Carlson confirms this sad tale by reporting that increases in administrative staffing drove a 28 percent expansion of the higher education work force from 2000 to 2012. This period, of course, includes several years of severe recession when colleges saw their revenues decline and many found themselves forced to make hard choices about spending. The character of these choices is evident from the data reported by Carlson. Colleges reined in spending on instruction and faculty salaries, hired more part-time adjunct faculty and fewer full-time professors and, yet, found the money to employ more and more administrators and staffers.
Administrative bloat is a problem in every organization. It would be nice to think that organizations can stay right-sized at all times, but the reality is that they bloat in good times, and have to have layoffs to trim the fat in bad times.
The difference between high and low-performing organizations, though, is often where they make their cuts. It appears from this example that academia is protecting its administration staff at the expense of its front-line value delivery staff (ie the faculty). This is a hallmark of failing organizations, and we find a lot of this behavior in public agencies. For example, several years ago when Arizona State Parks had to have a big layoff, they barely touched their enormous headquarters staff and laid off mostly field customer service and maintenance staff. (At the time, Arizona State Parks and my company, both of whom run public parks, served about the same number of visitors. ASP had over 100 HQ staff, I had 1.5).
This tendency to protect administrative staff over value-delivery staff is not unique to public institutions - General Motors did the same thing for years in the 70's and 80's. But it is more prevalent in the public realm because of lack of competition. In the private world, companies that engage in such behaviors are eventually swept away (except if you are GM and get bailed out at every turn). Public agencies persist on and on and on and never go away, no matter how much they screw up. When was the last time you ever heard of even the smallest public agency getting shut down?
I would love to see more on the psychology of this tendency to protect administrative over line staff. My presumption has always been that 1) those in charge of the layoffs know the administrative staff personally, and so it is harder to lay them off and 2) Administrative staff tend to offload work from the executives, so they have more immediate value to the executives running the layoffs.