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From his first days as president of the University of Minnesota, Robert Bruininks pledged to focus on efficiency. Saying state funding cuts required "creativity and a sense of shared sacrifice," he talked about the need to operate the U like a business.
Nine years later, that emphasis remains, but so does criticism from inside the U and at the State Capitol that the university is top-heavy with administrators.
That perception has U officials on the defensive as they fight falling state funding and prepare for a change of leadership. On Friday, new President Eric Kaler takes the helm of the $3 billion, five-campus system amid growing calls for an end to the cycle of budget cuts and tuition increases.
The question of how much administration at the U is too much reignited recently when Regent Steve Sviggum highlighted a 52 percent increase in the number of jobs labeled "administrative" in an internal report. The report showed 2,157 full-time administrative positions, up by 742 since 2001. Meanwhile, total employment at the U grew less than 11 percent.
"Let me humbly suggest that we look at a significant reduction in our civil service and administrative positions that are not direct student contact or research involved,'' Sviggum wrote in a letter to Bruininks.
As he prepares to leave office Thursday, Bruininks maintains that the U's workforce has increased but it is not bloated.
"I don't think it's a myth that we've increased the number of employees at the University of Minnesota," Bruininks said in a recent interview. "I think it is somewhat of a myth that they are all sitting around with green eyeshades -- you know -- doing sort of meaningless administrative work."
Critics point to salaries
The true extent of administrative efficiency, or lack of efficiency, is hard to decipher. Two recent reports show the university performing as well as or better than comparable universities on administrative costs.
But skepticism abounds among lawmakers, clerical workers and faculty members who will pressure Kaler to cut bureaucracy and protect instruction, research and front-line workers from continued state funding cuts.
"One has to ask: 'Where are the university's values?'" said Eva von Dassow, associate professor in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies.
Von Dassow belongs to an ad hoc faculty group that has studied governance and finances at the U. Administrative expenses are "honestly complicated," she said.
But certain data rub some faculty the wrong way: A dozen vice presidents reporting directly to Bruininks last year made a total of $3.2 million in wages alone. Athletic Director Joel Maturi made $418,032. Kaler will start at $610,000.
Meanwhile, students are paying more and getting less in return, Von Dassow said.
"Many people do feel we have a top-heavy administration and one that enjoys vastly greater salaries than faculty," she said.
At a recent budget meeting, regent Sviggum wondered aloud if the U should cut non-faculty or non-research positions.
Bruininks replied that the administrative employee group is diverse and responsible for "mission critical" activities. The U's overall budget has grown in nearly equal measure to the category since 2001, but the number of "senior administrators" in stewardship roles is 74, the same as when he started, Bruininks said.
A push for efficiency
Regent Rick Beeson said the U has actually improved its efficiency -- educating more students and generating more research revenue per employee now than in 2001.
Still, Bruininks has acknowledged there is room for more efficiency, and the U's 2010 annual report touted new cost-cutting initiatives and recent cuts of "senior administrative staff.''
In an interview, Bruininks said streamlining the workforce has been an annual goal.
"I think you have to make the focus on administrative efficiency sort of the normal culture," he said. "You don't get it all done in one year."
Michael McNabb, a U alumnus and a Twin Cities lawyer who has criticized U spending, said the proof of exploding administrative costs is in the budget under the heading of "institutional support." From fiscal 2005 to 2010, institutional support spending grew 116 percent, from $108.9 million to $234.3 million. Over the same period, the university as a whole grew only 18 percent.
McNabb is a former St. Louis County prosecutor who helped convict Roger Caldwell in the notorious Congdon murder case of the 1970s. He bristles at top-end U salaries that he says contradict the U's nonprofit, public service charter and says Kaler needs to take action.
But Richard Pfutzenreuter, the U's chief financial officer, told faculty leaders in April that much of the spending increase cited by McNabb was due to accounting changes -- not growth in administration.
Pfutzenreuter said the U doesn't try to sort out which expenses are administrative because the term defies definition. "One person's administrative cost is another's academic support program,'' he said.
Rochester a case study
Without a reliable metric, some legislators have judged the U's spending habits based on individual examples.
The new Rochester campus is a case in point. At the State Capitol in January, Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, asked Bruininks why the U spent $11 million in fiscal 2011 to serve fewer than 150 core Rochester students?
The U provided documents showing a 69-member staff that includes one chancellor, one vice chancellor, three assistant vice chancellors, one program director and 21 other professional/administrative staff members, including nine who have "direct instructional responsibility.''
"It's very puzzling to me," Robling said in an interview. "I mean, it's like a 2-to-1 ratio [students to employees]. Our day cares are not that fortunate."
The U said the Rochester campus is still in its startup phase and expects 1,325 students by 2014. Of the 522 students listed last year, two-thirds were enrolled in partnership programs at other campuses.
"We're really paying attention to how the money is spent,'' Bruininks said.
But the vice chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Jeremy Miller, called for a 10 percent cut in state funding for administrative costs at the U -- inspired by a discussion of salaries, including Kaler's.
"You see some awfully high numbers, and it gets you to start to think what are the other salaries for administrators,'' said Miller, R-Winona.
Report on staffing levels
The last time U salaries were checked by the state legislative auditor, in 2004, the average salary of high-level academic administrators and professionals was in line with comparable institutions.
A 2010 report by University of Arkansas Prof. Jay Greene found that Minnesota beefed up its payroll more than the national average from 1993 to 2007. But unlike most other schools, its growth was mostly in instruction and research positions. U instruction and research received a staffing increase of 74.5 percent while administrative ranks grew by just 21 percent, said his report, which was based on U.S. Department of Higher Education data from 198 universities.
David Feldman, a professor at the College of William and Mary who has studied rising college costs, said schools generally have done a poor job explaining administrative cost increases. At the same time, critics have distorted budget figures into evidence of bloat.
"The reasonable question is, 'Are these people doing a job that needs to be done?''' Feldman said. "Somebody has to get inside the numbers.''
Reporter Jenna Ross and Computer-Assisted Reporting Editor Glenn Howatt contributed to this report. Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213
Previously: Pricing the University of Minnesota more like a private college is under financial and political pressure as the U's presidency changes hands.
Today: Growth in the U's workforce has raised questions about whether its administrative ranks are bloated.
Coming this week: Some U professional schools are considering a private-school model as their state funding shrinks to zero.
• Previous stories in this series can be found at startribune.com.