Since there is a lot of commentary about Campos Op-Ed in the New York Times, including from a fellow IHE blogger, I will not attempt to be comprehensive in my remarks. Rather, allow me to point out three thoughts that jumped to mind as I read the piece.
First, although the old refrain of administrative costs (“bloat”) resurfaces mightily in the original piece and is bantered to and fro with commenters, I was surprised that neither side seems to focus much on the quality of these expenses or to name the king of them all: technology. To be sure, salaries are an issue. Some CIOs are among the top three or four earners in their institution. In some elite, private institutions, salaries over half a million dollars a year are not unheard of. Are those expenses worth the cost? Hard to say when young men sans facial hair can cash in for billions in the private technology sector while many an IT organization on campuses are in their second or third cycle of lay-offs at the lower and middle levels of the organization.
But the real cost of technology and its impact is not just about the CIOs … it is about every aspect of the enterprise and what it means to higher education. I do not know of hard figures, but I would be willing to bet good money that technology in general: CIOs, staff, devices, enterprise systems, software licenses, cloud computing contracts, networks, routers, switches – the whole deal – is far and away the single biggest chunk of rising administrative expenses in the last 25 years of higher education. Is this a surprise? The same fact holds for the private sector. So, too, is it the driver of the global, and particularly the U.S. economy for almost two generations now. How we spend that money is matter of very keen strategic planning, and not every college or university’s investment has been wise. Overall, however, higher education must move forward with technology. Not only was higher education there at the incubation of information technologies, but a rich, robust relationship with the Internet (as a world-historical phenomenon, not just a series of tubes) is woven intimately into every aspect of higher education’s 21st century missions.
Second, the one sector worth comparing higher education is nowhere on either Campos or commentators’ lips: health care. The issues that politicians make out of those costs is about how to manage them, not that they happen, even when every so often journalist expose the outrageous difference in price among procedures not to mention comparative shopping internationally. Is higher education supposed to be any different? Is it supposed to stand still? How could anyone possibly expect that to happen, not least in the very institutions that train doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals as well as manage hospitals and clinics? Inflation in higher education is roughly equivalent to that of health care. To me, that is a sign that it is keeping current. For that growth curve we may be rightfully curious to ask strategic questions, but overall higher education should be proud.
Finally, I care less about what Campos said than that he said it. He brought public policy attention to higher education. Hiding behind politicians’ gibes or American society’s romantic “Love Story” stereotype of Harvard Yard is not doing anyone in or outside of higher education any good. The challenges to higher education are very real. And the one thing that it can no longer afford is to pretend to be outside of public policy’s reach. Here is where Campos, no matter what his particular shortcomings, has touched a nerve worth pulsing. Higher education – its institutions, its leaders and especially its beltway associations – are doing no one, least of all themselves, any good to play the Ivy Tower card and shy away from the fray. Jump in the middle of it! As a public good, higher education owes it to American society, and the world, to fight for its life.