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University Bureaucracy as Organized Crime

Equating the administrative bloating of public universities and the harm it has caused as akin to organized crime may seem, at first-glance, far-fetched. Deeper reflection, however, has prodded me to take the possibility seriously. Indeed, what began as a “for fun” sociological thought experiment has led to the sad realization that they are really not as distinct as one might like to believe. To be sure, one is seen as legitimate while the other illegal. Yet, if one openly considers the parallels, including: (1) the hierarchical, bureaucratic and coordinated structure of each; (2) the accruing of riches to those on top, (3) how both require explicit or tacit governmental support, and; (4) the extraction of income from and ultimately harm done to well-intentioned families, to adjuncts and lecturers, and to the intellectual mission of public higher education most broadly, the similarities become more apparent, intriguing and certainly troubling.

On the structural end, public universities and colleges have been experiencing tremendous bureaucratic changes and, especially problematic, bloating at the top—bloating in the hiring of non-teaching, salaried professional staff and in the salaries, bonuses and compensation these professional bureaucrats receive. The result has been a personal financial windfall for university presidents, provosts, and executive deans (see New York Times, May 20, 2015)—a professional class of non-teaching personnel, sometimes with limited educationally-specific credentials, who typically set their own reward structures with little constraint or accountability to faculty or students. Much like the riches generated by organized crime, the rewards and power in today’s university bureaucracies increasingly accrue, and in nearly unfettered ways, to those sitting on the top.

In contrast to the concentration of rewards, power and resources among those atop today’s universities, faculty salaries have been largely stagnant for 30 years and with a growing segment of faculty positions being converted to cheap adjuncts and lecturers (see New York Times, April 4, 2015). Those toward the bottom of the hierarchy do the central work of educating and, like the foot soldiers in organized crime, are pressured to work more for less. Meanwhile, students and their families are left paying the bill, and often for less in the way of a sizeable or engaged faculty.

This is not to suggest that students get nothing for ballooning tuitions and fees they pay. They surely do. But, what they increasingly receive, given the prioritization of image, enrollment and profit by today’s professional class of high-level university bureaucrats who tend to abide by a faulty logic that higher education is but a commodity to be sold to customers (see Slate, May 22, 2015), is eye candy—e.g., luxury dormitories, fancy workout facilities, elaborate cafeteria cuisine, and high visibility athletic programs. Such window dressing investments, which frankly remind me of what casinos do, are aimed at convincing prospective students and their families that the massive financial vulnerability and debt they are about to take on is somehow worth it.

A sizeable portion of what I am describing is the result of the changing bureaucratic and hierarchical structure of power within today’s public university—a structure much like that of organized crime: It is bureaucratic and self-reproducing. It has witnessed growing and concentrated resources and decision-making power at the top. And, those at the top experience limited, if any, accountability to those who do the actual core work, those who bear the burden, struggle and threats of escalating costs, and those who are ultimately harmed.

There is, however, another analogous link worthy of mention, and where the blame also resides: state and federal politicians. The success and stability of organized crime, as noted by many social scientists, ultimately requires the complicity, whether obvious or tacit, of governments. The harms generated by the current structure and functioning of public higher education are hardly an exception. In fact, federal and state politicians are implicated in creating and defending the very situation I have been describing.

Although governmental investment in public higher education has risen some over time, it is also indisputable that certain states have substantially slashed funding, causing universities to scramble for resources and raise tuition (see The Nation, May 19, 2015). Moreover, state and federal calculations of investments have barely recognized the very real and troubling stagnation in family income over the last few decades. Some state culpability simply rests in doing nothing while also ignoring very clear empirical realities.

The connection, however, goes even deeper. Elected officials have turned a blind-eye and more directly reinforced harm by: (1) providing neither adequate accountability nor oversight over non-credentialed, for-profit educational institutions that have turned eye-popping profits from monumental student debt and pitifully low completion rates, and; (2) allowing lenders and those in control of loan consolidations to maintain, if not expand, higher than necessary student loan interest rates. The fact that large lenders have consistently and successfully lobbied and spent tens of millions of dollars in contributions to various candidates (see Center for Responsive Politics) and have rebuffed efforts to create default protections or to put a ceiling on student loan interest rates suggests not only complicity by elected officials, but also a hand in the cookie jar.

Ultimately, as is always the case in organized crime, there is real human harm. Most significant in the case of higher education is the fact that students and families across the United States are being excluded outright, due to decreasing family incomes, increasing tuitions and limited financial aid support. Many others, who do gain access, are increasingly finding themselves entrenched in staggering and decades lasting debt—debt that is compounded by interest that, when unpaid, results in significant future credit costs and penalties throughout the remainder of one’s adult life.

That nearly three quarters of parents worry about how they will send their kids to college and that only 20 percent see college as affordable in the first place clearly underscores these points (Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2015). What university bureaucrats, lenders and elected leaders have been doing is not, of course, illegal. Yet, many have profited. Moreover, given the strain and financial injury caused, the sheer magnitude of the population effected, and the long-term coercive realities for those facing potential default, it is more than appropriate to evoke moral, if not criminal, terms to describe the damages about which I speak.

The resulting injuries go even further, of course, also impacting the intellectual core of higher education and its faculty. Still part of the bureaucratic machine, yet on the lower rung and increasingly removed from most decision-making power, college and university professors have been witness to a slow but steady conversion of their ranks to part-time, lower paid, and insecure work over the last decade (New York Times, May 14, 2015). Reminiscent of a mob leader questioning whether a soldier “is a good earner,” the profit and business logic that today’s university bureaucrats bring to the table often makes its way into investment decisions, such as those pertaining to hiring and departmental support.

These processes ultimately erode the intellectual and engagement goals upon which higher education was founded. Indeed, in lieu of hiring new or replacing retiring faculty or building on intellectual strengths, the university bureaucrat’s solution to budgetary issues now centers, more often than not, on the hiring of those in research areas flush with grant money (of which the university wants a sizeable cut) or cheaper and all-the-more-exploitable adjunct faculty and lecturers, who typically hold PhDs but are underpaid, have limited if any benefits and only receive temporary contracts. Harm is clearly accruing to this population of exploited teachers, to the intellectual integrity of departments and the university, and to the students being served.

It is time for the public and educators alike to see the damages about which I am speaking and take back the American university from bureaucratic and political actors—actors that have been directly or indirectly complicit in gutting the intellectual core and profiting from the labors and debts of well-intended and hopeful American families. Bureaucratic bloating needs to be counteracted, and those at the top of university bureaucracies must be held liable when it comes to the core intellectual (as opposed to business) mission of public higher education and those it was created to serve. Elected representatives similarly must be held responsible for their tacit support of the problematic structures described and the resulting downward slope of debt for American students and families—debt that politicians have been comfortable allowing and have played a part in creating.

It will be interesting to see whether anyone in the upcoming presidential campaign will display the bravery needed, and with the public interest at heart, to tackle these issues in a forthright manner. As easy as it may sound, doing so would simply entail fighting for the very public interest and public goods that elected representatives supposedly defend. One can imagine numerous plausible fixes including, for instance: a reaffirmation of financial commitment at federal and state levels to public higher education and financial aid programs; engaging in serious discussion of tuition reduction, if not elimination; curbing political influence by big lenders and lobbyists, and reducing or capping loan interest rates; applying political pressure at federal and state levels to limit administrative salaries and bonuses across the board (including that of athletic coaches, while we are at it) to a value equivalent to that of the highest paid faculty member; and enacting minimum salary and benefit levels as well as employment protections for those involved in the core tasks of educating today’s brightest minds.

Whether leaders will step up with the necessary courage is uncertain. I certainly hope so. Public higher education hangs in the balance and its current structure and functioning are generating widespread harm. My advantaged status as a professor, to be sure, allows me to raise these issues as candidly as I have. It is my deep belief in the fundamental mission of public higher education, however, and my worry about current and future generations of students, the intellectual integrity of the college experience, and the treatment of those teaching who are not as fortunate as myself that ultimately drive my denunciation of what is occurring. I hope others will similarly make their voices heard. Only by doing so will needed pressure mount and creative, alternative visions for higher education receive the consideration they deserve.

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Vincent J. Roscigno is a Professor of Sociology at The Ohio State University.

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