How Many Administrators Are Too Many? Counting Up the Campus Work Force
The Chronicle of Higher Education
January 7, 2013
By Jenny Rogers
For years, faculty members have pointed to the sluggish growth in the number of tenured professors and complained that university payrolls are filled with too many administrators. This, they maintain, adds unnecessary costs and takes the focus away from teaching and learning.
But whether such "administrative bloat" is really occurring and how much it matters on campuses are complex questions to answer.
To examine the issue, The Chronicle obtained detailed payroll information from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for the past decade. The data help resolve the questions but pose more: Who really counts as an administrator? Are the jobs of librarians and student advisers academic at their core, or do they do more to fulfill technological or service-oriented functions? And just how many scientific illustrators, sewing technicians, and meat cutters does a university need?
The debate about counting faculty and administrative staff often takes an "us versus them" tenor, and in the conversation important nuance may be lost. Much of the growth has been in jobs that are not new layers of managers and administrators but rather in positions that provide a growing array of services to students, support research functions, and respond to changing technological needs.
The way that work has evolved on Nebraska's flagship campus, for example, has led to rapid growth in information-technology jobs and research staff, an increase in positions in sports and recreation and in campus security, and downsizing in the library.
Among Nebraska's 6,119 current employees, 29.3 percent are in faculty positions and 70.7 percent fill other kinds of jobs, working as administrators or staff members largely outside of the classroom. Those proportions haven't shifted much over the past decade.
The number of people working in administrative faculty positions, such as department heads, chairs, and deans, has actually declined, by 5 percent, from 2001 to 2012, a trend suggesting that concerns about bloat in administration might be overblown.
During the same period, the ranks of tenure-track faculty, not including administrative faculty, grew by less than 0.2 percent, while the number of faculty members working off the tenure track increased by 26.4 percent, a trajectory that gives empirical backing to the concerns of professors who say faculty influence on key university decisions is weakening. When administrative faculty are included, the growth in tenure-track faculty becomes a decline of 0.3 percent.
In recent years, the debate over administrative bloat has taken on more weight as public scrutiny of higher-education costs has intensified. Concerns about universities paying the salaries of too many administrators have been fueled by worries about the increases in college and state budget cuts, which have forced the downsizing of academic programs.
In some ways, though, the conversation about what would make for the best administrator-to-faculty ratio is as much a symbolic debate as a budgetary one. As the number of administrators increases, and the proportion of faculty working off the tenure track grows, some worry that faculty are becoming marginalized.
"There was a time when the university was its faculty," says Jane Wellman, executive director of the National Association of System Heads. "A lot of universities really kind of talk about themselves that way. That's your biggest asset, your brand, that's who you are: your faculty."
No one disputes the importance of the faculty. But, Ms. Wellman says, the increasing number of nonfaculty members at universities may be a new reality, one that incites those professors and researchers who feel that a university should be guided more by the people who are directly involved in teaching than by those who are supervising or supporting the instructors.
At Nebraska, the number of jobs that directly involve teaching has increased faster over the past decade than the number of positions that do not directly involve the classroom. But, amid budget reductions that have led to program cuts in recent years, the sheer size of the nonteaching ranks still troubles some professors.
"There's a lot more people sitting in a lot more desks," says Michael W. Hoffman, a professor of electrical engineering. If a university is an organism, he says, the students are the lifeblood, the administrators a disease, and the faculty the immune system. "While it's a joke," he adds of his metaphor, "there is perhaps more than a kernel of truth in that."
In 2011, Nebraska eliminated three academic programs—a graduate degree in classics, an undergraduate program in industrial engineering, and the elementary and secondary art education program—to absorb budget cuts. At the time, Christopher Marks, an associate professor of organ studies, found himself and his program on the chopping block, too.
Eventually an academic-planning committee recommended that the organ stay at the university, and Mr. Marks with it. "The message is what you're teaching isn't valuable anymore," he says of the cuts. "That's horrible for morale."
Now with tenure, he feels more secure at the university, but the increasing number of nontenure faculty worries him. "I understand the economics behind it," he said, "but I think it's too bad that economics are driving all of the decisions."
The university added a new category of faculty job in 2007, the professor of practice, a contract position designed for people who wanted to focus on teaching rather than research. This year there are 80 such professors. But administrators now want to increase the number of tenure-track professors, by as much as 20 percent by 2017, says Ellen Weissinger, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs. She wants to see tenure-track professors increase in number and in percentage of all faculty.
Even when academic programs aren't in danger of elimination, "administrative bloat" can be an issue, says Jonathan Robe, a research associate at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. "It takes away resources from the research, teaching, and public-service mission of the university and diverts them to other areas of spending that don't have a direct relation to those core missions," he says.
Ms. Wellman, though, says the cost of adding administrators is simply not significant enough in universities' overall budgets to be the cause of increasing tuition or higher-education costs. At the University of Minnesota, for example, the cost of administrative oversight accounts for 9 percent of expenditures.
The Platte Institute for Economic Research, a think tank in Nebraska, commissioned Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and two of his colleagues, including Mr. Robe, to analyze staff trends and the value of the University of Nebraska system for students. The institute's report, released in May, criticized the system for having high administrator-to-faculty rates compared with national averages and for having low four-year graduation rates compared with peer institutions.
The study found that American universities have an average of 17.34 full-time-equivalent staff but only 6.21 full-time-equivalent faculty per 100 full-time-equivalent students. The Nebraska system has 20.34 full-time-equivalent staff and 7.07 full-time-equivalent faculty per 100 full-time-equivalent students. The report concluded that, with a relatively large staff and a relatively low graduation rate, the university system was not providing a good value for students.
Mr. Vedder says he joked at the time of the report's release that if he stretched all the system's excess administrators end-to-end, they would extend from the steps of the state Capitol across the Cornhuskers' Memorial Stadium football field. "Everybody laughed," he says. "But no one disagreed with my calculations."
However, James E. McClurg, chairman of the university system's Board of Regents, did object to the study. In July he released a statement noting the 5-percent drop in the number of administrative employees. The university, he added, had made $76-million worth of budget cuts since 2000 to try to keep tuition as low as possible.
Nebraska administrators say they hold important roles in facilitating the work of professors and students. They fight the image that "administrator" is a bad word, and take pains to point out the ways in which administrators are professors and scholars, too.
"There's a conception among some that administrators aren't doing anything," says Harvey Perlman, Nebraska's chancellor. "The problem is if it's work that has to be done, then somebody's going to do it." That could mean anything from taking out the trash to making sure the university complies with research regulations. If administrators aren't there to do it, Mr. Perlman says, the burden of the work falls on the faculty.
The details of how employees are counted and categorized can make a big difference in how wide the faculty-administrator divide appears.
It's difficult to come up with a universal answer to the question of what exactly an administrator is. Some observers consider only top-level administrators, such as chancellors and vice chancellors. Some count all supervisory roles as administrative jobs. Others categorize all nonclassroom personnel as administrative staff.
The wide array of jobs in the non-faculty category, and the many reasons for growth in different positions, also complicate calculations about whether the rise in employment outside of the classroom signals something good, bad, or otherwise about the direction of the higher-education workplace.
At Nebraska, nonfaculty jobs include computer programmers, instrument makers, and mail carriers. Over the past decade, the number of jobs with "director" in their titles has been cut in half, to 34. Meanwhile, research staff doubled, technology jobs grew by nearly 80 percent, and student-life positions increased by 53 percent.
The university's research staff has expanded as its research expenditures grew, from $136-million in 2000 to $232-million in 2011. As compliance regulations have grown, so has the staff, along with the numbers of postdoctoral research associates, research/agricultural associates, and nontenured research faculty.
On the Lincoln campus, as elsewhere, technology experts are now needed in numerous departments. Enrollment offices have added digital-recruitment tactics, libraries have added software systems to track books, and researchers are doing more technology-intensive computational work.
Student services, meanwhile, have grown as the university has hired more advisers and career counselors. Where there were once 16 advisers, in 2001, there are now 31. They're joined by dentists, mental-health practitioners, and sports-and-recreation specialists, all hired to respond to students' changing demands, says Juan Franco, vice chancellor for student affairs.
"If we focus on some other basic needs, like housing, dining," Mr. Franco says, "if we do that—and I think we're doing a good job—then they can focus on their academic subjects much easier."
In an increasingly complex university, critics of evaluating the campus workplace through calculations of faculty-to-administrator ratios say, the "us versus them" nature of the debate doesn't account for the diversity of campus roles or the individual missions and environments of different universities. The employee roster for Minnesota, for instance, includes one captain and two chief mates for a university research vessel on Lake Superior.
The one aspect of the debate that most agree on is that administrative growth should be monitored. If universities were more transparent about their staff data, the debate could be more informed and constructive, says Mr. Robe, one of the authors of Mr. Vedder's Nebraska study.
Minnesota is one institution that wants to better track its own campus work force as it looks for ways to become more efficient. After Eric W. Kaler became the university's president, in 2011, he urged staff to put a high priority on analyzing hiring data by job title, and to set spending and staff size benchmarks against which to measure the university subsequent performance. The goal, says Lincoln A. Kallsen, director of financial research, is to use the analysis in the budgeting process.
Over the past 13 years, data from Minnesota show significant increases in technology, research, communications, and student-services staff, similar to the trends at Nebraska. The number of directors, which peaked in 2008 at 988 positions, has declined in recent years, to 969 in 2012. That number is still higher than in 1999, when there were 529 directors.
Taking a closer look at who the university is hiring will help keep tuition increases under control and may help reallocate some money from jobs that are focused on administrative oversight to those centered on teaching and research, says Mr. Kaler. Showing and increasing the university's efficiency, he says, also could help the institution's case before state lawmakers.
To help the analysis, Mr. Kallsen and a cross-departmental team are looking at making job titles more descriptive. A "coordinator" might in the future be a "coordinator of" something specific, he says, answering more clearly the question, "What do administrators actually do?"
When administrations begin analyzing themselves, they bring agendas to the table, some observers say. Mr. Kallsen's team decided from the beginning that they would let the numbers speak for themselves, without reclassifying or ignoring any data. They wanted their analysis to be truly objective and, in a way, as pure an academic undertaking as possible.
"Just because it's complex," he says, "doesn't mean you shouldn't try to understand it and explain it."
How Jobs at Nebraska's Flagship Campus Have Changed Since 2001
Among the 6,119 current employees at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, close to 30 percent are in faculty positions and just over 70 percent fill other kinds of jobs, working as administrators or staff members largely outside of the classroom. Those proportions haven't shifted much over the past decade, but some categories of jobs are growing much faster than others. Communications jobs and the ranks of professors of practice -- contract positions off the tenure track -- are among those rising the quickest. Administration and business positions have declined, meanwhile, and the number of faculty on the tenure track has increased only slightly.