The Administrative Life Initiative

by Joe Asch | 4/2/04 5:00am

As I walked through the College's new Human Resources office on Lebanon Street last year, I commented to the director's assistant how nice the offices looked. Hardwood carrels and plush carpeting adorned a workspace as well-decorated as any law firm that I have ever seen in New York.

"They're lovely, aren't they?" she replied proudly. "And we've outgrown them already!"

In the five years from 1999 to 2003, the budget for "Administration," according to page 34 of the College's 2003 Annual Report, jumped by 57.5 percent, from $16,807,000 to $26,470,000; an increase of $9,663,000.

Think of that for a moment: an increase of 57.5 percent, almost $10 million. This was over a period of time when total inflation was barely 11 percent, the graduate and undergraduate student enrolment at the College grew by only 6.15 percent, and the total number of degrees granted rose by 4.0 percent.

In the 2002 fiscal year, while the stock market plummeted and the endowment dropped by 5.7 percent, the Administration budget increased 23.81 percent. Wow!

I don't know if this figure includes last year's million-dollar expansion of the Dartmouth daycare facility, but I would not be surprised if this expenditure is hidden away in the College's books as a "real estate investment." Regardless, the figures make abundantly clear that the Wright administration is first and foremost taking care of itself.

This marked rise in the administration budget occurred against a backdrop of widely-criticized budget decisions to save money (swim team issues, Sanborn and Sherman libraries, below-inflation raises for faculty, and on and on), and other less publicized ones. (Apparently, as of last year, an academic course is automatically cancelled if its enrolment is less than five students.) One can only conclude that there is nobody responsible at the College's helm.

This brings to mind Sen. John McCain's characterization of the current federal government spending money "like a drunken sailor." What exactly are we getting for all of this administration?

I can understand, maybe, that the budget for the Development Office went up by 76.6 percent from 1999 to 2003. After all, we are gearing up for a huge capital campaign. Also, in development, return on investment can actually be measured: I assume that we took in extra donations from the alumni and friends to justify this spending.

Research expenditures almost doubled, but so did the total value of the grants that the College received. Costs of Academic and Student Programs were up 35 percent to pay for new faculty and to let us better compete with other Ivy institutions. Spending for Plant, Operation and Maintenance rose 31 percent, though I infer this is for the upkeep of various new buildings that have been completed.

But how did administration costs go up 57.5 percent? Look around you: Corporate America is downsizing right and left as computers drive unprecedented gains in productivity. Head offices and back offices everywhere are getting much more efficient, not less so.

Managed competently, the growth of the College's administrative function should be well below the real overall growth rate of the College, not massively above it. What are all of these administrators doing?

One can only guess, really, given the College's famously opaque accounting and budgeting process -- a state of affairs quite different from many of our sister institutions. At other schools, presidents confidently allow the light of day to shine on the financial decisions made by their administrations.

In a piece I wrote last year (The Dartmouth, April 7, 2003), I attributed the College's exploding budget to Jim Wright's drive to turn Dartmouth into a Harvard University wannabe. However, that can't explain the entire budget mess.

In point of fact, we are out of the realm of scheming and plotting and well into a world of flat-out indulgence -- a kind of "if you give it, we will spend it" fiscal indiscipline.

Of course, such behavior cannot go on forever, and we now face the results of this excess: After a downturn in the stock market, Jim Wright has repeatedly obliged academic departments, libraries and athletics to cut muscle and bone, while he continues to load layer upon layer of administrative fat onto a financially creaky body. Poor Dartmouth.

The College should be run for the benefit of the faculty and students, not for a bloated and ever-growing administrative bureaucracy. The figures don't lie. It is time for a change.