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Silverglate: Administrative bloat killing college dreams

By HARVEY SILVERGLATE | December 27, 2022 at 4:08 a.m.

A major cause of the financial angst plaguing middle class families these days is the stratospheric level to which college tuitions have risen. Those at the top of the economic pyramid have no problem sending their kids to college, and those at the bottom often can take advantage of substantial scholarship aid made available by colleges, government agencies, or charitable organizations.

But the average middle class family cannot simply fork-over as much as $80,000 for a single year at an elite private college, and the cost of going to a public college, while lower, is still painful. This does not even consider the differences in tuition costs and fees between states (Massachusetts’s average yearly tuition cost for private institutions is among the highest in the US) as well as the massive gap in costs for in-state students and out-of-state students.

What is rarely recognized – except by those who are close observers of the academic scene – is that these exorbitant costs could be slashed by probably more than half if a single reform were enacted. What is needed in order to make college affordable again is to fire perhaps 90% of college administrators.

Administrative bloat affects, and infects, every college. According to an extensive collection of data put together by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Harvard had a three to one ratio of administrators to instructional faculty in 2020. Harvard alone spent over $45,000 in administrative costs per student that year. With over 27,500 enrolled undergraduate and graduate students in 2020, that adds up to over one billion solely in administrative costs. Re-balancing our campuses would have beneficial effects well beyond economics. It would also massively reduce the number of student disciplinary cases that plague our college students who walk on eggshells for four years, lest they violate – frequently unknowingly – some subjective campus rule prohibiting speech that would be fully protected off-campus. Whereas “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment in the greater society, on a non-public college campus, the First Amendment simply does not apply. Hence, it is a violation for a student to say something to a fellow student that some bureaucrat deems “demeaning” or “hateful.”

The enforcement of these campus speech codes has yet another deleterious consequence. It deprives speech of one of its most important functions: The ability of two or more people to inform one another of the nature of their relationships. It is useful, after all, for any of us to know who loves us, who likes us, who loathes and hates us, and who is indifferent. Such knowledge allows one to proceed day-to-day with a realistic notion of those whom to trust, and those on whom one should not turn one’s back.

What all of this demonstrates is that those who run our institutions of higher education must undertake a massive and difficult-to-accomplish reform. They must dismiss the vast majority of college administrators and return our institutions of higher education to more affordable vehicles for teaching and learning. This is obviously a task to be performed by college governing boards. Students and their parents are without power to fire anyone. Faculty members’ authority is limited to teaching and grading, and occasionally weighing-in on such issues as tenure.

Furthermore, in light of the coincidence that so many college presidents are this year and next leaving their positions (Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Tufts, Dartmouth, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst), this is a propitious time for new beginnings. (However, since the newly-named Harvard President, Claudine Gay, happens to be an administrator, any effort at reform on that campus will be an uphill slog.)

It was this single consideration, more than any other, that caused me to announce on Oct. 30 that I would stand for election to Harvard’s Board of Overseers, a powerful governing body that is elected by all living alumni. It is, or at least should be, the duty of all academic governing boards to restore our colleges and universities to what they should be: Affordable institutions that promote teaching, learning and scholarship unfettered by speech restrictions.

Harvey Silverglate is a Cambridge-based criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer. The research and editing work of his research assistant, Emily Nayyer, is acknowledged.

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