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Recently we've seen several articles telling us about the status of the search for a new University of Minnesota president. Reading through the discussion on the Star Tribune website shows just how much misunderstanding there is about the composition and structure of the university itself. As someone who has been there as an undergraduate student, a civil service employee, a postdoctoral researcher and a professional (nonacademic) employee, I have seen more of the University of Minnesota than most and would like to try to shed some light on some of the 67,000 employees there.

First of all, when I last worked there, the university had three main categories of employees. Each one should be viewed with more granularity than is usually afforded to them in most newspaper articles.

  • Civil Service is largely people who have at most a four-year degree, and includes a lot of people who have not completed a college degree. This is a diverse collection of employees that includes custodians (generally part of the Facilities Management Department), cashiers, library staff, electricians, plumbers and quite a few people involved in research or research support. Civil Service is also the category of most of the IT staff at the university, who maintain infrastructure, workstations, projectors and much more. The U Police Department is also largely under this category.
  • Faculty is the smallest category by personnel count and is the faculty of all the diverse topics that are taught at the university. One thing that is often overlooked is not only how little faculty members are paid — many make $60,000 or less per year — but also how little they cost the university. Most faculty who are involved in research are expected to bring in research grants to cover — on top of other costs — their own salary. While the cost for these faculty is still not zero to the university, it is much lower than what people tend to expect. Many people are also unaware of the demands placed on many of our faculty, with most junior and mid-level faculty members in the hard sciences working 80 hours per week or more.
  • Professional and Administrative — P&A for short — is a large category of employees that is often misunderstood by the public. While as described it includes the administrative component of the university, that side is significantly outnumbered by the professional side. Professional employees are mostly those with advanced degrees and notably includes a large number of employees paid on research grants — again carrying a very small cost to the university.

That said, there are certainly some warts to address at the university. One could argue that there could be fewer administrators, but the administrator count is likely lower than many imagine. With the collection of colleges and departments at the university, a wide collection of administrators is necessary to keep moving toward a coherent goal.

I would argue that the notion of seeing the university as a single entity is somewhat outdated. The university is a single entity much the same way that the Mall of America or the city of Minneapolis is a single entity. Yes, they each can be recognized by boundaries and seen under a single umbrella, but there are a lot of different units within. A past study suggested the Mall of America has roughly 11,000 employees under its giant roof, less than 20% of the employee population of the University of Minnesota. At the Mall of America, Macy's employees don't report to the same management as Nordstrom employees, and neither of them to the same management as Lego or Nickelodeon employees. Similarly different departments at the university need their own administration to report to; those administrators report up to others when needed.

The University of Minnesota is in the process of searching for a new president. I do not have a direct role or an opinion on it currently. My only hope is that people who are following this are better informed on the structure of the university before they jump to conclusions on the importance of filling this position.

Lee Parsons lives in Plymouth.