In past articles I have discussed the ways in which corporatization has corrupted nonprofits in general and colleges in particular[1]. I’ve argued there is both a logic and a set of ends that govern the corporate world that don’t translate well into the nonprofit one.

Nonetheless, there is a certain logic inherent in modern corporate (whose literal meaning, it should be remembered, is “one body”) structures that has been identified most clearly in the work of Max Weber.

Weber discussed the ways in which routinization of tasks and bureaucratization of structures were necessary outcomes of the general process of rationalization. Capitalist economies, he argued, formed a kind of “mass cosmos” that determined the structures of form and action – an “iron cage” from which we couldn’t escape.

And, indeed, we see the effects in the nonprofit world. To use again Weber’s language, charismatic leadership yields to bureaucratic organization. During periods of growth the temptation to use capital to increase the organizational structure finds little resistance. As the organization grows more persons are needed to perform proliferating tasks.

But that’s not the only reason. Outside factors such as regulatory agencies may exert compliance pressures that require more manpower. Ideology may dictate new offices be created (the duplication on campuses concerning “diversity and inclusion” is pretty breathtaking). Indeed, the absorption of “social justice” ideology into the technological and commercial structure of education under the rubric of “competencies” is one of the most important stories of the modern academy.

Neither should one underestimate the role indolence plays. At many colleges when presidents face the choice of hiring more faculty or hiring staff who might lighten their workload, they’ll almost always choose the latter. Then too, exceptional amounts of time and energy are wasted on “workplace” initiatives. Instruction gets pushed to the margins.

As staff and administrators grow in numbers, the organization loses its way. It begins to substitute a new set of ends and purposes for its originating purpose. Thus many colleges will hire out classroom instruction to low-paying adjuncts while hiring more and more well-compensated administrators, most of whom will make more than full-time faculty and certainly more than adjuncts, whose existence will be used to justify “cost-saving” good will. But it’s a sure sign a school no longer knows what education means.

Administrative bloat lies alongside ideology as the twin and interrelated pathologies of the modern campus.[2] It is easily the single greatest reason for the increase in tuition costs. When bloat occurs reality will have its say by exerting so much financial pressure on the schools that they’ll make decisions only in crisis mode, and the people making the decisions will not be the faculty, whose positions will get cut even while administrative positions increase. Soon, colleges may well become, Kafka-like, an organization of administrators with no faculty or students.

You may think I’m joking, but consider what has happened at my Alma Mater.

Since 1989 there has been a 6.6 percent decrease in students, a 27.8 percent increase in faculty, and a 73.2 percent increase in non-faculty employees.

In an article for the New York Times Sunday Review Paul Campos noted,

“a major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.”

Moreover, the average administrator makes $90,760 a year while the average faculty member makes $79,424 (a number that, when adjusted for inflation, has barely budged since 1970). Add adjuncts into the mix and the disparity is greater still. Get to the ever-profilerating Dean’s positions, and the disparity increases more. High-level administrators often receive lavish benefits that hide further inequalities.

The increase in administrative staff is the single greatest cause of the ballooning costs of higher ed. Declining demographics and shifts in the labor market will place downward pressure on administrators who are currently much more willing to cut faculty positions than their own. Schools will enter a death-spiral of tuition discounting and declining enrollment.

A forward-thinking president will take the red pen in hand and target the biggest crisis in higher ed: administrative bloat and the decline of faculty. To get such a person, schools may in this one instance be better off adopting corporate methods and leaders that can identify and act on a “bottom line” approach, so long as they can retain a functioning idea of what education is and is for. Staff and administrative costs should never eclipse faculty and instructional ones.


[1] Universities Should Stop Acting Like Corporations; The Problem With “Measurable Impact”; “Best practices” and the corporate takeover of higher education.

[2] Indeed, the increasing inequality, hierarchy, and administrative bloat of colleges requires the programmatic emphasis on social justice, diversity, inclusivity, and equality not only as a rationalization of their privileges, but as an intentional act of bad faith designed to reconcile their minds to the dissonance between how they live and their purported values.

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