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At the beginning of the school year — what seems like eons ago — I took a trip to the eighth floor of the Smith Campus Center searching for information about parking permits and inadvertently walked into an administrative wasteland. Doors upon doors of largely empty offices spanned the corridor, each emblazoned with a name cobbled together from academic-professional buzzwords like “coordinator” and “vice provost.” A few doors vaguely reminded me of emails I had received (and promptly ignored) from various Harvard officials or names thrown around in the search for University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s successor, but most I had never heard of. As I made my way to the Parking Office, I had to ask myself: Where did all these people come from? And do we really need them here?
Concern over administrative bloat has become more salient in recent years as universities, especially elite institutions such as those in the Ivy League, have come under political scrutiny. Rising stars on the right wing have criticized universities as bastions of liberal indoctrination, growing suspicious over the size of endowments like Harvard’s and how exactly such money is spent. After President Joe Biden announced his student loan forgiveness plan, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis railed against universities’ “bloated administrative budgets” and tendency to use high tuition to “expand […] the DEI office.” In response to Harvard advocating against taxes on its endowment, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley tweeted that “Universities have become woke hedge funds with students’ and parents’ money.”
It is no secret that Harvard and its peers have amassed fortunes that are largely kept safe from the clutches of the Internal Revenue Service — apart from the 1.4 percent excise tax created under President Donald Trump, against which Harvard continues to lobby fiercely. Amidst rhetoric among Harvard students calling for higher taxes on large corporations and the wealthiest Americans, it seems strange that Harvard’s $53.2 billion, Yale’s $42.3 billion, and Princeton’s $37.7 billion are left off the hit list.
Ostensibly, universities have this mostly tax-free status because they are charitable institutions serving educational missions, an exemption which dates to one of the first American income tax laws passed in 1894. This status makes sense. Harvard is one of the world’s preeminent universities; surely it has used its billions of dollars of accumulated wealth to primarily invest in its educational program, building an unparalleled roster of top professors, expanding offerings to students, and reducing class sizes. Right?
Wrong. Harvard has instead filled its halls with administrators. Across the University, for every academic employee there are approximately 1.45 administrators. When only considering faculty, this ratio jumps to 3.09. Harvard employs 7,024 total full-time administrators, only slightly fewer than the undergraduate population. What do they all do?
Most administrators have a legitimate function. I will happily concede that the University does need administration to operate effectively. No professors want to handle Title IX compliance or send institution-wide emails about Covid-19 protocols. Yet of the 7,000-strong horde, it seems that many members’ primary purpose is to squander away tax-free money intended for academic work on initiatives, projects, and committees that provide scant value to anyone’s educational experience.
For example, last December, all Faculty of Arts and Sciences affiliates received an email from Dean Claudine Gay announcing the final report of the FAS Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage, a task force itself created by recommendation of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. This task force was composed of 24 members: six students, nine faculty members, and nine administrators. The task force produced a 26-page report divided into seven sections, based upon a survey, focus groups, and 15 separate meetings with over 500 people total. The report dedicated seven pages to its recommendations, which ranged from “Clarify institutional authority over FAS visual culture and signage” to “Create a dynamic program of public art in the FAS.” In response to these recommendations, Dean Gay announced the creation of a new administrative post, the “FAS campus curator,” and a new committee, the “FAS Standing Committee on Visual Culture and Signage.”
Regardless of your stance on the goal of fostering a more inclusive visual culture, the procedural absurdity is clear. A presidential task force led to the creation of an FAS task force which, after expending significant time, effort, and resources, led to the creation of a single administrative job and a committee with almost the exact name as the second task force. I challenge anyone other than the task force members themselves to identify the value created for a single Harvard student’s educational experience.
Such a ridiculous process may seem relatively harmless, but the aggregation of these frivolous, bureaucratic time-and-money-wasters may have made college as outrageously expensive as it is. In 1986, Harvard’s tuition was $10,266 ($27,914 adjusted for inflation). Today, Harvard’s tuition is $52,659, representing an 89 percent increase in real cost. The Harvard education is certainly not 89 percent better than it was 36 short years ago, nor is it 89 percent more difficult to provide. Rather, the increased cost seems to lie within the administration and its tendency to solve problems by hiring even more administrators. In a 25-year timespan within the same window, American colleges added over 500,000 administrators at a hiring rate double that for faculty.
I propose that we cut the bloat. Knock on every office door and fire anyone who does not provide significant utility to the institution.
However — recognizing the impossibility of convincing the Leviathan to purge itself from its eighth-floor lair — we may need legislative solutions as well, such as tying tax-free status and grants to responsible spending or outright raising the endowment tax. I do not know what specific bill will actually slay the bureaucratic beast. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that growing scrutiny on American higher education will eventually deliver our universities from the administration’s clutches and into the worthy hands of those to whom the institutions rightfully belong: students and teachers.
Brooks B. Anderson ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.
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