in Houston, Texas

Texas universities grow staff by 28 percent in 10 years, bust legislative limits for staffing

Monday, Dec 06, 2010, 08:06AM CST
By Mark Lisheron

While more than 8 percent of the employable work force in Texas is without a job, taxpayers are paying the salaries for more employees than the legislature allows at two dozen of the state's public institutions of higher education.

The primary reasons given by the institutions for their employment booms -- surging enrollments requiring both teaching and administrative staff increases and contractual obligations tied to federal research and teaching grants -- present tough obstacles for a legislature trying to get what might be a $25 billion overall budget shortfall under control while promoting quality higher education statewide.

Peggy Venable, state director for the taxpayer watchdog Americans for Prosperity, called the decade-long hiring pattern outlined in an auditor's study outrageous. The conservative nonprofit group will be pressing for reductions in administration and overhead and reforms that would force instructors to do more teaching, Venable said. 

"We may all agree that education is important, but when most businesses and families are finding ways to do more with fewer resources, it's time UT gets the message that the eyes of Texas are upon them," Venable said. "Higher ed is fertile ground for reform."

For the past decade, hiring in higher education in Texas has been a vigorous growth industry, according to the latest study of state employees by the State Auditor. Institutions of higher learning employed the full-time equivalent of 157,727 employees in the 2010 fiscal year, 28 percent more than they did 10 years ago. That means state colleges and universities now employ more people than the rest of state government, where employment grew just 3.5 percent to 153,215 full-time positions, according to the report.

Huge hiring bulges came in the administrative offices of several of the state university systems -- and they routinely ignore the jobs limits set out by the legislature. The University of North Texas System Administration now has about 172 full-time positions, 48.5 percent more than the legislative cap. The University of Houston System Administration has 99 positions and is 54.6 percent above the cap.

That 32 state entities are above their legislative caps does not necessarily mean that staffing levels there are out of control. John Barton, a spokesman for the Legislative Budget Board, which tracks state staffing levels, says that educational institutions are particularly susceptible to exceeding employment ceilings because nearly half of those employees are paid for or tied to work funded by federal grants or contracts. Caps are set by legislative committees based on only a rough guess from year to year of the federal funding levels at those schools, he said.

All the agencies named in the Auditor's report have filed for a waiver of the cap limit and must provide an explanation for exceeding the cap to the Legislative Budget Board, Barton said. "Usually, there is justification for exceeding the caps," Barton said. "There is no penalty for busting the cap, except having to go before the Appropriations Committee and explain why you busted the cap. In most cases, that is penalty enough." 

The University of Texas System Administration, according to the report, is not above the legislative hiring cap. However, employment in the administrative offices has grown by more than 65 percent in the last decade to almost 750 full-time positions.

The UT System administration began to cut back in the fiscal 2009 period looked at by the Auditor and undertook a strategic plan to shed what amounts to 119 full-time jobs in the 2010 fiscal year, spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said.

The system, made up of nine campuses and six health institutions, $12.8 billion annual budget, de Bruyn said. The university system also requires a network of administrators for lands owned all over the state, he said. The centralizing and cost-cutting at the center of the strategic plan launched in June was, in part, a recognition that all state institutions would be looked to for savings, he said.

"Coupled with the current economic climate, the UT System and UT institutions must implement efficiencies, wean programs which have successfully fulfilled their purpose, and look to the future," de Bruyn said.

On campuses striving for first-tier education and research status, there has been a comparative Gold Rush of hiring. The University of Texas at San Antonio, which added a downtown campus and 125 acres to its main complex over the past several years, has also added 1,860 full-time positions, an 86.3 percent increase over the decade. Lamar and Sam Houston State Universities are up over 50 percent in the last decade.

During the same period, the University of Texas at Austin increased its full-time positions by 17.6 percent, Texas A&M University by 16.6 percent.

"During that time, enrollment here at UTSA has grown about two thirds," David Gabler, a spokesman for UT-San Antonio, said. "Graduate program development has been exponential while we’ve also worked to build student services."

When Kristin Sullivan came to work for the University of Texas at Arlington in the fall of 2008, the enrollment was 25,085. This semester, the spokeswoman for the school said, enrollment is 32,956, a 31 percent increase in two years. A decade ago, Arlington spent $20 million on research. That figure last year was $36.2 million and is expected to be about $40 million this year, Sullivan said. Overall employment during that time is up more than 40 percent.

"Our last seven years there has been a construction boom here nonstop. We were once considered a commuter school, and now we have all of these residential centers, and with them an increase in student affairs and student life administrators," Sullivan said. "We're bigger, better and doing more."

The growth of Texas Southmost College and its contract with the University of Texas at Brownsville caused Brownsville to increase its staffing to 859 full-time posts, 56.5 percent over the school's hiring cap. To meet the requirements for federal research grants, the Texas Engineering Experiment Station boosted its overall employment to 940 positions, or about 27 percent over the cap.

In all, the two dozen institutions named in the Auditor's report average 8.6 percent more employee positions than their legislative caps allow. Other than providing an explanation and making a formal plea to exceed the limit, there appears to be little consequence to violating the legislative employment levels.

Calls by Texas Watchdog to Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, to ask about the legislative caps and higher education employment trends, were not returned.

What might happen to higher education jobs in the 2011 legislative session is anyone's guess. Higher education contributed to a total of $655 million in budget cuts offered to and accepted in May by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, when it was clear the state was in for a tough upcoming budget biennium. Of that total, the UT System absorbed $176 million, de Bruyn said.

"When there is talk about another 5 percent across the board cut, that's big," de Bruyn said. "You may begin to adversely affect the core missions of these educational institutions."

But while it may be impossible or undesirable to roll back what has been at least a decade of steady and sometimes startling growth, Venable said the state cannot afford to hire more people for institutions of higher education without a careful accounting.

"In higher ed as in K-12, taxpayers deserve to get more education for our dollars, not simply continue to pour more dollars into education," Venable said.


Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or


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Photo of UT Tower at graduation with fireworks by flickr user dj @ oxherder arts, used via a Creative Commons license.

Monday, 12/06/2010 - 05:30PM

Maybe people should consider where this administrative growth came from. At least some of it comes from the demands of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board as well as various accrediting organizations. The state and federal government have been demanding more "accountability" and this has meant more paperwork from the state. Additional growth results from students and parents increased demand for services.

People need to be careful about talking about "fixing" higher education. At least some of the problem here is the result of previous reform attempts. We've had conservative appointees dominating the various boards of regents for years now. Maybe this issue isn't as simple as it seems.

Wednesday, 12/15/2010 - 07:47AM

At least the UT Athletic Department is doing its best reduce staffing.

Texas Justice Dot Org
Thursday, 12/23/2010 - 11:29PM

Ken is absolutely correct. Unfunded mandates from the feds and the state are a significant cause.

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