Another Reason Not to Like the Word…..Bloat

by Jodi Koslow Martin

I am sensitive to a few issues in higher education. When I say “sensitive,” I mean there are a few matters in higher education that are incredibly important and incredibly challenging at the same time. From my own research, I’ve become sensitive to getting first-year students enrolled in classes taught by full-time faculty in their first semester of college. I’m sensitive to the needs in the lives of Resident Hall Directors; to live and work in the same place can make it really difficult to set essential personal boundaries. And, of late, I am extremely sensitive to the critique of higher education that the cost of college is so high because of administrative bloat. I already had an issue with the word ‘bloat’ for obvious reasons. The basis for my current touchiness to this word relates to my personal experience as a vice president at a small, private institution.

Cost of higher education, administrative bloat, and feminist leadership. Yes, I’m going to attempt to make a cogent argument that these are all interrelated.

From the CNN documentary Ivory Tower to the recent NY Times article titled The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much, mention of administrative bloat is used as one of the main reasons that the demise of higher education is imminent. “Administrative bloat” is such a damning kind of phrase as it seems to insinuate that staff members in higher education are predominantly non-essential personnel. We believe the opposite, and we know that student affairs professionals are key individuals in creating environments of student success.

We also know that faculty members are at the foundation of academe. I’m of the opinion, too, that everything possible should be done to hire more full-time faculty. At my institution, I fully support the ten new faculty lines we are hiring over the counselor position we need or the Latin@ student development position that would be justified. This support is indicative of my effort to quell concerns about overspending in administrative units. Yet, if those of us who are administrators in higher education are really going to dispel the bloat critique, I suggest we give a good amount of consideration to the idea that the role of a full-time faculty member has to evolve. Faculty gather in meetings within their institutional governance structure with the intent to give members of the faculty equal voice. I’d like to suggest that faculty not only extend this sense of civility to student affairs staff, but also collaborate with these professionals to advance their common purpose of educating students. So, could a suggestion to hire a faculty member who will also serve as an advisor of a student group become a reality? Or will the questions about workload and compensation halt creative solutions to administrative bloat? Collaboration, authenticity, accountability, social justice in the workplace – traits of feminist leadership – need to be infused into the totality of the institutional culture for progress to be made.

Even if we change the culture in higher education to share more administrative work with faculty hires, I worry about what that looks like. I’m pleased to learn women have earned more PhD’s than men in for the last five years (Allum, 2014). I’m less pleased that this kind of finding leads people to feel the need to ask “what’s happening with boys” in education. More women earning PhD’s in last five years isn’t going to lead to gender equality in the professoriate just yet. So, how about us? Can the world of student affairs nurture gender equality in higher education without causing more administrative bloat? Yes, not only because we’ve been educated to do so, but because it’s time to realize that those who work in higher education must collaborate to reach the potential of our educative roles as both teachers and administrators.

Lately, the administrative bloat argument has become part of the discussion in the It’s On Us campaign and Title IX regulations. In order to assess the climate of our campuses, create more awareness of sexual assault, be more intentionally educational about bystander education, college and universities will have to decide how to implement these practices. For example, some campuses will have current faculty with expertise in survey design work with students to create a campus climate survey. It’s a great idea with sensible logic behind it. Once we have this data, it will likely show that more education is needed. Will faculty willingly give up class time to discuss sexual assault prevention? Will universities hire faculty to address sexual assault prevention? When students become cognizant of Title IX and want to report a sexual assault, how will faculty members offer support?   If sexual assault prevention is an urgent issue on campuses, how much time to do we really have to address it? My institution decided to use an outside agency to produce a campus climate survey. We gave the survey. We have the results.   We made decisions relatively quickly because of the immediacy of the topic. We are acting on the results. We realigned priorities (an administrative skill) to ensure we had the dollars to do this because we felt it was important.

Feeling important is essential in the workplace. I would not want the talented, knowledgeable, creative team of student affairs professionals who work with me to ever feel like their necessity is questioned. More bluntly, I cannot allow them to be associated with something as unwelcomed as “bloat.”

Allum, J. (2014). Graduate enrollment and degrees: 2003 to 2013. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.


4 thoughts on “Another Reason Not to Like the Word…..Bloat

  1. I appreciate your thoughts on this topic. i hear administrative bloat and it bothers me so much and you captured why in such a clear and eloquent way. The phrase it takes a village should also apply to higher education institutions. Thank you again for your thoughts.

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