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Feb 9, 2004 10:07 am

How Broadly Can We Generalize about Academic Institutions?

On February 4, Steven Horwitz made an interesting claim about which kinds of universities are most likely to suffer from unaccountable administration. Referring to the Deming case, in which a dean at the University of Oklahoma has stripped a senior faculty member of tenure, allegedly for openly criticizing the dean’s political agenda, Steve said:

My own guess is that, like the problem of political correctness, the problem of rogue administrators is worst at mid-level state universities (as opposed to top Tier I schools), where it's more likely that you'll find faculty and deans who overestimate their importance both in terms of their intellectual contributions and their ability to make the trains run on time. At a place like mine, a small upper Tier II liberal arts college, these things are less of a problem, I think.

There may be something to this. Deming notes in his article that his troubles with the dean began, years ago, after he stood up at a college faculty meeting and questioned the feasibility of that dean’s pet institutional aspiration: making OU as prestigious as Penn State. I work at another mid-level state university, where elevation to the top 20 public universities, as rated in US News and World Report, has been the official goal since our current president took office in 1999. I haven’t heard of anyone being run out of Clemson for questioning whether top 20 status in the offing, in a relatively poor state where the legislature is no longer interested in rewarding universities with increased appropriations of tax money when they do more grant- funded research. I suspect that public support for Governor Mark Sanford’s current budget proposal (which would cut state funding for Clemson’s extension system and related agricultural research by 41%) would be a much quicker route to the door marked “Exit.” Still, I would have to conclude that a faculty member who works under a tyrannical dean might be run out for questioning the drive to Top 20dom.

On the other hand, Clemson has emitted an occasional burst of political correctness, but isn’t terribly prone to it overall. It is hard to imagine a faculty member being punished for upholding gun ownership in a letter to the Clemson Tiger, or the issue in which the offending letter appeared being deleted from the newspaper’s archives. (Clemson is located in a congressional district where during the last two elections the Democratic candidate advertised his opposition to gun control.) Yet both of these things have happened to Deming in Norman, Oklahoma.

The wider lesson is that the 3000+ colleges and universities in the United States are fairly diverse. One cannot conclude that because something is a problem at a 2-year tech school, it is therefore also a problem in the Ivy League, or that the internal politics of a big state university with a slew of graduate programs will be the same in every respect as those that prevail at a small liberal arts college.

Even worse, it’s really hard to get data about the way different academic institutions function. No one is in a position to quantify how many tenured faculty members are being run out of their institutions the way Deming is. The universities where this kind of stuff is going on don’t want anyone else to know that it is going on. And there is hardly ever media coverage, unless a faculty member is not only fired but files suit against the university over the firing.

So, what generalizations can we make about American higher education overall?

One that is pretty well documented with data from diverse institutions (see elsewhere on this site) is that significant grade inflation has taken place: more As are awarded in 2004 than were given out in 1984, which in turn saw more students getting As than was the case in 1964.

Here’s another hypothesis I’ll put forward: administrators (by which I mean full-time employees who spend 50% or more of their time managing people) constitute a larger percentage of every American university’s full-time workforce in 2004 than they did in 1984, and in turn each had a larger proportion of administrators in 1984 than it did in 1964.

This is not so easy to test as you might think. There are many reasons for thinking that the average upper administrator sincerely believes that more administration is better, and that a good many will put effort into achieving this objective. But upper-level administrators also recognize that the public may not share their values. So they overreport the number of faculty and non-administrative staff people at their institutions, and underreport the number of administrators. Still, if faculty members at each institution are willing to do the grunt work, they can arrive at a reasonably accurate count of administrators at different points in its history.

Perhaps a Tier II liberal arts college is less likely to hire (or retain) deans with monstrous egos than a middle-level state university with top 20 ambitions. Perhaps, too, such a college is more likely to involve faculty in evaluating deans, and less likely to deep-six faculty complaints about their performance. But have the liberal arts colleges avoided adding administration over the past couple of generations? Or has administration at least grown more slowly at such institutions than it did at bigger universities?

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