Cost and higher education

Together, we have more than 40 years of teaching experience at Fort Lewis College. When running errands around our small town recently, we have both been approached by students and community members asking, “What is up at the Fort?” The question pertains to the recent changes that have taken place at the college. It is a good question, and the answer is somewhat complicated.

The problems occurring up at the Fort are also occurring nationally. A recent spate of news articles highlights three new trends in higher education: increasing administrative bloat, the turning of colleges into assembly lines and increasing student debt. While all three trends are important to the taxpayers of Colorado, the most pressing issue – and the direct cause of the second and third trends – is administrative growth and lack of fiduciary accountability.

In an article for The Huffington Post, Jon Marcus cites federal figures showing “the number of nonacademic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty.” Marcus further reports, “from 1987 until 2011-2012 ... universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, or an average of 87 every working day.”

This national trend is being repeated at FLC. The FLC Independent reports that full-time, tenure-track faculty have declined from 168 to 122 in the last 10 years, with an increase in student enrollment.

Not only are the numbers of college administrators increasing, so is their compensation. In fact, many public college presidents earn more than state governors – and FLC’s president is no exception. A recent article reports on skyrocketing compensation for college presidents at public institutions and explains the consequences: “students go deeper into debt ... and the universities rely more on low-paid faculty labor by hiring more adjuncts and fewer full-time professors.”

Public colleges are funded largely by state taxpayers and by student tuition, often paid with student loans. These loans have left the nation’s students with a cumulative debt of more than $1 trillion. Full-time faculty positions are decreasing, noninstructional administrative positions are increasing and students and taxpayers are suffering the cost. Students increasingly pay more for fewer educational opportunities. While state funding for higher education has decreased, according to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education Tuition and Fees Report of 2013, FLC had a five-year resident tuition increase of 68.7 percent, the most in the state.

FLC has added a few majors but eliminated the following academic programs: Southwest Studies, Computer Science, Agriculture, French, German and Japanese and the Center for Civic Engagement. FLC has also raised course caps and failed to replace full-time retiring and fleeing faculty. The administration considers these decisions cost-cutting measures, but then it turns around and spends taxpayer and student money on hiring nonteaching directors, staff and consultants, ranging from spatial utilization to branding experts.

Max Haiven in a recent article calls these burgeoning, noninstructional personnel the corporatized academic managerial class and notes that they are being “rewarded handsomely for their services.” Maybe it is time for the Colorado state Legislature, the FLC Board of Trustees, students and taxpayers to take notice of this disturbing trend and demand answers and accountability regarding high administrative salaries and fiscal irresponsibility.

FLC faculty have a three-tiered evaluation process. Faculty are evaluated by students in every class they teach, by their peers and by the administration. There is no such evaluation process for upper-level administration – specifically the provost and president. In fact, there is virtually no evaluative opportunity for students and faculty regarding the administrative leadership. Administrators choose the people they want to evaluate them. Worse, there is little to no visible legislative oversight of administrative spending and growth. The Board of Trustees entrusted with this responsibility does not conduct any robust and rigorous review of the cost of administrative decisions to students and taxpayers.

Marcus reports such lax administrative oversight nationally has led Bain & Company management consultants to express disbelief: “In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate – executives would lose their jobs.” Also quoted in Marcus’ article is Richard Vedder, an economist and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, who explains college administrators will “say ‘we’re making moves to cut costs’ and mention something about energy-efficient light bulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.”

FLC is growing – but not with instructional positions. Students and taxpayers must demand accountability from the growing academic managerial class.

Janine Fitzgerald is a professor of sociology and human services at Fort Lewis College. Reach her at Mark Seis is an associate professor of sociology and has been teaching at FLC since 1996.

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