Looking at the big picture

This semester, I took an inside look at the bureaucratic mechanisms of the UC Berkeley campus. I heard individual stories, examined some of the campus’s biggest — and often most cumbersome — administrative institutions and learned both about the hassles of red tape and the successes of a system that sometimes works well.

Now, at the end of the semester, I would like to take a step back and consider the bigger picture.

What do these cases say about the campus administration as a whole? And how does the UC, an immense institution spanning 10 campuses statewide, compare to other universities nationwide?

I followed up with a few of the cases I wrote about earlier this year to learn whether the issues I heard about had been resolved.

In September, I wrote about the inefficiency of the campus’s messy advising system. Then in November, the executive committee of Operational Excellence — a program aiming to slim campus costs by $75 million annually — approved funding to create a centralized advising council meant to streamline policies across campus.

In addition to these impending overhauls, campus officials worked to improve the financial aid system, which had been a burden to many students last year. After the finals bugs in a new software system were worked out, financial aid is now running better than it has in the last decade.

A new campus initiative created this year, Bridging the Gap, aims to facilitate an exchange between faculty and staff on a variety of administrative issues. Gathering input from the campus community about such decisions is wise, particularly in an era of deep cuts and widespread unease. According to Wanda Lynn Riley, chief audit executive of Audit and Advisory Services on campus, the program has enjoyed popularity among attendees.

After considering some of the ways campus administrators have worked to improve Berkeley’s bureaucracy, I took a look at broader trends across the UC and the country.

According to Matthew Denhart, administrative director at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, the size of administrations in higher education has “blossomed at a much higher rate than the growth of faculty” in American universities. This trend holds true for UC schools as well.

In his book “The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters,” Benjamin Ginsberg, David Bernstein Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, refers to the growing cadre of professional administrators who have no teaching background as “deanlets.”

“They decided early in their careers that their talents lay elsewhere,” Ginsberg told Inside Higher Ed in July. “To them, what used to be the means is now the end. Instead of an institution serving teaching and scholarship, teaching and scholarship serve the institution.”

At public and private universities nationwide, this cohort of administrators has been tasked with providing new services, many of which bear little relevance to the institutions’ academic missions. Denhart attributes this growth of student services and the accompanying administrative oversight and costs to an “academic arms race” between schools.

“Stanford starts some new student services dimension, and then UC Berkeley wants to compete with Stanford, and UCLA wants to compete with both of them,” Denhart said. Ultimately, such competition fuels an “increase in cost that is not really related to education.”

This race shows no sign of ending. According to Denhart, the UC remains in line with this “disturbing trend” and is doing relatively little to slim down its administrative staff, even as California faces increasingly dire financial straits.

Between 2005 and 2009, the size of Berkeley’s administrative staff fell by approximately half a percent, according to Denhart. This can hardly be considered significant progress, particularly as the size of administrations increased on other UC campuses during the same period.

“You expect in times when you are really strained on resources that you would focus on your core functions — research, teaching — but really we haven’t seen much cutting in the administration,” Denhart said.

Looking ahead, many second-tier schools may fall by the wayside, and the more elite schools will begin searching for a niche market among prospective students, since the strategy of supplying a wide range of expensive services is not sustainable.

However, higher education has “operated like this for so long, it is going to have trouble fixing itself,” Denhart said.

Ultimately, while Berkeley administrators are doing a good job of fixing the system’s flaws, the bureaucratic outlook for the UC and other universities remains grim, with many still mired in red tape.