Finding the ideal balance between faculty and administrators

During the term break, the Chronicle of Higher Education reviewed a research paper about the impact of an administrator-faculty ratio on institutional costs.  The researchers were seeking evidence to test the long-standing hypothesis that the rising costs in higher education can be attributed to an ever-growing administrator class.  The paper’s authors found that the ideal ratio of faculty to administrators at large research institutions was 3:1 and that institutions with a lower ratio (fewer faculty per administrator) tend to be more expensive.

Even though we are a small liberal arts college and not the type of institution on which this study focused, I wondered what our ratio might look like.  I am genuinely curious about the relationship between in-class educators (faculty) and out-of-class educators (student affairs staff) because we often emphasize our belief in the holistic educational value of a residential college experience.  In addition, since some have expressed concern about a perceived increase in administrative positions, I thought I’d run our numbers and see what turns up.

Last year, Augustana employed 184 full time, tenured or tenure-track faculty and 65 administrators.  Thus, the ratio of faculty to administrators was 2.8 to 1.  If we were to include faculty FTE and administrator FTE (which means we include all part-time folks as one-third of a full time employee and add them to the equation), the ratio becomes 3.35 to 1.  By comparison, in 2003 (the earliest year in which this data was reported to IPEDS), our full time, tenured or tenure-track faculty (145) to administrator (38) ratio was 3.82 to 1.  When using FTE numbers, that ratio slips to 4.29 to 1.

What should we make of this?  On its face, it appears that we’ve suffered from the same disease that has infected many larger institutions.  Over about ten years, the balance between faculty to administrators has shifted even though we have increased the size of the faculty considerably.  But if you consider these changes in the context of our students (something that seems to me to be a rather important consideration), the results seem to paint a different picture.  For even though our ratio of faculty to administrators might have shifted, our ratios of students to faculty and students to administrators have moved in similar directions over the same period, with the student/faculty ratio going from about 14:1 to just over 11:1 and our student/administrator ratio going from about 51:1 to close to 39:1.  Proportionally, both ratios drop by about 20%.

For me, these numbers inspire two questions that I think are worth considering.  First, although the absolute number of administrators includes a wide variety of campus offices, a substantial proportion of “administrators” exist in student affairs.  And there seems to be some disparity between the nature of the educational relationship that we find acceptable between students and in-class educators (faculty) and between students and out-of-class educators (those administrators who work in student affairs).  There’s a lot to sort out here (and I certainly don’t have it all pegged), but this disparity doesn’t seem to match up with the extent to which we believe that important student learning and development happens outside of the classroom.  Now I am not arguing that the student/administrator ratio should approach 11:1.  Admittedly, I have no idea what the ideal student/faculty ratio or student/administrator ratio should be (although, like a lot of things, distilling that relationship down to one ratio is probably our first big mistake). Nonetheless, I suspect we would all benefit from a deeper understanding of the way in which our student affairs professionals impact our students’ development.  As someone who spends most of my time in the world of academic affairs, I wonder whether my own efforts to support this aspect of the student learning experience have not matched the degree to which we believe it is important.  Although I talk the talk, I’m not sure I’ve fully walked the walk.

Second, examining the optimal ratio between faculty and administrators doesn’t seem to have much to do with student learning.  I fear that posing this ratio without a sense of the way in which we collaboratively contribute to student learning just breathes life into an administrator vs. faculty meme that tends to pit one against the other.  If we start with a belief that there is an “other side,” and we presume the other side to be the opposition before we even begin a conversation, we are dead in the water.

Our students need us to conceptualize their education in the same way that they experience it – as one comprehensive endeavor.  We – faculty, administrators, admissions staff, departmental secretaries, food service staff, grounds crew, Board of Trustees – are all in this together.  And from my chair, I can’t believe how lucky I am to be one of your teammates.

Make it a good day,




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