Home > arms race, education, feedback loop, statistics > Me & My Administrative Bloat

Me & My Administrative Bloat

June 3, 2014

I am now part of the administrative bloat over at Columbia. I am non-faculty administration, tasked with directing a data journalism program. The program is great, and I’m not complaining about my job. But I will be honest, it makes me uneasy.

Although I’m in the Journalism School, which is in many ways separated from the larger university, I now have a view into how things got so bloated. And how they might stay that way, as well: it’s not clear that, at the end of my 6-month gig, on September 16th, I could hand my job over to any existing person at the J-School. They might have to replace me, or keep me on, with a real live full-time person in charge of this program.

There are good and less good reasons for that, but overall I think there exists a pretty sound argument for such a person to run such a program and to keep it good and intellectually vibrant. That’s another thing that makes me uneasy, although many administrative positions have less of an easy sell attached to them.

I was reminded of this fact of my current existence when I read this recent New York Times article about the administrative bloat in hospitals. From the article:

And studies suggest that administrative costs make up 20 to 30 percent of the United States health care bill, far higher than in any other country. American insurers, meanwhile, spent $606 per person on administrative costs, more than twice as much as in any other developed country and more than three times as much as many, according to a study by the Commonwealth Fund.

Compare that to this article entitled Administrators Ate My Tuition:

A comprehensive study published by the Delta Cost Project in 2010 reported that between 1998 and 2008, America’s private colleges increased spending on instruction by 22 percent while increasing spending on administration and staff support by 36 percent. Parents who wonder why college tuition is so high and why it increases so much each year may be less than pleased to learn that their sons and daughters will have an opportunity to interact with more administrators and staffers— but not more professors.

There are similarities and there are differences between the university and the medical situations.

A similarity is that people really want to be educated, and people really need to be cared for, and administrations have grown up around these basic facts, and at each stage they seem to be adding something either seemingly productive or vitally needed to contain the complexity of the existing machine, but in the end you have enormous behemoths of organizations that are much too complex and much too expensive. And as a reality check on whether that’s necessary, take a look at hospitals in Europe, or take a look at our own university system a few decades ago.

And that also points out a critical difference: the health care system is ridiculously complicated in this country, and in some sense you need all these people just to navigate it for a hospital. And ObamaCare made that worse, not better, even though it also has good aspects in terms of coverage.

Whereas the university system made itself complicated, it wasn’t externally forced into complexity, except if you count the US News & World Reports gaming that seems inescapable.

  1. June 3, 2014 at 7:39 am

    Yes, but without YOU this program would have never existed and survived, so you are not bloat. You are the Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of the Lede program.

  2. Rob
    June 3, 2014 at 8:49 am

    “There are good and less good reasons for that, but overall I think there exists a pretty sound argument for such a person to run such a program and to keep it good and intellectually vibrant. That’s another thing that makes me uneasy, although many administrative positions have less of an easy sell attached to them.” …. said every administrator in every university ever.

    Since you are the designer of the program I see why you should be there. If you want to know why so many administrators still exists then just picture every other employee at Columbia saying that paragraph. It’s always easy to assign little value to other people’s jobs, less so about your own.

    • June 3, 2014 at 9:31 am

      Of course! That’s kind of my point. I see through my own hypocrisy.

  3. josh
    June 3, 2014 at 9:10 am

    Why is the US News & World Reports gaming inescapable?

    I understand the pressures but at the same time I don’t completely understand why they are inescapable.

    But I do agree that very few universities ignore them.

  4. June 3, 2014 at 9:12 am

    That’s a harsh compliment, I have to say. If someone said such a terrible thing to to me, it would make me want to kill myself to save the earth.

  5. June 3, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Anyway, you’re the creator and director of an actually new program. Are you also teaching any part of it?

    On the more general issue, Graeber on the response to his “bullshit jobs” article: “After my piece came out, for instance, The Economist rushed out a response just a day or two later. It was an incredibly weakly argued piece, full of obvious logical fallacies. But the main thrust of it was: well, there might be far less people involved in producing, transporting, and maintaining products than there used to be, but it makes sense that we have three times as many administrators because globalization has meant that the process of doing so is now much more complicated. You have computers where the circuitry is designed in California, produced in China, assembled in Saipan, put in boxes in some prison in Nevada, shipped through Amazon overnight to God-knows-where… It sounds convincing enough until you really think about it. But then you realize: If that’s so, why has the same thing happened in universities? Because you have exactly the same endless accretion of layer on layer of administrative jobs there, too. Has the process of teaching become three times more complicated than it was in the 1930s? And if not, why did the same thing happen? So most of the economic explanations make no sense.”

    As for U.S. News: it should really anger us, how this corporate ratings scam with utterly skewed values achieved such a position.

    • JSE
      June 4, 2014 at 9:08 am

      “Has the process of teaching become three times more complicated than it was in the 1930s?”

      Is the answer to this question supposed to obviously be “no” for some reason? It’s not obvious to me.

  6. Guest2
    June 3, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Yeah, be worried! Student loan debt is pulling down home ownership!

    http://www.businessinsider.com/18-34-years-olds-living-with-parents-2014-6

    Hopefully, this will answer Josh’s question about why rankings are so important. If you and your parents are going into debt over a degree, it now needs to be from a school with high reputational rank.

    • josh
      June 3, 2014 at 11:14 am

      Well, that matters. But if that’s the primarily consideration, then salaries graduates would be more important than US News (which I’m sure are correlated but not perfectly by any means). Also, the choices of majors would probably look different than they do.

      • Guest2
        June 3, 2014 at 1:56 pm

        Yes — Florida already includes data on grad earnings according to school and major, but who cares about that when picking a school? No one!

        Name recognition, what you are interested in getting a degree in, where you live and where your friends are going — these are what drive choices. Not all that rational.

        • June 4, 2014 at 3:00 am

          Name recognition and what you are interested are both rational, and both are plausibly related to your eventual salary.
          Name recognition should be obvious, but I also suggest that if you are really not interested in the human body, you are unlikely to obtain the best salary as a doctor as you just won’t be motivated enough to succeed.
          Also, where you live, where your friends are going relate to the here and now. Like all things in life, past performance in graduate salaries in no guarantee of the future. It would suck to move across the country to attend that new data science course only because data scientists have great graduate salaries (you’d actually prefer to be an elementary school teacher) only to discover the job market tanked, and your salary was lower than if you’d followed your heart.
          So not so irrational either.

  7. Min
    June 3, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Shades of Parkinson’s Law!

    But why didn’t Parkinson’s Law produce such administrative bloat before? Perhaps Baumol’s Law is at work as well. Globalization is turning the US into a service economy, even for services that are highly paid but the value of which is difficult to assess. In the cases of medicine and higher education, there is Federal subsidy as well.

  8. June 3, 2014 at 10:55 am

    After I posted, this press release came out, United Healthcare going to make some more money with their Shared Clarity subsidiary…

    “SharedClarity is a joint venture between UnitedHealthcare and four health care systems – Illinois-based Advocate Health Care, Dallas-based Baylor Scott & White Health, San Francisco-based Dignity Health and Michigan-based McLaren Health Care.”

    Yes indeed mining our medical records for research data and selling access…Mayo is also in bed with Optum Labs, part of United and see how they into being part of the hospital systems..unbelievable…more bloat for you Cathy…sorry:)

    http://www.enhancedonlinenews.com/portal/site/eon/permalink/?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20140603005128&newsLang=en&permalinkExtra=SharedClarity-BravoSolution-Join-Forces-Source-Effective-Medical

  9. Brad Davis
    June 3, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Maybe I’m missing the point, but if adding extra administrators increases the efficiency of your organization such that the additional efficiency they bring more than pays for themselves, then isn’t adding more administrators a good thing? If their salary is x and the net value they bring is x+1 then you’re ahead, and you shouldn’t worry if an increasing percentage of your dollars is going to pay for those administrators, because they’re allowing you to be more efficient. I imagine that sort of trade off would asymptote pretty quickly, but still, maybe universities haven’t had enough administrators for a long time. Maybe this is just catch up. None of the numbers you discussed speak directly to the issue of financial efficiency, just that in absolute and relative numbers, the number of administrators is growing.

    I think I must be missing the point.

    • Guest2
      June 3, 2014 at 2:02 pm

      I thought everyone knew that more admin means less efficiency — but higher prestige and legitimacy, which is why they get away with it. See John Meyers and Brian Rowan, 1977 and 1978, which brought institutionalism to org theory and sociology, economics, public policy, etc.

  10. Alan Fekete
    June 4, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    I can’t speak from personal knowledge about recent changes in US universities, but in Australia, the compliance and reporting requirements on universities have expanded hugely, and lots of admin staff are needed for all those aspects.

    • KathH
      June 5, 2014 at 3:45 pm

      You’re probably right that this is a US phenomenon too.

      A decade ago I worked in university admin in the US, a continuing education program in business and finance, mostly evening courses taught by adjunct faculty. We could try out new programs almost on the fly, and since our noncredit courses were open admission, students could experiment without a big dollar investment.

      Did we help make the university more financially efficient? My guess is yes, partly because many of our classes were held in classrooms that would otherwise have been empty. (Also our adjunct faculty were paid *very* modestly, though I hope that has changed somewhat.) Did we contribute in other ways–innovation in professional training, the classic night school experience that helps people find their way in a new town, a new country? My guess is yes.

      If there’s a study out there that compares the ‘admin yield’ now and 20 years ago for some meaningful number of universities and colleges, that would be cool.

      [sorry I hope I'm not posting this twice]

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