Where you stand...

In a few weeks Massachusetts will vote on Question 1, whether the state should mandate limits on patient/nurse ratios.

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Several weeks ago, signs like these started to proliferate, demonstrating the same divisiveness we see at the national level. The issue has pit neighbor against neighbor. On any given street you can see these signs on lawns across from or adjacent to one another. Even now that an independent study is available, accusations of manipulation and misrepresentation appear daily in letters to the editor and op ed columns.

Those advocating limits do not deny that there would be a cost to those limits, but at least one proponent claimed that these could easily be absorbed by cutting administrative costs. I am familiar with this kind of reasoning from my experience in higher education, an industry frequently accused of “administrative bloat.” Unfortunately, it demonstrates a misunderstanding of what administrative costs represent.

It is important to distinguish between administrators, who by law are high level decision-makers, administrative staff, who execute the operations of the organization at many levels, and administrative costs, including an ever-escalating technology budget and equally costly regulations. As a community college president, I frequently had to explain to both internal and external constituents that technology was not a cost saver. It may have enabled us to streamline processes, but the hardware and software costs, as well as the skilled staff who were difficult for a small, rural college to attract, ate up an increasing proportion of the budget.

Federal and state regulations related to human resources, health care, finances, the environment and student financial aid became more and more complex, with significant penalties for failing to comply. These were unfunded mandates. We had to add staff in most of these areas – easily misinterpreted as “bloat.” As a leader committed to student success, it was frustrating to allocate scarce resources to positions that were necessary, but (except for financial aid) did not provide direct service to students. When our auditors recommended hiring more staff to ensure the appropriate separation of duties, I said no. Our audits to date had been clean and we simply couldn’t afford it.

Last week  I shared my dismay at the “cut administrative costs” argument with two friends. One is a retired special education teacher and one a retired faculty member. They immediately sympathized with the “vote yes” advocates making the argument, demonstrating Miles Law, or “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Barbara ViniarComment