be transparent and open. That they are not means that everyone, whether student or tax-payer, pays a real price for the opaque and closed system that is the contemporary university.