Legislative leaders are not happy about reports of swelling administrative costs at the University of Minnesota and sent a letter to its president demanding swift action.

Saying the issue of administrative salaries "has taken on a life of its own," Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, are asking university officials to complete an analysis by mid-March.

"We understand that a thorough analysis will likely take more time, yet having this interim report will provide us with a strong tool as we formulate and hope to pass a 2013 budget," they wrote.

The university is asking legislators for $1.18 billion over the next two years. The request could face trouble if lawmakers believe administrative costs are out of control.

The letter stems from a recent Wall Street Journal article showing that the U had the largest administrative payroll of any major research university. The Journal found that the U's payroll has swelled "beyond 19,000 employees, nearly one for every 3 1/2 students."

Bakk said he does not want to see the state's flagship university the subject of critical coverage on a national scale.

U President Eric Kaler has pledged to provide the Legislature the requested analyses. "I look forward to providing an admin analysis & working w/you to ensure #MNleg investment in #UMN is well spent," he told Bonoff via Twitter.

Kaler has pushed back against the reported "swell" in employees. The university is "more productive than at any time in recent history," he said in a Star Tribune commentary, educating "nearly 9,000 more students today than it did in 2000, an increase of nearly 16 percent and has reduced the per capita cost of educating students by 13 percent."

In a note to alumni Thursday, he rebuked the coverage for not placing "tuition increases in the context of a stunning $140 million reduction in annual support from the state of Minnesota over the past five years."

Controversy over administrative costs isn't new. Much of it has centered on a 52 percent increase in the number of jobs labeled "administrative" from 2001 to 2011. But who's an administrator? Under that count, a librarian would have been labeled "administrative."

Last year, the U sorted people into groups defined by whether they "deliver," "support" or "oversee" the university's teaching, research and outreach missions. Under that count, about 11 percent of personnel spending goes toward "administrative oversight."

Kaler will hold a news conference, previously scheduled, at the Capitol on Friday. He plans to emphasize that the U is ready to freeze tuition in exchange for more state funding, according to a news release.

The U is asking for $91.6 million more funding over two years, an 8.4 percent bump over this biennium.

baird.helgeson@startribune.com 651-925-5044 jross@startribune.com • 612-673-7168