Soaring college administrative costs pit bureaucrats against professors

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Paul Robinson, chairman of Purdue University's faculty senate, strode through the halls of a 10- story concrete-and-glass administrative tower.

"I have no idea what these people do," said Mr. Robinson, waving his hand across a row of offices, his voice rising.

The professor of biomedical engineering is leading a faculty revolt against bureaucratic bloat at the Indiana public university. In the past decade, the number of administrative employees jumped 54 percent, almost eight times the growth of tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Purdue has a $313,000-a-year acting provost and six vice and associate vice provosts, including a $198,000 chief diversity officer. It employs 16 deans and 11 vice presidents, among them a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief.

Administrative costs on college campuses are soaring, crowding out instruction at a time of skyrocketing tuition and $1 trillion in outstanding student loans. At Purdue and other U.S. college campuses, bureaucratic growth is pitting professors against administrators and sparking complaints that tight budgets could be spent more efficiently.

"We're a public university," said Mr. Robinson, 59. "We're here to deliver a high-quality education at as low a price as possible. Why is it that we can't find any money for more faculty, but there seems to be an almost unlimited budget for administrators?"

U.S. universities employed more than 230,000 administrators in 2009, up 60 percent from 1993, or 10 times the rate of growth of the tenured faculty, those with permanent positions and job security, according to Education Department data.

Spending on administration has been rising faster than funds for instruction and research at 198 leading U.S. research universities, according to a 2010 study by Jay Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas.

"Administrative bloat is clearly contributing to the overall cost of higher education," Mr. Greene said in an interview.

Purdue and other public universities, which rely on state taxpayers, have become a flashpoint for anger about bureaucratic spending. State colleges have long been considered affordable havens for those of modest means, yet they have raised tuition faster than their costlier private peers.

The cost of attending Purdue, in West Lafayette, leaped about 60 percent over the past decade. Including room, board and other expenses, undergraduates from Indiana pay $23,000 -- out-of-state students, $42,000 -- similar to other Midwestern public colleges.

"Parents can spend $60,000 to send their kid to Harvard -- that's their choice," said Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of a 2011 book critical of college administrative spending. "The taxpayers support state universities. It's much more incumbent on them to justify their costs."

Purdue says bureaucratic expansion hasn't led to higher tuition.

Rather, state funding, which makes up 13 percent of its budget, hasn't kept pace with the university's rising costs, according to Timothy Sands, the school's acting president. Purdue has beefed up its staff for fundraising and marketing, partly to attract full-paying students from other states and around the world, Mr. Sands said in an interview.

To remain a top-ranked university, Purdue must also administer hundreds of millions of dollars in government and industry research grants, he said.

"This is a $2.2 billion operation. You've got to have some people involved in administering it, managing it, running it, leading it," Mr. Sands said. "We're about as lean as we can afford to be."

Purdue officials acknowledge that as administration has expanded, spending on instruction has lagged. The university plans to hire more than 100 engineering professors, with the average full professor receiving a $125,000 salary. Unlike many other colleges, Purdue hasn't turned to low-paid, part-time faculty, a move that has offset the declines in tenured professors elsewhere, the school said.

Administrative salaries and other expenses, as well as tuition costs and debt, are drawing ire on other campuses.

Trustees at the University of Connecticut's flagship campus in Storrs said last year they were reviewing the level of administrators' pay after a controversy over the then campus police chief, who received $256,000 annually -- more than New York City's police commissioner.

UConn has a $312,000-a-year provost and 13 vice, deputy and associate vice provosts, including one overseeing "engagement" who makes almost $275,000 a year. The university has seven vice presidents and 13 deans. President Susan Herbst, who receives a $500,000 salary, has a $199,000 chief of staff.

UConn's police chief had broad responsibilities, and he was replaced with a $165,000-a-year official with a narrower job, said Stephanie Reitz, a spokeswoman for the campus.

"UConn's administrative structure is an appropriately sized, comparatively lean operation," Ms. Reitz said in an email.

At the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, the faculty senate studied the school bureaucracy and found duplication among its eight vice presidents, most of whom had their own communications office, said Russell Luepker, a professor of public health.

As part of an overhaul, the university eliminated a senior vice president's position this month and will cut 51/2 administrative jobs, said Chuck Tombarge, a University of Minnesota spokesman. President Eric Kaler is reducing annual administrative expenses by $1.6 million, Mr. Tombarge said.

The fight over such costs has become especially public and bitter at Purdue.

Nestled in the corn and soybean fields around its main campus 65 miles northwest of Indianapolis, Purdue turns out engineers sought by blue-chip employers such as General Electric. It counts 23 astronauts among its graduates, including the first and last men to walk on the moon: Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan.

Purdue's faculty senate, led by Mr. Robinson, has taken its complaints to both the trustees and President-elect Mitch Daniels, Indiana's governor, who says he's sympathetic.

"When your spending goes up at a rocket rate, it's pretty hard for state support to keep up," Mr. Daniels, a Republican, said at the Indianapolis State House. He plans to look at administrative costs that he suspects are "marbled" throughout the university.

Mr. Daniels said he was horrified to learn that Purdue was renovating his 4,000-square-foot campus office suite in anticipation of his move -- a decision he called "not the right signal, not the right priority."

The cost: $355,000.

Meanwhile, the debt of the average Purdue graduate who borrowed rose 74 percent in the past decade to about $27,000.

John Stucker, 21, a senior from Cincinnati, must pay back $80,000 he took out in student loans or borrowed from his parents. During a break from an engineering lab, he questioned the number of Purdue administrators.

"It's frustrating," said Mr. Stucker, an engineering major. "They're making ridiculous money, and they're not even teaching students."

Kyle Pendergast, 20, a junior from Orange County, Calif., heard faculty complaints about administrative spending at a student-government meeting this month. Mr. Pendergast, a student senator, expects to graduate with $20,000 in loans.

"It seems ridiculous that some Purdue administrators make so much money when I don't know what they do on a daily basis," said Mr. Pendergast, a biomedical engineering major.

Purdue has reduced the number of graduate teaching assistants by 17 percent over the past decade.

Alexander Francis, an associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, said he once had up to four teaching assistants for about 70 students for his speech course. Now he has two for 100 undergraduates.

"We keep cutting what we're supposed to put first, which is teaching," Mr. Francis said.

Professors also question Purdue's brand spending, led by Teri Lucie Thompson, a former insurance executive who is the school's $253,000-a-year vice president for marketing and media and chief marketing officer.

A recent campaign played with Purdue's nickname of "boilermakers," or factory workers who made steel boilers in the heartland. The marketing department devised the slogan: "We are Purdue. Makers, all. What we make moves the world forward."

The athletic department also made over school mascot Purdue Pete, a muscle-bound, hard-hatted boilermaker with a hammer. Last year, football fans gave a chilly reception to a softer-looking Pete, produced at a cost of $25,000.

"He was booed off the field," said Charles Bouman, a Purdue professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Not counting the Pete makeover, which was killed after two days, the rebranding campaign cost $500,000. That figure included $300,000 for broader brand research, which will be used for as long as a decade, said Chris Sigurdson, assistant vice president for external relations. Purdue said it uses donations, not tax or tuition money, for marketing.

To quell an outcry over the shortening of boilermaker, the marketing department also changed the slogan, removing the phrase "makers, all."

Purdue must advertise, especially on the Internet and through social media, to attract young people, as the number of college-age students in the Midwest is projected to decline, Ms. Thompson said.

"You want that mind share," she said.

Another administrative initiative has agitated the faculty: possibly changing the academic calendar to a trimester from a semester system, allowing Purdue to use empty buildings year-round and offer popular courses over the summer so more students will graduate in four years.

The concept required hiring a new administrator: Frank Dooley, a $172,000-a-year associate vice provost and professor of agricultural economics who with a part-time financial analyst will cost the university $212,000 a year, excluding benefits.

Mr. Dooley plans to establish seven or eight committees of professors, administrators, students and others for discussion and fact-gathering. He expects a decision in 2015.

"I look at myself as an envoy or ambassador," he said. "My job is to make sure these seven or eight committees are aware of what's going on in the other committees."

Marcus Rogers, a Purdue professor of information technology, views Mr. Dooley less as a diplomat and more as a symbol of misplaced priorities.

"We have more vice provosts, vice presidents and assistant vice presidents than we've ever had before," Mr. Rogers said. "Now we're spending $250,000 a year to oversee something we haven't even agreed to."

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