Public Universities Need More Democracy, Not More Administrators

The current crisis in higher education leadership is on full display at California State University (CSU) — the nation’s largest four-year public university system. Joseph Castro, former CSU Chancellor.

Castro’s problems began with an underling — Fresno State’s Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Lamas — who was the subject of ongoing sexual harassment complaints and investigations. In 2018, Castro “enthusiastically” nominated his colleague to become the next president of CSU San Marcos. But later, as complaints about his VP’s behavior avalanched, Castro authorized a $260,000 payout and retirement package for the troubled subordinate. The sweetheart deal also included a glowing recommendation letter. That’s golden parachute number one.

Castro was forced out of his position as chief administrator at CSU last winter after the revelations. Despite a rather ignominious departure, Castro received more than $400,000 “to advise” the CSU board of trustees for a year and, even without a glowing letter of recommendation, he retains the right to a high-salaried, tenured faculty position at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Say “hello” to golden parachute number two.

In what sounds like an episode of “The Real Presidents of Cal State” or a “Game of Thrones” spinoff, within the past month, CSU signed a check for $600,000 to a former provost to quietly settle retaliation and sexual harassment allegations made against the husband of Sonoma State’s president, Judy Sakaki. The claim was settled just weeks before Sakaki and other CSU presidents met with a key state legislator to express their qualms over Castro’s leadership of the system.

These cases are not an exception. Top CSU administrators consider golden parachutes and insider trading to be the norm. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, more than $4 million in salary and benefits has been paid out in recent years to former high-level administrators. CSU started its “executive transition” program in 1981; it has since been expanded three times. Castro’s predecessor as CSU chancellor, Tim White, receives $327,000 a year for two years plus a $24,000 car allowance. Executives in the program are typically “transitioned” into well-paying tenure-track faculty jobs. California’s state auditor has noted that these arrangements lack transparency and recommended that CSU do a better job of oversight. Recently, a beneficiary of the program informed a Los Angeles Times reporter that “she was not required to document her work performed under the program.” As students and faculty at the nation’s largest public university system struggle with a pandemic, skyrocketing costs of living, and major disruptions to teaching and learning, CSU continues to subsidize no-show jobs and secret deals for its managerial elite.

The Board of Trustees was subject to a flurry of criticisms from students, faculty, and staff at the CSU. This was their first public meeting since the revelations regarding the ex-chancellor. Proclaiming that they “were kept in the dark” about Castro’s problems, the board announced that the executive transition program will be put on hold until an internal task force reviews the program and issues its recommendations.

We wish this scandal wasn’t about bad actors. Instead, it’s time to recognize that the whole mess — self-dealing, secrecy, mismanagement — reflects a systemic failure in higher education.

For over three decades, the academic job market has boomed only for those at the very top of the pay scale — university and college administrators. In 1993, the CSU system employed a little over 2,000 administrators; by 2018, that number had grown to 4,281. In the very short time span between 2007-2015, the numbers of CSU managers grew by 15 percent while the number of faculty grew by 7 percent. Over a five year period (2011-2016), the budget for the CSU Chancellor’s Office rose by $10 million. From 2005 to 2018, the average CSU president’s salary — exclusive of housing and car allowances — rose by 38 percent. The number of tenure-track faculty has stagnated at 10,500 professors. The number and pay of temporary faculty members has exploded to almost 20,000. 17,000CSU faculty comprise just two-thirds.

This lopsided growth reflects a tectonic shift in California (and the U.S. more generally) — the ongoing privatization of public higher education as the cost of a bachelor’s degree is shifted from the state to students. California’s story begins with Ronald Reagan, who spent most of his two terms (1967 to 1975) as governor trying to punish student and faculty activists by imposing tuition at California’s largely free public colleges and universities. By the late ‘70s, these efforts had borne fruit. In 1980, the State of California spent about $11,240 per CSU student; by 2013, that number had dropped to $6,147. (Over just five years — 2007 and 2012 — CSU and University of California lost a combined $2 billion in state aid.) To make ends meet, CSU’s largely working-class students picked up the tab. CSU tuition and fees increased from $500 in 1979 to about $800 annually. $7,300 in 2022. Over just two decades, 1994 to 2014CSU tuition in-state tripled, even though institutional expenses barely grew. By one estimate, students paid 1,360 percent more in inflation-adjusted dollars to attend CSU in 2022 than they did in 1972. Today’s student debt crisis is a direct consequence of this history.

This shift was a boon for banks and other lenders, but public colleges and university administrations responded by copying the private sector. Presidents added “CEO” to their titles, while provosts became “chief operating officers” and budget offices were headed by CFOs. Furthermore, administrators began to take over public higher education from students and faculty. Student enrollment in U.S. higher education grew by 78 percent from 1976 to 2018Full-time faculty grew at 92 percent while administrators and executives grew at 164 percent. The CSU system includes the number of full-time faculty grew by a measly 3 percent from 1975 to 2008; The number of administrators increased by 221 percent over the same time period. California shifted the cost of higher education onto students during a crucial 10-year period (2004-2014), which saw devastating state budget cuts. Faculty salaries were lower than inflation, and management salaries rose 24%, while salaries for CSU presidents grew by 36% (not including perks like housing allowances). The moral of the story echoes one of neoliberalism’s basic principles: austerity for most, prosperity for a few.

While some describe this management boom as “administrative bloat,” we believe it points to a more profound problem: the creation and growth of an administrative class within higher education, a special interest group that is profoundly disconnected from the vital heart of the university — teaching and learning, faculty and students. Members of this administrative class move from one position and one campus to another — often quite frequently. Many of them have very limited or no classroom experience. They usually have exclusive control of an institution’s purse strings. They also typically view the university in terms of organizational charts and “chains of command.” And, because they are only accountable to each other, they survive and prosper through patronage and clientelism.

When a subordinate reported being bullied and harassed by Fresno State’s vice president of student affairs, ex-Chancellor Castro reportedly responded: “Well, I’m in a really tough spot because Frank [the vice president] is babysitting my son this weekend.” It’s difficult to find a statement that better or more richly sums up the dynamics and dysfunction of the administrative class.

Universities require administration, just like any other large organization. That’s not the same as saying that universities need an administrative class. Instead of focusing on crony management and creating more effective administration, universities should practice a more democratic and participative model of leadership. British, Japanese, German, and other university systems offer an alternative. In these systems, students and faculty (and sometimes staff) play a more central role in decision-making because they elect academic officers — including chancellors, presidents and deans. The university rector does not have the professional status of an administrator, but is a member the faculty who has been a scholar and teacher and knows the institution well. Many of these systems grant the rector a term of office before they return as faculty members. While rectors may appoint managers, their decisions are ultimately subject to the academic community they represent — not to a coterie of like-minded bureaucrats.

Recent events at CSU show that higher education leadership is in crisis. The current system — with its sweetheart deals and cronyism — benefits a few at the expense of the many, including students, faculty and the public. Hiring consultants and assembling task forces won’t resolve this crisis. More democracy is the only path to more accountability at California’s public universities and colleges.