Pomona Professor John Seery‘s article, “Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy,” is a moving description of the changes at elite liberal arts colleges over the last 30 years. (See here for a shorter version.) Almost everything he writes about Pomona is just as true of Williams, including the death of faculty governance, the growth of college staff and out-of-control administrator salaries. Let’s spend a week going through it. Day 4.

The most conspicuous change I’ve seen over those years is that the number of administrators has ballooned. On the shelves in my office I still have my first Pomona College catalog, for the academic year 1990–91, a printed black-and-white publication with a four-color but poorly designed cardboard-stock cover glued over the smudgy pages in between. Toward the back of the catalog, under “Administration,” there are nine offices listed, covering three pages, naming 56 persons as the members of the administration. Thereafter, the professors are listed, a total of 180. At the time, Pomona matriculated 1,487 students. In 2016 it takes me about ten seconds to find all this information in the cheap 1990 catalog.

Good stuff. I believe the Williams library is working on putting our old course catalogs on-line. You can be certain that the same was true at Williams.

Cut to the future, 2016. . . . Pomona College now has, by my careful count, 271 administrators … . The number of Pomona College faculty remains roughly the same (a current Pomona website lists the number of regular faculty at 186). The number of students has increased to 1,640.

The president now has nine vice presidents (up from four in 1990). The Dean of Students Office has gone from six persons in 1990 to sixty-five persons in 2016 (not counting administrative assistants). . . .

Summary overview: the number of students at Pomona has increased 12 percent from 1990 to 2016; the number of faculty has increased 3 percent; tuition has increased 253 percent; the number of administrators has increased 384 percent. Pomona now employs far more administrators (271) than faculty (186) to fulfill its small college, nonprofit educational mission.

Exactly right. Administrative staff have ballooned at Pomona — and at Williams and at Amherst and at . . . .

I know that there are good people who will sincerely try to explain and defend the mushrooming increases in administrative positions. Some attribute it to an onslaught of federal regulation (e.g., Clery Act, VAWA, ADA, FERPA, Title IV, Title IX) and increased scrutiny by regional accrediting agencies, all following from reauthorizations of the Higher Educational Act of 1965. Some point to increased competition for students owing to the emergence of rankings services, globalization, helicopter parenting, and so on. Some say that a more diversified student body requires more administrators in tow. Some say corporatist trends have infiltrated higher education everywhere. The net effect of all these macro-explanations is to conclude that the administrative overthrow of the erstwhile SLAC model was inevitable, and all we can do now is shrug our shoulders, sit through PowerPoint meetings with small breakout sessions, learn to speak the prevailing jargon, and watch reruns of The Office for off-hour comic relief.

This is both true, and too defeatist. Since the same thing has happened at every single elite school, the cause is not a specific president or powerful vizier.

But a visionary board of trustees (or president) could have done something, could still do something.

1) Fix the current number of non-faculty employees at its current level. EphBlog was recommending that policy 13 years ago. The Trustees should not micro-manage the institution, but fixing the headcount is a perfect trustee-level way of solving the problem.

2) Ratchet down the total number of non-faculty employees by 1% each year. More than 1% of the staff leave each year, either via retirement or voluntary departure, so this would require no firings. A 1% drop each year is imperceptible, but, in a decade or two, we will have made real progress.

3) Recruit the faculty to do more. Lots of faculty have no interest in anything but their teaching and research. And that is OK! But dozens of faculty would be eager to take a turn as, say, an assistant Dean of the College or assistant Provost.

Odds of this happening at Williams (or Pomona)? Zero point zero.

Here’s an increasingly typical scenario at Pomona: A meeting of the faculty is called because someone above our pay grade has decided that we all need to learn about a new complicated software package that ITS will roll out in several phases. The new package may involve the logistics of registration, or computer security, or computer storage, or business accounting (many of these matters have in fact generated such meetings in recent years). Now, if we professors were all lawyers in a corporate law firm, calling a meeting of so many lawyers time and again might be tallied in terms of collective billable hours lost to the firm. But for some reason, we in academe don’t reckon these meetings as an inherent and escalating cost of our technological infrastructure.

Seery fails to understand that many (most?) of the problems he points out at Pomona are not just problems at elite liberal arts colleges. They are problems at every successful non-profit. The exact same thing is happening at, say, the College Board and CFA Institute. When lots of money rolls in, empires will be built, bureaucracies will grow, and the original mission will fade. The old line is: Every successful organization starts as a mission, turns into a business and ends as a racquet. Where is Williams today in that evolution?

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