The University of California is in the national spotlight because it recently selected Janet Napolitano as chancellor. You could say, well, the system has 240,000 students, so that many administrative employees is not so bad. But those 2,300+ employees are in addition to the administrative staffs on each of the system’s individual campuses. What do all those people do that contributes to the education students are receiving? My guess is not a whole lot.
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.
Historically, a lawyer-politician who has never been a college professor, let alone a higher-education administrator, might not have been the preferred choice to lead a huge public university. But that has changed in recent years. Universities – – private as well as public — are very much creatures of the U.S. political scene, highly dependent on federal and state funds. Who better to navigate that world than former elected officials? Napolitano joins such ex-politicians as Mitch Daniels at Purdue University, David Boren of the University of Oklahoma and Kent Hance of Texas Tech University.
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.
The “business operations” and “academic affairs” divisions are much larger. One senior non-UC university president said to me once that the central office could be reduced by more than half and the university wouldn’t suffer.