So, the elephant in the higher education living room is how expensive university tuition has become. This should be a middle-class cause already, if it isn't, because it's really middle-class families that are most likely to be bankrupt by spiralling tuition fees. There's also something deeply ironic about the constant talk of "social justice" on college campuses, when they are increasingly places that only a certain class can afford access to.
Walking around the University of Toronto the other day, trying desperately to get myself properly registered in the class that I've been taking for the last few weeks, I started to realize what the problem is. Now, admittedly Canadian universities have far lower tuition rates than American universities, but U of T and SUNY Buffalo have the same basic structure. Between us, me and Claire have been to six universities, and they've all been the same, with the exception of William & Mary, which has a smaller student body and structure than most universities. Basically, most Universities have an organizational structure that is entirely too top-heavy. To get anything done, you generally have to go through three secretaries and an administrator. Who, incidentally, usually don't want to have to deal with you.
Most departments have two forms of dead weight:
1) Unnecessary administrators and secretaries. I think the norm is two secretaries and three administrators for each department. In most cases, these positions could all be handled by one person. At UB, professors do handle many of the administrative positions, but we still have plenty of dead weight. Again, William & Mary is the only university that I've attended that had very little waste in this area, probably because they are tragically underfunded.
2) Unnecessary Professors. Every department seems to have one or two professors who teach only one seminar a semester, or even a year. Paradoxically, these are usually the profs who have the best salaries in the department. This seems to borrow from the corporate CEO model, in which someone has worked hard and accomplished much, so we reward them by paying them ridiculously high salaries to do almost nothing. But, it isn't suited for academia, and parents eventually have to realize that they are sending their kids to study in departments that have "big names" who are almost totally inaccessible, and whose presence drives the tuition through the roof. Again, this is not the big problem at SUNY Buffalo, but I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't a problem here too.
I think the general problem is that universities have "expanded" in ways that don't make much sense: adding departments and offices to an already bloated administrative structure that aren't really needed, sponsoring conferences that only a handful of academics will attend, holding retreats and meetings that go nowhere, and generally building upon their own "prestige" rather than the body of knowledge that we all contribute to. Now, this is not exaclty a "critical" problem. There are still plenty of academics who work extremely hard and produce first-rate work, and who, more importantly, see teaching as a sacred duty. But, it is a problem that can't really be ignored anymore.