What to cut

Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It. This is the title of a book, an excerpt from which was published this past summer in The New York Times. And what institution was used as the first example in the excerpt? None other than our very own Williams College. We are told that 70 percent of Williams’ 1017 employees are doing something other than teaching, making our staff to student ratio significantly larger than our faculty to student ratio.

Now contrast this finding with the e-mail President Falk recently sent out detailing the changes he believes are necessary in the responsibilities given to several high level administrators, such as the provost and the dean of the college. He believes that these individuals are overburdened and need to have some of their duties spread to other administrators.

What can we conclude from these two pieces of information? To me this indicates that we have a situation in which we have a few high-level administrators with too many responsibilities and an excess of low-level staff with too few responsibilities. One might ask how it is that we came to such a situation, especially given the fact that it has not always been like this. This trend is discussed in the Times pieces, in which it is revealed that, nationwide, there were 42 staff members for every 1000 undergraduate students in 1976. By 2008 that number had doubled to 84 per 1000 students, while during the same span of time the number of faculty by that same measure had dropped from 65 to 55. These numbers are, of course, much higher for Williams given our small student population but have followed a similar trend.

There are certainly some types of staff increases that are necessary. For example, the increasing importance of computers in education has certainly necessitated the expansion of departments like the Office of Information Technology. Similarly, the addition of new majors often requires the hiring of staff trained to deal with the relevant subject matter and materials. Finally, an increase in the size of the student body would obviously require more staff, but the number of students at Williams has been kept low for many years.

What then could account for our massive increase staff over the years? Was it perhaps that during the years of significant economic growth that defined much of the 1990s and early 2000s, Williams and many other institutions found it all too easy to simply add a few more staff members under the optimistic but erroneous assumption that the economic climate would remain unchanged indefinitely? Or did we find ourselves locked in competition with other elite private institutions such as Amherst and the Ivy League to see who could provide more non-academic services to students? These are not bad motives, but they may have unintended consequences.

One of these is the administrative imbalance I have already mentioned. Unless we add more high-level positions as we increase the number of low level ones, we will find ourselves with very overburdened provosts and deans. More high-level positions, however, mean more faculty who are not teaching and may need at least temporary replacements.

The second problem with an administrative overload is one that we have been grappling with since the economic downturn of 2008: cost. At an institution like Williams, where employees receive many benefits, the cost of hiring a new staff member is much more than a salary. This becomes a serious problem during an economic downturn because even pay freezes or cuts may not be able to offset increases in things like healthcare costs.

How are we to go about fixing this problem? President Falk is already dealing with the imbalance between high- and low-level administrative staff by investigating the creation of new positions like the vice president of finance, who would take some of the burden off of our deans and provost. That alone, however, is not a sustainable, cost-effective solution. We must look at ways to reduce the excess of low-level staff. This is a far more challenging venture. Who do we deem to be less important? What positions are absolutely necessary for Williams to function as an educational institute, and which ones simply make life more comfortable? Will hiring freezes and early retirement incentives reduce staff size enough? Are we even comfortable with the notion of layoffs? I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but I believe that we must begin to consider them if we wish to have an economically sustainable institution that provides one thing above all else: a quality education.

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