Editorial: Higher education staffing ratios deserve examination

Higher education critics say there are too many administrators at colleges and universities, contributing to sharp increases in tuition in recent years.

To explore the question, the Oregon Legislature is considering requiring better reporting of staffing ratios from its public universities and community colleges.

The move is being pushed by students, faculty and classified staff, according to a report in The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene, but resisted by university officials who object to an additional reporting mandate and say universities don’t fit in the usual civil service framework.

While we agree that a university is not like a state agency, staffing ratios are worth exploring as we struggle with rising tuition and student debt. Additional data is critical to an informed conversation, but it must be data that is relevant to the higher education setting.

The debate about how many administrators are needed is long-standing and nationwide. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that comparisons are difficult because institutions categorize staff differently. For example, some say a librarian is an administrator while others do not.

Nevertheless, the Chronicle said research does show colleges hiring more administrators than faculty over the last two decades and hiring more part-time instead of full-time faculty.

Some of the additional administrators are the result of new duties, such as increases in technology, student services, federal reporting mandates and fundraising related to diminishing government support. And in some places, traditional faculty responsibilities like student advising have shifted to administrators.

In Oregon, unions representing classified workers have complained that when the Legislature ordered state agencies to cut management/worker ratios in 2011 and 2012, it didn’t impose the same rules on the state’s public universities and community colleges. It’s a complaint we can’t support, given the state’s sharply diminishing financial support of higher education and the move to give higher education more independence from state government.

The key is to find a consistent way of reporting so colleges and universities can be compared to each other, providing the basis for a meaningful examination of the balance of staffing.