Discussion of DEI Costs
How we calculated them, and what to do about them
As promised in my previous note linking to the Virginia Association of Scholars’ report on DEI spending in Virginia’s public universities, I want to discuss a bit about the difficulties in measurement, and how that affects some of the policy solutions. This is going to be part “how did I do it” and part “Hammer talks policy ideas”. You’ve been warned.
When it comes to generating the numbers for spend on DEI, it is pretty straight forward, but I want to talk about why it is a “conservative” measure, buy which I mean it is much lower than the actual number.
First off, we missed a lot of people.
My rule of thumb going through the data was to not include someone when in doubt, and since there are no standards for job descriptions, including “putting one in the data” apparently, lots of folks are going to slip through the cracks. Reporting the salary data to the state is merely a requirement, and most schools seem inclined to do the absolute minimum to meet that requirement as opposed to creating legible data.
Even for the positions we have identified as DEI positions, I only have salary data. Schools do not report the total cost of employment for each individual, such as benefits (health insurance, 401k contribution matching). A rough estimate of the cost of benefits is 50-100% of salary, so in this case of about $15 million in salaries, we are probably looking at $7-15 million more in benefits.
Nor do the reported numbers include the cost of office space or administrative overhead; if that seems trivial, go out and find the per month price of renting office space for 5-10 people in a college town, right next to the university.
Also missing is the time spent by unofficial DEI workers. What does that mean? Well, imagine a faculty member, some assistant professor say. Their normal job includes teaching a certain number of courses, doing a certain amount of research, and service to the department and university. This service is usually along the lines of committees and other administrative or service roles, like curriculum design. The exact ratio of those three tasks, teaching, research and service, varies by university, and sometimes by department or position. It also can vary by individual; many times extra service activities come with “course releases” whereby a professor has fewer teaching responsibilitiesin exchange for doing other work. In the extreme case, a professor might do no teaching at all and be entirely dedicated to service roles (and some research) yet still be titled a professor. Detecting that is difficult, and accounting for how much time might be taken up by DEI services is all but impossible.
Then, of course, is the difficulty in accounting for DEI activities. How much gets spent on DEI training, programming, materials, events… well, someone knows, probably, if the school has really good accounting processes. They aren’t telling anyone, if so.
So in many ways the question of “how much are we spending on this?” is impossible to answer. The best you can do is to nail down the surefire spending and use that as a lower bound, which I think is what we did. We might have misidentified a few roles, but if so, we there are definitely more we missed counting entirely. The chances of over estimating the cost in 2020 are effectively zero.
That is why the policy corrections get tough…
I talked a bit in a previous essay about why libertarians have kind of an awkward time talking about DEI in K-12 public schools: one wants free speech, but they also don’t want state mandated indoctrination, but so long as there are state run public schools you can’t have free speech and not indoctrination. Also related is the essay from late last year about reconciling beliefs in a very messy world. The key point is this:
The best solution is to stop having state funded public universities, full stop. If you have private universities you can do whatever you want, Catholic schools, Woke schools, Muslim schools, atheist schools, Marduk schools, whatever. Go nuts, let students decide what universities are worth going to and spending money on. You could even fund the students with state money.
The problem comes with funding universities directly out of the public purse, because that purse is filled by taking money from tax payers who, quite reasonably, might object to funding indoctrination into a cult they do not support or endorse. This turns the content of university activities into a political fight, and rightly so, as everyone struggles to get the system they want whether or not they actually intend to attend the school. They are, after all, made to pay for it.
Of course, the legislature could just pass a law saying “Hey! No pushing this DEI stuff in school!” In fact, some have tried, but as recently reported by that doesn't work too well. If the school administration and faculty want to push an ideology, they will. As demonstrated above, tracking who does what and where money goes in an organization is very difficult, the activities and roles almost entirely illegible. Legislature says you can’t have Deans of DEI? Fine, call them “Dean of Student Engagement” instead. This isn’t mandatory DEI training, this is a cultural education training opportunity! Without replacing the entire faculty and administration, replacing the dominant cultural preference set from above is nearly impossible.
Additionally, it isn’t clear that having the state legislature doing such things is even desirable in the first place. As much as I think DEI is by design a divisive ideology, corrosive of civic cohesion and virtue, any tools that serve to crack down on DEI must be carefully wrought to not be usable for cracking down on any targeted ideology or group. In practice, I don’t think any human legislature is up to that task, and so whatever tools used to root out DEI will be used to root out free marketers, free speech advocates, name your group, when next their enemies come to power.
Fortunately, many rules already exist against broad ideological requirements in public universities; unfortunately, currently they predominantly apply to religion. Still, the principle could be fairly easily extended, if not by declaring DEI a religion, at least by making clear prohibitions against mandatory political indoctrination, prohibitions that can lead to legal suits when violated. It is still a difficult task, but doable I believe.
Which leads me to what I think would probably be the most effective measure for improving the university, and not just for DEI purposes: a hard limit on the ratio of dollars and positions between administrators and faculty. Legislation requiring that at least 75% say of a public university’s salaries and positions must be faculty teaching at least one class per semesterwould go quite a way towards refocusing universities towards their primary purpose: producing highly educated citizens. Reducing the administrative bloat of universities not only ensures that money spent on them is more efficiently applied to actually teaching things, but also ensures that there is not a pile of money laying around for those who can justify a position based on political preference. Access to a bottomless trough will always draw endless pigs.
One can quibble about what the percentage of teaching faculty should be, 60%, 90%, whatever, but the key aspect is that it cover both salary spending and total positions. Limit spending only, and you will simply see a proliferation of lower paid administrators. Limit positions and you will have fewer with higher salaries (and larger non-aligned administrative staff, most likely).
Of course, this still runs into the problem of faculty members who are de facto administrators, but requiring some level of teaching should help ameliorate that. You will still have some professors basically being full time activists, others effectively running the unofficial political inquisition of the university. Yet, it forces it under ground, and makes the whole process that much more costly.
If we are going to continue to have a publicly funded university system, that might well be the best we can do.
Of course, we could also start having a serious conversation about ending that public funding… wouldn’t that be a thing?
If you have any policy recommendations for fixing the public university system, up to and including “burn it down and salt the earth”, please let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading everyone.
Shout out tofor doing a nice write up on this as well at Postcards From Barsoom. He nails a lot of the costs that we couldn’t account for, as well as some of the staggering implications of the opportunity costs associated with that spending.
I am using “people”, “positions” and “DEI administrators” pretty interchangeably here.
I’ll admit, I can’t quite say that I blame them, other than, you know, kind of circumventing the spirit of the law and all.
Less teaching responsibilities? In any case, apparently most professors hate to teach, so course releases are very common. I have never heard of a “research release”; usually faculty members not required to do research are put into “teaching track” positions, which often do not include tenure opportunities.
That is not without problems as well, but people have a love for subsidized post secondary education, so fine.
This just in! The VA legislature does have a bill coming up, HB1800, regarding DEI spend reporting. I am skeptical that the reports will be accurate, because why would they be, but the bit about video live streaming board meetings is an interesting touch.
Strangely, many schools don’t even require teaching two courses a year for tenured professors. At this point one wonders why not just have research organizations and be done with it.
I want to attend Marduk U now.
Until recently I'd have advocated to limit admin spending to say 5% of total payroll. Now that we have language models I suspect we can simply replace admin almost entirely, at least insofar as the small number of useful things they do (making travel arrangements and so forth), with a small number of trouble-shooters riding herd on the AIs.
As far as woke faculty go, here's a thought: cash prizes for recording the most outrageous lecture theatre misbehaviour. Make naming and shaming the bastards fun and profitable. There could also be prizes for the sickest burn during a classroom discussion. Getting $10k for making Mx. Wokerbutt turn red with apoplexy would take the sting out of the F she gives you out of spite.
I'm more or less convinced I can out-libertarian you vis-a-vis the end of the state university system. Instead of regulating it out of existence, which would require government intervention, let's make it so unpopular it has to close due to lack of engagement.