The Troubling Dean-to-Professor Ratio

By John Hechinger on November 21, 2012

J. Paul Robinson, chairman of the Purdue University faculty senate, walks the halls of a 10-story tower, pointing out a row of offices for administrators. “I have no idea what these people do,” says the biomedical engineering professor. Purdue has a $313,000-a-year acting provost and six vice and associate vice provosts, including a $198,000-a-year chief diversity officer. Among its 16 deans and 11 vice presidents are a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief. The average full professor at the public university in West Lafayette, Ind., makes $125,000.

The number of Purdue administrators has jumped 54 percent in the past decade—almost eight times the growth rate of tenured and tenure-track faculty. “We’re here to deliver a high-quality education at as low a price as possible,” says Robinson. “Why is it that we can’t find any money for more faculty, but there seems to be an almost unlimited budget for administrators?”

Purdue is among the U.S. colleges layering up at the top at a time when budgets are tight, students are amassing record debt, and tuition is skyrocketing. U.S. Department of Education data show that Purdue is typical: At universities nationwide, employment of administrators jumped 60 percent from 1993 to 2009, 10 times the growth rate for tenured faculty. “Administrative bloat is clearly contributing to the overall cost of higher education,” says Jay Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas. In a 2010 study, Greene found that from 1993 to 2007, spending on administration rose almost twice as fast as funding for research and teaching at 198 leading U.S. universities.

Some state schools are reexamining pay for top managers. “It’s much more incumbent on them to justify their costs,” says Benjamin Ginsberg, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor who wrote a 2011 book critical of pay for college bureaucrats. The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities eliminated one of its eight vice president positions this month after a faculty-led study found duplication among their responsibilities. The school is trying to cut annual administrative expenses by $1.6 million, says spokesman Chuck Tombarge. Trustees at the University of Connecticut are reviewing administrative salaries at the school’s main campus in Storrs, following a controversy over the compensation of the school’s former police chief, who received $256,000 annually—more than New York City’s police commissioner.

Indiana residents pay $23,000 a year to attend Purdue, and out-of-state residents pay $42,000—more than double what both paid a decade ago. Bureaucratic expansion hasn’t led to the higher tuition, says Acting President Timothy Sands. The problem is a lack of state funding, which accounts for 13 percent of Purdue’s budget and hasn’t kept pace with rising costs. Purdue has added administrators to oversee a growing number of research grants and beefed up its staff for fundraising and marketing to help attract full-paying students, Sands adds. “This is a $2.2 billion operation—you’ve got to have some people involved in administering it, managing it, running it, leading it,” he says. “We’re about as lean as we can afford to be.”

Robinson and the faculty senate have taken their complaint to Purdue’s trustees and to Indiana’s Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, a fiscal hawk who will become the school’s president when his term expires in January. He says he wants to take a look at administrative costs that he suspects are “marbled” throughout the university—beginning with his office. In anticipation of his arrival in January, and without his knowledge, the school renovated the president’s 4,000-square-foot suite. The cost was $355,000, enough to send 15 Indiana residents to Purdue for a year.

The bottom line: From 1993 to 2009, U.S. universities added bureaucrats 10 times faster than they added tenured faculty.
Hechinger is a reporter for Bloomberg News.