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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Bill that would force UW to layoff 800 administrators is a good start to cut bloat that burdens students

Jan. 29, 2020 Updated Wed., Jan. 29, 2020 at 8:14 a.m.

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

A lawmaker is taking aim at administrative bloat in Washington’s universities, with proposed legislation that would take a cleaver to nonteaching jobs in the state’s system of higher learning and save tens of millions of dollars.

The university lobbying complex in Olympia, unsurprisingly, has objected, and one wonders about the life span of the idea with a Democratic majority. One lobbyist suggested in a hearing Monday that there is no way to make these cuts and meet the expectations of the modern college student.

Perhaps. I imagine a few modern college students would love it if the state could figure out a way to cut administrative spending and roll those savings into lower tuition. Tuition, after all, has been treated like a bottomless piggy bank by both the state and institutions, as the state has retreated from its obligation to fund the system.

Since 1994, hiring at Washington colleges and universities has doubled the rate of other government employment, though the student-to-faculty ratio has remained essentially unchanged, according to the figures used in House Bill 2574.

The administrator-to-student ratio grew 150%, though, and the increase in administrative salaries was almost twice that of faculty pay.

“I’m afraid this growth in administrative positions is really making college less affordable and less cost-effective,” said Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said in a first hearing on the bill Tuesday in the House College and Workforce Development Committee.

Stokesbary’s bill, which uses data to illustrate that administrative growth has exploded in the past decade, would require universities to reset to the administrator-to-student ratio of 2008. This would result in a wildly uneven series of effects across institutions – hundreds of cuts at the University of Washington, and none at Eastern Washington University, for example.

Overall, though, it would produce more than $45 million in savings of state funding and tuition. The bill does not direct how those savings would be spent, but in a just world, there would be a 1-to-1 equation: let the savings flow entirely to students and their families, via tuition reductions or financial aid.

As written, it would require cutting more than 800 administrators at the University of Washington, about 140 at Central Washington, and about 50 at The Evergreen State College. The proposed cuts would be much less severe at Washington State (11), Western Washington (3) and Eastern Washington – which already has a lower ratio of nonfaculty employees to students than it did in 2008.

Higher ed is long overdue for a haircut at the top. Administrative bloat afflicts all colleges and universities, and while it’s true there are lots of legitimate reasons for this – including an explosion in the need for student services outside the classroom, much of which is now set into the expectations of the student body – it can’t be the only factor, or there would be more uniformity among the growth patterns, as Stokesbary argued Monday.

Also, this growth is nothing new. At Washington State University, the administrative ranks grew 861% between 1988 and 2018. Enrollment grew by 61% in those 30 years. That’s based on reporting I did for a column last year.

In the past decade, though, as shown by the research done in the College and Workforce Development Committee, WSU has bloated far less than other schools. Thus this bill would require fewer cuts, and produce fewer savings, at WSU.

EWU showed a similar pattern – an increase of 155% in administrative positions from 1994 to 2019, according to my reporting, but a slower-than-average rate of growth in those jobs in the years the bill focused on.

Stokesbary’s bill would leave the decisions about how to make the cuts to universities, and said he would hope they could focus on services that most directly affect students, such as retention services for students of color or other populations that have historically graduated at below-average rates.

The rise of the administrative class at America’s colleges is not limited to Washington state – it’s a hallmark of the national system of higher learning everywhere you look.

University lobbyists will storm this bill, which is, to be fair, a blunt tool aimed at an intricate problem. But the legislation is important for putting the issue on the table, for forcing an accounting from a system whose data is often frustratingly opaque, and for trying to put pressure on a system of priorities that too frequently places the cost on students and families at the very bottom.

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