How Eric Kaler is responding to accusations of admin bloat

Look, we're more productive now.

Looks like the University of Minnesota is still dealing with the aftermath of The Wall Street Journal’s Christmas-week piece on administrative spending there.

The piece made the U the poster child for administrative bloat, and prompted a Washington Post column in which writer Charles Lane says:

… The bloat on many U.S. campuses is now a significant cause, along with cutbacks in state spending, of the surge in tuition, which, in turn, is an obstacle to upward mobility for an entire generation of young Americans.

There should be a lot more outrage about this than exists — though we can hope that outrage will grow as more and more such facts come to light.

Solving the problem, however, won’t be easy. Americans and their elected leaders have grown used to discussing college “affordability” as a matter of distributing ever more government aid — in the form of tax breaks, direct assistance or subsidized loans.

A MinnPost piece on an interview with President Eric Kaler indicates the Journal’s data and calculations were not necessarily on the mark:

The U.S. Department of Education collects reams of statistics from colleges and universities, including data on hiring and spending. The paper’s analysis was based in large part on these statistics. But the agency’s reporting guidelines are so poor the numbers don’t compare apples to apples.

They do not, for example, spell out who is an administrator. That decision is left to the person completing the report. As a result, administrative head counts can fluctuate by hundreds of bodies from one report to another.

I’ve heard university administrators say as much at board meetings in months past.

Kaler also gives MinnPost an idea of what he thinks about the Journal and Post pieces:

So for example, you talk about increasing administrative hires. You’ve got to put that in the context of a 40 percent increase in our research grants and contracts over the last five years, 9,000 more students than in 2000, etc. etc. And you know (the reporter) just didn’t seem to have space to provide that kind of balance. He needed to find the facts.

I think The Washington Post story was just — I’m trying to think of a polite word. It didn’t seem to be very well thought out, and I’ve written a letter to the Post and the Star Tribune. [His letter has since been published in both the Star Tribune and the Post.] I mean, characterizing UMore Park as a vast housing development, it’s just silly. He just didn’t do his homework.

In an essay for the Star Tribune, Kaler also lays out an array of multimillion-dollar cost-cutting measures and revenue generators that he says must be considered. The U is more productive than at any time in recent history — but still faces financial challenges outside of its control, he writes:

We know there is much more work to do. Tough choices lie ahead for all colleges and universities, public and private, but the conversation about tuition should be framed by facts in perspective — in Minnesota’s case, in the context of the loss of nearly $140 million in state aid since 2008.

Read his essay here.