It’s time to streamline top-heavy universities

Even before coronavirus hit American colleges and universities, even before their budgets imploded because of the pandemic, questions were being asked nationally about how these institutions spend their money.

Some high-profile decisions by University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld have put the focus on this issue in our state. The issue further crystalized last week when a list of administrative staff at Iowa State University landed in my mailbox.

At its essence, this issue is the growth of the number of administrators, compared with the number of academic staff.

Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia, studies this issue. He told Forbes magazine, “The interesting thing about the administrative bloat is, literally, nobody knows who all these people are or what they’re doing.”

David Randall of the National Association of Scholars was equally blunt in a recent article for Real Clear Education: “American higher education is grotesquely top-heavy. Deans and provosts have multiplied like rabbits.”

The National Center for Education Statistics shows what the rabbits have done: In 1980, America’s public and private colleges and universities spent 61 cents of every dollar on instruction and 39 cents on administrative support. Twenty-five years later, instruction accounted for 55 cents of every dollar, while administrative costs had risen to 45 cents.

How could that occur at institutions where teaching is the reason they exist? Events this summer at the University of Iowa provide some clues.

Administrators in the university’s largest academic department, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, notified 15 lecturers that their jobs were ending. This was the first round of cuts to deal with the university’s $76 million in budget losses related to coronavirus.

One month later, the Iowa City school announced that its top academic officer, Provost Montserrat Fuentes, was leaving immediately after just one year in that role. Instead of packing her bags, however, she will become a “special assistant” to President Harreld for the coming academic year.

Her new job is one that did not exist before Harreld announced she would fill it. She will use the 2020-21 academic year to “lead a team updating the UI’s strategic plan,” the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported.

The university did not say why Fuentes was being reassigned, but whatever the reason, her salary won’t change. She will continue to be paid $439,000.

Harreld named Kevin Kregel interim provost. He has been the university’s executive vice provost and senior associate provost for faculty.

This is not the first time Harreld has reassigned a top administrator but kept the person’s pay intact.

Last year, TaJuan Wilson, the university’s associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, resigned after just seven weeks on the job. That’s correct, seven weeks.

When you or I resign from a job, we typically give two or three weeks’ notice and are gone. But Wilson was assigned to work for the university’s vice president for external relations for five and a half months while he looked for a new job. His compensation remained the same, $224,000.

The university agreed to pay up to $7,500 for Wilson to attend “professional development conferences” – even though he was on his way out. The school also agreed to waive repayment of a $25,000 relocation allowance he received when he moved to Iowa City from South Carolina – even though his employment agreement stipulated the money would have to be repaid if he left within one year.

About the “administrative bloat” that researchers talk about:

Don’t think that Wilson’s sudden resignation left the University of Iowa empty-handed. Besides his role as associate vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, the university also had a director of the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, a director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, and a director of Diversity Resources.

Iowa State University is not immune to the administrative growth that has occurred elsewhere.

Besides ISU President Wendy Wintersteen, the administrative structure in Ames includes Jonathan Wickert, the senior vice president and provost.

There also are two other senior vice presidents, six vice presidents, nine assistant vice presidents and 11 associate vice presidents. You will find one assistant provost and two associate provosts in the administrative hierarchy, too.

The staff also includes 10 deans, 26 associate deans, 11 assistant deans, plus one senior adviser to the president, one assistant to the president for communications, and one associate chief information officer.

With the number of administrators in universities growing like weeds in a heat wave, the result has been students having to pay tuition that increases faster than inflation. For many, that means a crushing debt load by the time they graduate.

David Randall, the author of the Real Clear Education article, is worried about the outlook for higher education. Government regulations requiring schools to have officials in certain roles are part of the problem, he said.

“For a generation and more, American higher education has been sinking slowly beneath the burden of administrative costs,” he wrote.

“Policymakers outside of higher education must set rules that create strong incentives for colleges to chuck the bureaucrats. They shouldn’t be allowed to endanger the survival of our colleges and universities.”

The financial problems for Iowa’s state universities will not get better with $420,000-a-year special assistants to the president in Iowa City, or with assistant vice presidents for “specialty business services and cultural arts” in Ames, or with three associate vice presidents at Iowa State having finance in their job titles, plus a senior vice president for finance.

It is long past time for the Iowa Board of Regents to look for ways to streamline the administrative structure at these schools. The education of 60,000 students annually is at stake.

* * *

Randy Evans can be reached at

Go to top