Tuition is rising because colleges are shoveling money to programs like water polo

Published: Monday, Jan. 14 2013 10:10 a.m. MST

Greene used Arizona State University as central illustration, and ASU’s president was not amused. He was, Greene said, was “quite nasty” and “shockingly unscholarly” in response. “He didn’t like the our report, so he sent a letter to my chancellor accusing me of misconduct. It was really quite something.”

Minnesota responds

The Wall Street Journal article also sparked push back, albeit less combative.

After it appeared, Charles Lane summarized it in a Washington Post column. Among his indictments, Lane, an editorial writer for the Post, wrote that in the past decade, “Minnesota’s administrative payroll has gone up three times as fast as the teaching payroll, and twice as fast as student enrollment.”

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler responded to Lane with a letter, arguing that UM “has reduced the per capita cost of educating students by 13 percent since 2000.”

Kaler blamed tuition hikes on “stunning state disinvestment,” as states floundering in red ink slashed outlays to state colleges. He also argued that regulation, “improving the student experience,” and “managing complex technology” all require administrative staff.

Conflict and suspicion

With provosts walking out on speeches and university presidents lashing out at researchers, Kaler’s response was tame and dignified. But tensions are obviously high, and this is exactly what political scientist James Q. Wilson predicted in 1989.

In his book, "Bureaucracy," Wilson distinguished agencies with clear goals and means of measuring them from “coping agency,” which can neither measure an outcome nor really observe a process. Education was his prime example.

“Coping agencies rarely can develop the sense of mission and the external support necessary for their management to be left in career hands,” Wilson wrote in “Bureaucracy.” “These organizations can point to neither unambiguous accomplishments nor visible activity; as a result, they are likely to be enmeshed in controversy about their goals and engulfed in suspicion about their means.”

Student services

Much of the dispute hinges on Kaler’s phrase, “improving the student experience.”

Greene’s dispute with Arizona State centered largely on categories. In its official response, available online, ASU insisted that Greene had conflated key distinctions in “administration,” “student services” and “other professionals” categories.

The “other professionals” category, ASU argued, includes those who “support our students’ academic experience: academic advisers, financial aid counselors, career counselors, reference librarians, laboratory staff and literally hundreds of people who have nothing to do with the management of the institution. The effect is to inflate the number of staff categorized as administrators and distort the true picture.”

Greene said he was transparent in his categories and that he simply combined groups to distinguish between direct classroom investments and all things outside the classroom. Greene does not dispute the list of “student services” offered by ASU, but views it as part of the problem.

“Universities have expanded the services they offer to include everything,” Greene said. “Paid staff run a variety of services because the mission of the university has expanded beyond its core mission of teaching and research to include a variety of services, entertainment and business ventures that have no obvious connection.”

"Universities have gotten into the venture capital business," Greene said, "They see themselves as business incubators. My guess is they are very bad at it." Greene points to Gordon Gee from Ohio State University, who says Ohio State is the "economic engine of Ohio."