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Bloggers track U’s ballooning administrative spending

Eric Kaler
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
President Eric Kaler has described his frustration with the University of Minnesota administration’s shaky grasp on the details when it comes to the swollen payroll.

Last week, the front page of the Wall Street Journal carried a lengthy, thoroughly reported story chronicling the University of Minnesota’s ballooning spending on administrative salaries over the last decade. Between 2001 and last spring, the piece reported, the U of M added 1,000 administrators.

Thanks in part to that 37 percent increase, the university’s Twin Cities campus “had the largest share of employees classified as ‘executive/administrative and managerial’ among the 72 ‘very-high-research’ public universities in the 2011-12 academic year,” the paper reported.

During the same time period, tuition and fees for in-state students more than doubled to $13,524 a year, some $5,000 more than the average at four-year public colleges. Students must now work nearly full-time to pay the freight, a point the Journal illustrates nicely by quoting a sophomore who maintains a website listing campus events that feature free food.

Officials have disputed some of the statistics, noting that not all institutions report administrative spending the same way, and defended the value of some of the hiring. But university President Eric Kaler is quoted at the top of the story, describing his frustration with the administration’s shaky grasp on the details when it comes to the swollen payroll.

Whether damage will accrue to Kaler’s 18-month-old administration remains to be seen. At the time of his appointment, Kaler vowed to cut administrative costs and to ferret out waste; critics were initially thrilled but seem to have slipped into wait-and-see mode as the low-hanging fruit gives way to tougher decisions.

Also unknown: Whether the controversy, and the Star Tribune’s decision to reprint a Washington Post commentary that utterly failed to mention Kaler’s efforts to curb past excesses, will affect the university president’s chances of convincing lawmakers to buy into his plan to freeze tuition in exchange for the restoration of some state funding.

MinnPost will have more coverage of the fallout soon; for now, readers might want to spend some time perusing a local blog that’s tracked and archived information on growth in university spending for years, The Periodic Table.

It’s maintained by Bill Gleason, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology, with contributions from local attorney Michael W. McNabb, who has both a B.A. and a J.D. from the institution. (Alert readers will recognize Gleason’s name from MinnPost’s comments thread, where he is a frequent participant.)

You can spend hours backtracking through their gleanings -- the Journal certainly checked in with them and mentions some of the little-known controversies they follow. Indeed, they’ve chronicled the ink the topic has earned in the last few days, including an annotated selection of reader comments from other websites.

In the interest of winnowing the field, we offer a links to a few posts that are particularly relevant to the current controversy. Gleason’s annotated recaps since Dec. 29 are a good starting point and include plenty of trackbacks. McNabb’s most relevant contributions include On The Cost of Administration Part III; Whose Fault--Crushing Student Debt; The Rest of the Story; Ten Year Review of University Inc.; The Cost of "Top Talent" Part III

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Comments (7)

You seem to be connecting an

You seem to be connecting an increase in administration costs with increases in tuition. Where is the proof of this? I seem to remember Governor Bridgefail cutting state contributions to university spending to such a degree that tuition doubled in his time in office. How in the world could administrative costs lead to such an outcome? IMHO that is very unlikely.

Corporate model

What you've seen in universities and at the U. over the last couple of decades has been a shift towards various corporate models that are invariably heavy on administration. The model breeds administrative growth because it seeks to disperse responsibility and accountability while insulating executives from the decision making process.

The tuition increases at the U. have always been puzzling because aside from the books, a class is still a a bunch of students sitting in lectures, and there's no reason for the cost of that to have doubled. With few exceptions the instructors are not being paid twice what they were ten years ago so you have to wonder where the money is going other than physical improvements to the campus.

This is what happens when you run your Land Grant University like a company.

Amen

…to Mr. Udstrand. "Higher" education has become its own “educational-industrial complex" in much the same way as the defense industry. Universities and university associations lobby state legislatures and Congress with much of the same language and using many of the same techniques as does the defense industry, and like big corporations everywhere, there's lots of lip service to being "responsive" to the public while simultaneously establishing structures so that administration, in particular, can avoid being in the crosshairs when someone begins to ask unfriendly questions about "responsibility." While it certainly has some business-like aspects, education – at any level – is not, and cannot realistically be expected to be, a business. The corporate model serves executives / administrators quite well, and is typically far less generous and friendly to those who actually do the work. Meanwhile, students become less and less important as future citizen-leaders, more and more important as funding sources for the institution.

Elasticity of Demand

State funding and administrative cost inputs aside, I would suggest that the University of Minnesota and other institutions of higher learning are susceptable to a path of least resistance problem. In no way is this meant to condone the alarming growth in the administrative rannks of the university's workforce or its salary structure (just keeping up with competitive market pricing, you know!), but one only need to look at the number of students seeking admission to the University each year as a contributing factor in the outrageous increases in tuition over the years.

The most recent relevant press release I could find on the University's web site is dated February 2, 2010. (http://www1.umn.edu/news/news-releases/2010/UR_CONTENT_176617.html). The release proudly announces the seventh consecutive year of record applications for admission--35,000 applicants for 5,300 freshman openings. While a couple years old, one would assume that this trend has not reversed itself, or if it has, that the number of applications for available opening is still off the charts.

This raises a simple question: What incentive--from a purely economic supply and demand point of view--does the U have (never mind any sincere acknowledgement of its role as a public, land-grant university) to hold down tuition costs, and the concomitant cost of running the university, when so many students are clamoring for admission?

To his credit, President Kaler seems to have a keen understanding of the University's role in our state, but rolling back administration-after-administration of antagonism at the state Legislature, coupled with internal inefficiency, administrative cronyism, and lack of sufficient funding for proper financial management systems may extend beyond the capabilities of a single individual.

deanlet after deanlet after deanlet

Anyone who works at or lives with someone who works at the U has stories to tell of deanlets! Layers upon layers getting in the way. It's a testament to tenure, camaraderie, dedication and history that the U is as successful as it is. The "business model" of having layers of management is only offset by the fine faculty and equally fine staff and and students.

Those interested in this topic might find

President Kaler's Counterpoint in today's Star-Tribune to be relevant.

Eric Kaler: Criticism of U's fiscal care shortsighted
link: http://bit.ly/VMaI8E

Looks like a pattern

With the capitalization of medicine and education, the money is to be made in the administrative side as the "education industry" ramps up it's profile ala the "University of Phoenix." Like medicine, capitalization in education means that many more people having no direct connection to one's education are making a very good income off your and others' tuition. This is seen as a very positive thing for those at the top of the food chain. Nice homes and cars always go along with these positions, and that is where the tution increases are going. Just look at Fairview Health Services. Their visionary usuary points the way.