Institutional support a shameful waste

Dueling Star Tribune columns reveal the true extent of bureaucratic waste at the University and its elusive definitions.
April 12, 2009

The journalists of this newspaper ought to be ashamed of themselves. I am.
I was both delighted and dismayed after opening the Star Tribune last Tuesday morning — delighted to have my generic sense of things affirmed, dismayed that I was confirming University dysfunction in a rag other than the Daily. (This does not speak well about the journalist at this newspaper.) Being an opinion man is not really a good excuse, but to the “real” journalist at this newspaper I say this: tracking University finances is your most important duty. I hope you’ll begin to treat it as such. Enough said … on to the fat bureaucratic cow that we call our Alma Mater.
First off, kudos to University professors Eva Von Dassow and Timothy Brennan in their commentary in the Star Tribune, “Where does the U’s money go?” The column was both elucidating and courageous; thank you both. The brave words of Dassow and Brennan revealed the following: a 27 percent increase in University expenditures over the last five years, which they say is unevenly distributed and negligent of the University’s core mission. (An argument that lends itself to statistical manipulation quite well on both sides.)
They reveal a debatable decrease in fellowship and scholarship programs. Most importantly, they explain the disproportionate increase in the “institutional support” category of expenditures, a category that has doubled over the last five years. This increase amounts to $143 million and constitutes an 80 percent increase since 2004-05 — an amount that would cover the forthcoming reduction in the University’s annual state appropriation. Where is all this money going?
According to Dassow and Brennan: “Amongst other things, a growing array of vice presidents and associate vice presidents.” The University currently has 12 vice presidents, “several of whose positions have been created during the last five years.” All of whom were hired at about a quarter-million dollar-a-year salary (some make much more) and demand additional money for staff support, travel, and other “assorted expenses.” (This column advises you to be wary of any such vague budgetary explanations.) They conclude that because most of these VPs neither teach nor do research, the University could “do without most of the services they perform.” They also cite the “administrative burden” these VPs impose on the true academics, and that “they operate with little meaningful public oversight or accountability.” The column ends by suggesting that the University should release a few of these “central administrators” and cap University salaries at $250,000. Reminding the bureaucrats that such a cap “would cause no one any pain … (and) save millions.” This argument makes perfect sense to this columnist.
I awoke Saturday morning planning to provide a further rant about this issue for the pages of the Daily. I was again delighted to open the Star Tribune to find a counterpoint written by University professor and chair of the University Senate Finance and Planning Committee Judith A Martin . I read eagerly and to Martin, I say congratulations. Spoken like a true bureaucrat, you have further proved the point of Dassow and Brennan.
She begins by feigning indignation over “incorrectly representing facts” and then follows this statement with a paragraph that serves only to further drown the debate in technical twaddle. (I read it five times and still have no idea what the good doctor is talking about.)
I don’t mean to cast doubt on her sincerity, but I will state plainly that her attempts to clarify have failed miserably and her defense of the status quo was very unconvincing. Perhaps I’m a bit dense, but in more than 10 years of reading the newspaper I’ve never read a such technical and confusing explanation of an issue. She makes statements and then provides limited (perhaps manipulated) statistical evidence to support her claims. She frames her entire argument with contrived righteousness and a seeming commitment to “diverse perspectives,” but after reading the entire piece these ideas seem only a hollow diversion at best and an intentional manipulation at worst. (See “U’s administrative spending is in line,” April 11, Star Tribune.)
Vague, empty rationalization of poor institutional practices is a common problem in large bureaucracies. I should know — I lived in our country’s largest bureaucracy, the United States Army, for more than three years. Martin’s commentary read like so many mystifying memos sent down the chain of command — just a piece of paper with words devoid of meaning, written by one of the many distant and powerful puppet-masters.
She claims the University is making “tough, strategic decisions to reduce costs” and then doesn’t deem it necessary to elaborate whatsoever, except for providing a few empty buzzwords. Then she notes the “complex budget” as if the complexity is its own defense.
On the point of overpaid, unnecessary vice presidents and the proposed salary cap, Martin decided not to opine. This column considers her silence to be a concession on these points. I am joining Dassow and Brennan in their call to cut central administration and cap salaries at $250,000.
I learned a lot about bureaucracy in the Army. Habitual waste and complacent thinking naturally strangle large, multifaceted organizations, and the University is not exempt for these systemic problems. If the University is anything like the Army, which, let’s see: Large mob of plebes, check. Vast hierarchal administrative structure to control the plebes, check. An enormous, partially taxpayer-derived budget, check. Created administrative positions for well-connected associates, check. Sure, sounds like the bureaucracy I’m most familiar with, and I’d bet every cent I have that the University is equally wasteful on a scale proportionate to its size.
If you don’t like what you’ve just read, I encourage you call President Bob Bruininks at 612-626-1616, along with the other budgetary bureaucrats. Tell them to stop wasting your money on vague expenditures like “institutional support.”

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