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Regulations apply tremendous pressure on colleges and other nonprofits, increasing their costs while altering their missions. Students and parents are the ones who pay for it.

Corporatism and government regulations operate as giant pincers which apply tremendous pressure on colleges and other nonprofits, increasing their costs while altering their missions.

There are compelling reasons for some government oversight. Donors should be able to anticipate a certain amount of security for their donations. Funds need to be used responsibly. Approval of tax-exempt status insures that the government attends to the public weal. Abuse and fraud need monitoring.

There are, however, two inherent dangers with too many government regulations:

1. More regulation means higher compliance costs. 

2. Regulations are often not “value-neutral” but can be based on ideological assumptions, operating as stalking horses for specific ideologies. This, in turn, crowds out independent thinkers who are not allowed to question the dogma that the regulation assumes. In other words: it becomes an Orwellian nightmare.


Higher compliance costs

Colleges provide a useful example of the challenges nonprofits face. I’ve argued before that rising college costs are largely due to administrative bloat. But one should not underestimate the ways in which government regulations cause rising costs. In particular, the cartel of accreditation agencies and government regulators, operating coercively with the threat of sequestering funds, commands and constrains institutional actions.

Think about the various offices that have either been created or expanded since I was a student in college. We had back then a (newly formed) counseling office that was staffed by three persons total and often had a lot of time on their hands. College counseling centers now operate with a 24-hour revolving door and are woefully understaffed. Granted, much of this problem is on the demand side rather than the supply, but when combined with the possibilities of litigation, colleges can’t afford not to deliver these tangential services.

Or consider the increase in “human resources” offices on campuses, a central function of which is to insure compliance. Faculty hiring practices, particularly with regard to diversity initiatives, requires a great number of compliance officers pushing an awful lot of paperwork. When I was chair of the political science department at Hope College, I spent hours and hours writing reports attempting to prove that we had made every effort possible to hire a female or minority for our open position and detailing the ways we did this.

Our HR Department recently hosted a “Development Day” (I counted five exclamation marks in the announcement) with the “hope” that “the event will live into the strategic plan.” It was attended, and the free lunch consumed, by over half the school’s employees. The centerpiece was a speech by a specialist in “CQ,” which helps improve our “Cultural Intelligence!” They teach us to “work effectively in culturally diverse situations.” Not surprisingly, they even use CQ as a verb, as in “We will CQ your school.”

Consider also all the other tasks performed by these offices, not the least of which is complying with tax laws and the demands of our byzantine health care system. The most salutary outcome of a flat tax and a single-payer system would be the elimination of a lot of these positions.

As one college president put it:

“Take internal audit. … it has driven significant changes in our nonprofit board’s concerns, oversight, and actions. The resulting increased financial oversight, internal audit, and risk management are all reasonable and responsible activities—and all require administrative staff and add substantial real costs. Students and parents pay.”


An Orwellian nightmare

At the eye of the storm over the past couple of years have been college’s Title IX offices. Faculty have to undergo “mandatory training” sessions every year, being instructed on issues that are tilted by officers who are slanted. It has taken on a particularly Orwellian feel.

Recently we were informed by our “Employee Development Manager” – who, I might add, is responsible for “employee orientation and onboarding [sic] programs” – that “as part of your professional development here at Hope College, we are excited to offer you many development and learning opportunities!”

My excitement soon waned, however, upon reading the next sentence. I discovered, in military fashion, that I had been “assigned” training with a due date. This “mandatory training” was … instruction in workplace bullying. I would have found the email less off-putting and more likely to engage my cooperation if it were straightforward. “We are required by law under penalty of loss of funds to beseech you do the following, and apologize for the inconvenience.” Because –honestly – there is something more than a little ironic about being threatened if you don’t watch an “anti-bullying” video.

Faculty and administrators don’t complain too much because the content of such “training” often satisfies their own ideological demands. We don’t, for example, have any mandatory training in our religious or philosophical heritage. We don’t even have mandatory training in “the liberal arts,” this at a time when more than 90% of faculty couldn’t tell you the difference between the liberal arts and the servile ones, much less identify the distinction between the quadrivium and the trivium.

But they are all too happy to force you to sit through sexual harassment and racism seminars – which, by their own account, haven’t effectively addressed the problem, given that racism and sexism remain “rampant.” (Is there a point at which someone might say “Our seminars and consciousness-raising efforts have finally paid off and we are pleased to say that we have eliminated sexism and racism, and therefore resign our positions effective immediately?”) We are undergoing anti-bullying training when no one has demonstrated there is actually a problem of bullying among faculty and staff. It makes one feel good to be against such a thing, however.

Part of an Orwellian nightmare, besides its destruction of language, is the tendency to require acts that justify the structures that make such requirements – and they are expensive.

As Arthur Kirk notes in his Chronicle of Higher Education piece: “One small private college documented that 106 employees logged 7,200 hours completing federal compliance forms. Some regulations were promulgated to call us to account for why our tuition costs so much.”

Regulations pile up over time (become “kludgey”) and gradually asphyxiate the practices and programs that are the life-breath of an institution, in no small part through the reallocation of financial resources.

No reform of the modern college can begin without serious regulatory reform, and the place to start is government-sponsored accreditation agencies. That’s another essay, however.


Photo credit: Overpass Light Brigade on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC

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