Bloated or Beneficial? Harvard’s Growing Admin

By Cam E. Kettles and Claire Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers
By Toby R. Ma

In 2004, Harvard employed just under 5,300 full-time administrators. Nearly two decades later, this figure has seen a whopping 43 percent increase.

In contrast, the University’s faculty, starting at 2,000 members, has only increased by 11 percent in that same time period.

But the explosive growth of administrative ranks has affected more than just raw numbers.

Former Harvard College Dean and Computer Science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 said the expansion of University administration has also resulted in “drawing authority upward” and away from faculty.

The result, according to Lewis, is a system that hurts both faculty and students.

“I don’t think it’s great for the students. I also don’t think it’s good for the faculty, either,” he said. “The whole spirit of the place is changed because of it.”

Harvey A. Silverglate, who has staged multiple outsider campaigns in an attempt to win a seat on the Board of Overseers, the University’s second-highest governing body, also called into question the necessity of adding more administrators to Harvard’s ranks.

“If you examine the daily life of these administrators, I bet they don’t spend more than a half hour a day doing something useful,” Silverglate said.

According to Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton, administrative positions added over the past decade support new degree programs and academic centers, as well as provide a wide range of job functions, such as human resources, finances, research, health and mental health care, and information technology.

In addition to diminishing faculty authority, the increase in administration decentralizes the University, drives a wedge between students and instructors, and provides surface-level solutions to difficult issues, some former and current Harvard faculty and administrators said. Others, however, believe the growth is justified for the increasingly complex challenges faced by Harvard.

‘Size is a Problem’

When Neil L. Rudenstine assumed the Harvard presidency in 1991, he was the only academic officer in Massachusetts Hall.

Feeling the need for more academic support within the administration, Rudenstine proposed the idea of creating an office of the provost.

“I had told the Corporation and deans that I wanted a provost because I thought we needed at least two people in Mass. Hall who could think about academic collaboration and integration,” Rudenstine said.

Since its creation under Rudenstine, the provost’s office has enjoyed a massive expansion. Established in 1992, the office began with three members. Now, in 2023, it boasts 21 provost positions — a seven-fold increase.

“We had three people during my 10 years — the provost, myself, and an associate provost,” Rudenstine said. “That was it.”

124 Mt. Auburn St. is home to many of Harvard's administrative ranks.
124 Mt. Auburn St. is home to many of Harvard's administrative ranks. By Marina Qu

Now, Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 has under his purview nearly two dozen associate and vice provosts responsible for managing students, research, and projects across the University.

Though he felt the imperative to create an office dedicated to academic administration at the University, Rudenstine acknowledged the issues with expanding administrative ranks within Harvard, which is “probably the most decentralized administration I know.”

“It’s a problem,” he said. “Scale is a problem. Size is a problem.”

“The more individual programs or institutes or schools that you create, the more there’s a tendency for the institution to go in different directions and speak at the same time, and the harder it is to bring the parts together,” he added.

Compared to its peer institutions, Harvard employs a comparatively higher number of provosts. Though Yale lists 19 administrators who hold a “provost” title and Columbia 24 — figures similar to Harvard’s 21 — Dartmouth and Princeton have only nine and 11, respectively.

Still, all institutions feature a host of other administrators within the offices who, though lacking the provost title, assist with academic administrative duties.

Lewis also criticized the expansion of the provost’s office. In particular, he honed in on positions related to coordinating student affairs across the University.

“Look up what the provost’s office looked like 20 years ago and compare it to what the provost’s office looks like today,” Lewis said. “I mean, there’s even an assistant provost for students now.”

The Associate Provost for Student Affairs, Robin Glover, is responsible for “promoting and facilitating coordination and information sharing among our Schools that will lead to better support for our diverse student body,” according to the office’s website.

However, Lewis said that “the provost has no students” and “only the faculties, only the schools have students.” Instead of focusing on any particular school, the associate provost for student affairs is tasked with managing student affairs broadly across the University.

“In what world does it make sense to compare the experience of medical students and Harvard College freshmen?” Lewis added.

Lewis said he believes the provost’s office reflects the “vertical fragmentation” within the University’s administration.

“They end up stepping on each other’s feet,” he said. “This is part of an attempt to decentralize and coordinate in ways where it doesn’t actually make sense.”

Outpacing the Faculty

Administrators currently outnumber faculty more than three to one.

Richard F. Thomas, a Harvard Classics professor, said the “bloated administration has little effect on the effective teaching and research of the institution.”

“The job that matters to faculty — that is, their research and their teaching — seems to me not to require the sort of administrative expansion — colossal administrative expansion — that we’ve seen in higher education,” he said.

This growth, Thomas said, necessitates a tradeoff in resources between administrators and faculty.

“If the administration is growing at a greater pace than the faculty, then de facto what could have been a faculty allocation has become an administrative allocation,” Thomas said.

University Hall houses a number of Harvard's top administrators, including outgoing Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana.
University Hall houses a number of Harvard's top administrators, including outgoing Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana. By Frank S. Zhou

According to Lewis, administrative growth means “power has become centralized” away from the faculty and deans who work more closely with students — and toward the president and provost.

While professors used to play a more active role in supporting students outside their classes, Lewis said the rise in administrative departments responsible for helping students find their interests, resolve conflicts, and address social issues “puts a wall up between faculty and students.”

“It’s sad when they then become somewhat preachy about how things should be done, and the faculty kind of withdraw,” he said.

Lewis added that the addition of new administrators serves more as a way for Harvard to signal its priorities to the world.

“When you identify a particular individual, as the kind of ‘owner’ of this issue, you get the feeling that it’s sometimes done as, ‘This is the way to prove that Harvard takes this issue seriously — to have a dean on it,’” he said.

But Leslie P. Tolbert ’73, outgoing vice chair of Harvard’s Board of Overseers and former senior vice president for research at the University of Arizona, said administrators aid faculty in their research and instructional work.

In a May 2 update, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Office for Faculty Affairs announced it would audit “administration requests of faculty” to “determine where work can be eliminated, done more efficiently, or performed by administrative staff.”

Tolbert, a neuroscience professor emerita at Arizona, said as a faculty member, “you often wish there were some more people” in administration “who could just help you to get the grant or to find out where the research opportunities are.”

“It’s not a ‘Oh no, here we go, there are going to be more administrators telling me what to do,’” Tolbert said. “I think what Harvard is doing when they add administrative positions is helping faculty and students to do what they want to do.”

‘Wise Use of Resources’

Despite widespread complaints of administrative bloat, Penny S. Pritzker ’81 — senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body — insisted that Harvard doesn’t “have a huge central administration.”

“The University has benefited from the areas where the schools are working together,” Pritzker said.

“I think we have the best of all worlds, which is we have a strong center, but we also have these very independent schools,” she added. “Getting that balance right is art, not science.”

University President Lawrence S. Bacow pointed to the expansion of research initiatives as a driving force behind administrative growth.

“When we stand up new academic initiatives, they need support,” he said.

Research and other academic positions at the University — including research scientists, visiting scholars, postdoctoral students, and coaches — did see a spike in count from 2010 to 2012, increasing nearly 200 percent.

Bacow added that there are more undergraduates on campus now than before the Covid-19 pandemic, which means the College needs more advisers and residential administrative staff.

He also credited the expansion of administrative ranks to be a result of the University’s attempts to provide other services for students, including mental health resources and career services.

“We’ve tried to be responsive,” he said. “That’s adding administrators — all those people count as administrators.”

For example, in 2013, the University established its Title IX offices to address complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct.

The University has also been forced to respond to a number of new technological demands and government mandates on reporting, Bacow said, which serve as major contributing factors toward administrative growth.

“As we become a more computationally intensive institution, we need more people there,” Bacow said. “Just responding to government mandates, to report on all sorts of things which we did not have to report on previously, that requires people.”

“We don’t keep people around if there’s no work for them,” he added.

Harvard's Smith Campus Center is a student building that also houses administrative offices, including the Office for Institutional Research and Harvard Human Resources.
Harvard's Smith Campus Center is a student building that also houses administrative offices, including the Office for Institutional Research and Harvard Human Resources. By Marina Qu

Tolbert said her job as a member of the Board of Overseers is to look across departments and programs within the University to determine the areas where the school needs further development or expansion.

“I don’t see it as a problem,” she said. “I see it as a wise use of resources.”

Philip W. Lovejoy, former executive director of the Harvard Alumni Association and director of University-wide alumni affairs, said during his time at Harvard, “central administration got more and more efficient.”

“It’s a huge enterprise and it needs a lot of people to make it run,” he said. “I actually think that Harvard does not have a bloated administration.”

‘An Inexorable Process’

Broadly, Thomas said the expansion of Harvard’s administration reflects a “natural impulse in American higher education.”

“I think it’s been an inexorable process, which has taken on its own momentum,” he said.

Thomas D. Parker ’64, an expert on higher education, said administrative growth is “not a new issue” and that it can be difficult for university leadership to successfully remove administrative positions without inadvertently cutting important roles.

As Gay, the outgoing dean of the FAS, prepares to ascend to her presidential position in Mass. Hall, she faces a litany of demands that will require her to reassess the administration of the University.

“I think that every incoming president ought to take a little inventory and see what can be done. Problem is, everybody’s got an ax,” Parker said. “Everybody thinks they know which administrator should be eliminated.”

“The trouble is, usually the people who try to do something dramatic about it just screw up,” he added. “They go too far.”

Parker also pointed to the broader changes across higher education, in which universities have become more than “a purely instructional place.”

“The modern university is a city, and it’s got all the needs and problems of cities,” he said. “It’s a huge group of people who have very specialized and expensive needs.”

“It’s not just a Harvard issue — this is true in every major university,” he said. “It’s part of the landscape.”

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cam_kettles.

—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.

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