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Administrator-student ratio skewed at UNC

“Most people look at the trunk and the tail, and don’t see what happens in the middle,” said Templeton, a part-time special assistant to the chancellor for planning and initiatives.

His point is that people looking at only one aspect of UNC’s operations don’t see the value the administrative positions add to the system as a whole.

According to a report from the UNC Program Evaluation Division, a nonpartisan staff of the N.C. General Assembly, UNC had seven staff members per 100 students in 2013 , a number higher than other doctoral institutions in the system.

“They could do more in terms of reducing campus operational staff,” said Pamela Taylor, principal program evaluator for the Program Evaluation Division.

“They’re experiencing growth but cutting down in campus operation size, so it’s going in the right direction — it’s just slower than other schools.”

And the number of administrative, or non-faculty, personnel at UNC-CH supersedes any other in the UNC system — a trend that has legislators talking, Taylor said.

There was one administrator for every 3.5 students at UNC, according to 2012 data showing non-faculty headcount versus student enrollment. Champ Mitchell, a member of the Board of Governors Educational Committee, said the numbers for 2013 are similar.

N.C. State University had the next highest administrator to student ratio in 2012, with one administrator for every 5.7 students.

Professor of economics at Centre College Bob Martin said the core problem of administrative bloat lies in hiring an increasing cohort of professional non-academic employees, which includes people who work in student services, alumni relationships, fundraising or institutional support.

“(The ratio) is way too high,” he said. “It seems cruel or heartless to many faculty who don’t understand how these things work that people would lose their jobs or be reassigned to something else.”

George Leef, director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative think tank, said sometimes universities spend money on hiring administrators just to create a public relations spin for the school.

“Sometimes administrative positions are created because sustainability is a fad — it strikes me as a waste of money,” he said.

“Looking ahead, most public and private universities will have to trim their costs because there may be fewer students enrolling, and there’s going to be pressure to eliminate excess expenses.”

UNC’s status as a top research institution contributes to its need for a larger administration. To what extent, though, is uncertain, Mitchell said.

“So the question is, does the additional administrative need of research grants justify such a disproportionately high number of administrators in comparison with other UNC campuses?” he said.

Taylor said the more important ratio is that of faculty to students.

“Those people (non-faculty personnel) are working on the grants you bring in, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she said.

“You need to focus on instruction. As the number of students grows, the faculty should grow.”

Mitchell said administrative growth stems from a difficulty in determining what’s necessary and what’s fluff.

“You’re going to find that universities get on a sugar high of money, and it’s hard to back off of that,” Mitchell said.

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“When times are tough, people tend to build up staffs. The hard thing is to know what is fat and what is muscle.”

N.C. Senator Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, said addressing issues at the system level is difficult.

“Every campus has unique requirements and needs. Whether that’s (Appalachian State), Fayetteville, (NCSU) — they all have different needs,” he said.

Templeton said people often talk about the problem of administrative bloat, but staff growth often reflects the new things colleges do and the new roles they are expected to perform.

“I love walking into South Building and seeing the azaleas at the Old Well — there’s someone who takes care of that,” he said.

“It’s easy to pick out areas and say ‘You could save a lot of money and procurement if you did this,’ and that may be the case, but when you’re down on the ground level, you have a different look.”

Though former Chancellor Holden Thorp said he recognized the University’s need to fix the unbalanced allocation of money, Mitchell said Thorp was not effective in addressing administrative bloat.

Chancellor Carol Folt probably hasn’t been leading long enough to make all the necessary changes, he said.

“I know that Chancellor Folt and Provost Dean are very aware of our pressure to find more efficiencies in the administration of this campus like any other campus,” Mitchell said.

“Some have already taken some pretty severe actions. Chapel Hill has not done as much.”

In 2009, University officials hired Bain & Company, a business-consulting firm that determined UNC’s administrative spending was growing faster than academic spending. Templeton said the implementation committee Carolina Counts has saved UNC about $60 million since the operating committee was established in 2009.

Bob Martin said he is not surprised Carolina Counts has led to millions in savings — but he said the University could still do more.

“They (Carolina Counts) know how to do this and consultant agencies know how to do this, too,” he said.

“But there’s a great deal of political resistance to that by higher education institutions. Many of these efforts don’t deliver all of the savings that’s possible because of the resistance on the campus.”

Martin said as the costs rise, the institution has to pass at least part of that cost on to students.

“What colleges do is just throw more people at the problem without thinking at a lower-cost level,” he said.

“None of this means that the people in the administration are intentionally driving costs higher. They just don’t understand how to organize to keep costs low.”