It has become fashionable in some quarters to lament the departure – some by retirement, most by taking jobs elsewhere – of higher education leaders in Louisiana, often blamed on a tough budgetary climate of reductions in the neighborhood of $425 million since 2008 (but a far lower amount compared to 2006). But not only are these concerns largely misplaced, they in fact present an excellent opportunity to improve higher education delivery.
For the salient fact, derived from an admixture of both (my 26-year employed career in higher education) experience and common sense, is that on the academic side most university administrators (those above the department level) earn in excess, sometimes far more, of what abilities they actually bring to the table, or of needs of the job, or even if the job is one that actually contributes meaningfully. Thus, people leaving these positions provide the chance for fresh faces to assume their duties, and usually at a salary level more commensurate with what the job requires.
That’s more important than ever these days in Louisiana higher education, where the beginnings of a fundamental transformation are in place, away from an input-oriented model to one focused on outputs. Some of these officials had come in under the past paradigm, or risen through the ranks under that paradigm, that is part and parcel of the higher education bubble that will force major changes and retrenchment in public higher education that, to some minor extent, Louisiana policy-makers already have recognized. The newer leaders hopefully understand this while a number of the departed undoubtedly do not and will find themselves unprepared for a contracting environment.
But the coming crisis, its initial impact reflected in part by the budgetary cutbacks in the state for higher education, also sheds light upon the activities in higher education that range from the over-emphasized to useless. For example, one of the high officials at the flagship Louisiana State University Baton Rouge campus whose taking a job elsewhere was noticed was in charge of the Office of Education, Diversity, and Community Outreach, at one of the highest ranks on campus, vice provost.
In her position, she earned $166,000. But she was not the only one in that office. The deputy position remained unfilled (as of this writing), but the liaison of “Community University Partnership” earned an annual salary of $44,721, the director of “Office of Multicultural Affairs” $54,640, the associate director of “Louisiana Center Addressing Substance Use in Collegiate Communities” $49,500, and the director of the “Women’s Studies Center” was apparently not employed there before 2012 (statistics are from 2011). Not even counting the administrative assistant ($38,958) or graduate assistant for the area (not in the job prior to 2012), even with the missing data that’s at least $314,861 annually. Throw in the missing data and support staff, and it’s probably over a half a million of year.
Which brings up the natural question – does LSUBR really need to spend that much money on personnel alone (not including benefits or operating expenses) for this activity, especially with this function’s historically questionable, politically-driven agenda as reflected in many parts of academia based upon a dubious intellectual premise? If there is deemed some reason to pursue this activity, must so many resources go to it given the genuine priority it merits? And, keep in mind, every university in the state has some equivalent to this to varying degrees (for example, at my institution, it is a half-time position with a long-time employee of instructor faculty rank who made $50,000 in 2010). And, this is just one example of spending in ways that may contribute little to the primary activity of the university – not research, not community outreach, but undergraduate education.
So rather than bemoan the departures, policy-makers in and out of higher education need to use the opportunities to rethink their priorities and what they are willing to pay to achieve them. This is the best way to improve delivery of higher education in the state, as opposed to an uncritical acceptance of the prevailing ethos that relies far too much on a model becoming increasingly unsustainable.