U of M takes heat at Capitol for administrative costs

1:35 PM, Jan 12, 2013   |    comments
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U of M President Eric Kaler

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Top state lawmakers are pressing University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler for a response to a national report on rising administrative costs.

"All legislators were very troubled by the Wall Street Journal article," Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk told reporters. "That is not the place -- the front page of the Wall Street Journal -- where we want our flagship university."

The December 28 story in the Wall Street Journal said the U of M has hired more than 1,000 new administrators in the past decade.

Kaler, in a visit to the State Capitol Friday, said the newspaper's tally was somewhat flawed. He said 350 of those they counted as administrators were actually professors, assistant professors and associate professors.

He also pointed out only half of those new positions are financed with taxpayer dollars.

"It needs to be in the context of a 16 percent increase in the number of students over that time, a 40 percent increase in our research budgets."

That's not to say he doesn't acknowledge a problem. In fact, since arriving on campus 18 months ago, Kaler has been making cuts in overhead.

"I'm not really interested in defending the status quo. I'm interested in talking about how we're going to get better going forward."

Kaler said he's also learned, however, that just getting a handle on the staffing numbers is tougher than he expected. It has tested his patience at times.

"Some people think it's a cop out to claim that it's a complex organization and it's hard to understand," he remarked. "But the fact is it's a complex organization and you have to put some effort and time into organizing it."

Senator Bakk asked Kaler to report back to lawmakers by mid-March with some sort of blueprint for taming those administrative costs. He said he realized much of that hiring happened before Kaler arrived, but it still warranted action.

"The university's success at the legislature is dependent on how they react and how they respond to the criticisms," Bakk explained.

The controversy bubbled up at the same time Kaler is seeking an extra $42 million in state funding to pay for a tuition freeze at the U of M over the next two academic years.

Tuition and fees are currently $13,000 per year at the university, due in part to steep cuts in state funding over the past ten years.

"We need to tell our story. We need to illustrate the value of what we're doing," Kaler said about the task ahead of him.

"These are stories about a university that brings enormous value to the state, that graduates 15,000 students a year, is the 8th largest public research university in the country in a state that is the 21st largest."

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