University of California: The Bubble of Bureaucracy

July 23, 2013

For at least a half-century, the University of California (UC) has been considered the premier system in U.S. public higher education. The Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses always rank among the top 10 state schools, with several other UC campuses close behind, says Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University.

While the nomination of Janet Napolitano, the secretary of the Homeland Security Department, as the next chancellor of the University of California may have been a surprise, it isn't a comedown. The system has almost 240,000 students and an operating budget that exceeds $24 billion, almost triple the state budget of Arizona, for example, where Napolitano served as governor and attorney general.

  • The University of California embodies both the best and worst in American higher education.
  • Some of its research is cutting-edge, and many UC graduates have achieved positions of power, wealth and eminence.
  • And they obtained their degrees for a fraction of the cost charged at most equivalent private universities.

Yet UC's annual spending exceeds that of most state governments -- amounting to roughly $100,000 for each of its students. Much of this is unrelated to instructional function. The university's bureaucracy is famously monumental, centralized and costly:

  • Aside from a full cohort of administrators and support staff at each of the 10 campuses, the central office in Oakland employs more than 2,000 workers, a staggering number (2,358 full-time employees, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System).
  • There are 10 "divisions" in the Office of the President, for example.
  • Its "external relations" division lists more than 55 managerial-type employees on organizational charts, and that number doesn't include support personnel.

For all its moaning about tight finances, the University of California has largely been financially protected from and blind to the economic reality in the outside world: In the United States -- and especially California -- economic growth has been falling, college costs have been rising faster than incomes, student-loan debt has been piling up, and the labor market has stagnated.

Rather than bring in a leader with a proven record of recognizing the need to re-examine the public university and innovate to face these realities, the university's Board of Regents has brought in a veteran at managing and perpetuating bureaucracies, one well-connected enough to keep the federal flow of support coming and to shake more money from the state's already overburdened taxpayers.

Source: Richard Vedder, "What Do 2,358 College Administrators Do?," Bloomberg News, July 15, 2013.

 

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