Beechert: Slash the Staff

by Michael Beechert | 11/2/15 7:02pm

Elite universities enjoy a certain privilege when compared to publicly traded companies and state-owned enterprises. Namely, Ivy League universities and their peers are not held accountable to the same external checks on decision-making that other sorts of institutions face. Public companies, whether they are active in the technology, financial or energy sector, have to answer to both customers and shareholders. Bodies that rely on government spending are — at least in theory — subject to taxpayer oversight through legislative action. If poor management leads to inefficiency and underperformance in either scenario, affected parties have recourse to boards or legislators who can exert influence and force reform. This is how organizations improve.

In the case of the College, however, no comparable impetus for institutional improvement exists. The College, much like other top-tier schools, has a near-limitless supply of potential students. Dartmouth has the luxury of turning away nine applicants for every person it admits. Astoundingly, almost 50 percent of enrolling students are able to pay the College’s tremendous cost of attendance without financial aid. Because there is no apparent shortage of families willing to pony up for a Dartmouth degree, even in light of continually ballooning costs, the College need not concern itself with pesky little things like organizational efficiency and judicious use of resources. Instead, Dartmouth can afford to gorge on the budgetary equivalent of a never-ending buffet, consuming every dish while a sea of bright-eyed waiters — the students and their families — happily replenish it with their funds. It is a sick cycle.

If the College were to throw fiscal restraint out the window — which it certainly has — one would hope that students would at least be the direct beneficiaries of overspending. Many areas of Dartmouth could use more money. Administrators recently eliminated need-blind admission for international applicants. Many buildings on campus, particularly freshman dormitories, are in need of renovation. Faculty compensation, as discussed in this newspaper’s Oct. 30 editorial, is lower than that of the College’s peer institutions, making it more difficult to attract and retain academic talent. The net effect of these deficiencies is to undermine the much-talked-about Dartmouth experience. Rather than mobilizing the College’s tremendous resources to fix these shortcomings, however, administrators have demonstrated neglect in their decision-making processes. Over the past decade and a half, they have committed a cardinal sin by allowing the ranks of non-faculty staff to expand in size to the point of absurdity.

According to the College Fact Book, the College employed 2,408 non-faculty staff in 1999. The corresponding figure for 2014 was 3,503 — an increase of 45.5 percent. It is difficult to see how two additional battalions of non-faculty employees have contributed in a meaningful way to Dartmouth’s overall institutional health. In the past two decades, both our U.S. News and World Report ranking and the participation rate for the senior class gift trended downward. While these statistics are not perfect indicators of performance, they demonstrate that neither the external perception of nor the internal satisfaction with a Dartmouth education has increased in correlation with the number of College staff. The reason for this is that professors — not deans, student life advisors or sensitivity police — are what make the Dartmouth experience great. Students spend four years in Hanover because they want to receive a world-class education in a unique setting that is both collegial and challenging. They do not make the trek up to the New Hampshire woods to be babysat by legions of overpaid bureaucrats.

But because the College will likely feel, as discussed above, no real pressure to change its wasteful ways, we can only hope that the highest levels of Dartmouth’s leadership will have the courage to take action simply because it is responsible to do so. The solution is not complicated — stop hiring and start firing. By returning to the staffing levels of the 1990s, Dartmouth can take a stand against bureaucratic excess and become the efficient, focused and affordable institution it should be. Without administrative redundancy weighing down balance sheets, the College can devote more of its efforts to undergraduate education and to projects that directly serve the interests of its students. The buffet must come to an end.