Behind Stanford’s doubled staff-to-student ratio

March 13, 2024, 1:46 a.m.

The number of staff at Stanford has more than doubled since 2000, drawing some criticism of administrative bloat — including from former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Many faculty, though, say the increase both complements and directly supports the University’s academic environment.

Between 1996 and 2023, the number of staff, or non-teaching employees, grew at an average rate of 382 new staff per year — 950 per year since 2019. The University’s staff-to-student ratio concurrently increased from 0.42 to 0.94 staff per student, higher than 46 out of the 50 top universities as ranked by the U.S. News and World report. 

This expansion is largely at the School of Medicine, where the yearly staff growth rate of 5.6% is significantly higher than the 1.7% rate across the rest of the University. New staff are also being hired at the Doerr School of Sustainability and other incipient programs, and for research support across departments.

School of Medicine spokesperson Courtney Lodato wrote that the increase largely includes clinical educators who teach and provide clinical care, financed by external research funds from government and industry sources. The School of Medicine plans to hire over 300 staff this fiscal year.

Per the University’s 2023-2024 budget plan, each of Stanford’s seven academic schools except the Graduate School of Business will also onboard new staff.

Some professors said increasing compliance requirements on universities is partially responsible for staff increases. Between 1997 and 2012, the number of government compliance requirements on universities increased by 56%, with a 2015 study finding that compliance with these requirements consumes 3-11% of a university’s non-hospital expenses. 

Political science professor James Fearon said that since becoming a faculty member at Stanford two decades ago, he has observed an increase in compliance requirements, including certifications, surveys and paperwork.

Similarly, management science and engineering (MS&E) professor Peter Glynn Ph.D. ’82 said that 30 years ago, compliance requirements were less stringent, and faculty were instead trusted to maintain high ethical standards on conflict of interest issues. Now, Glynn said, there are more formalized systems for preventing offenses.

“While it complicates life for faculty, [compliance requirements] are a necessary part of the way the world needs to operate,” Glynn said. “It’s a necessary part of how we maintain confidence in what we do.”

Universities have also hired more staff to support students, such as for mental health, diversity and inclusion and career preparation. Stanford’s spending on student services accounts for 5.2% of the University’s overall expenses, an increase from 2.7% in 2000. Student service salary data, which is only available for 2019 and subsequent years, has remained relatively constant at 2.9% of the University’s total expenses. 

Graduate Student Council co-chair and fourth-year chemistry Ph.D. student Emmit Pert said he has noticed a large improvement in the availability of mental health services over the past three years, which he attributed to the hiring efforts of Counseling and Psychological Services. 

Similarly, Fearon said he and his colleagues have noticed “remarkable” growth in the Office of Accessible Education (OAE) over the past decade due to student need.

“Pretty substantial fractions of classes these days have OAE exceptions of various kinds,” Fearon said. “That makes for a lot more administrative work because you’ve got to have your teaching staff and your department staff handle these often conflicting and complicated OAE exceptions.”

Stanford also has unique characteristics that create high staff headcount, former Provost Persis Drell told the Faculty Senate during a May 2023 meeting: Unlike other institutions, Stanford requires more staff to maintain Stanford Research Park, a large housing portfolio and other facilities.

Her comments followed an April 2023 opinion by Betsy DeVos that criticized “ever-growing DEI bureaucracies on campus” and “the Stanford Title IX apparatus.” Stanford, DeVos wrote, “employs more administrators than it enrolls undergrads — focused on an agenda, not education.” This count included employees at SLAC National Accelerator Center.

The University directed The Daily to Drell’s comments last May, where she said public discussion on Stanford’s administrative staff growth was “misleading and simplistic, as it failed to recognize the complexity and breadth of Stanford.” 

Spending on administrative activities as a percentage of total University expenses has also remained at a constant 8.1% over the past two decades, despite the growth in personnel. 

Sociology professor Tomás Jiménez said people are often too quick to blame universities for staff bloat.

“It can be really easy to [say] ‘They’re not doing anything,’ and ‘Universities are just making it more expensive by hiring more staff,’” Jiménez said. “But my experience has been that when staff and faculty are really drawing on different kinds of expertise, it’s magic. It makes this place what it is.”

Before arriving at Stanford, Jiménez worked at the University of California at San Diego from 2005 to 2008, where he said faculty and students were limited by lower resource availability. 

“Here, you can create whatever you want, and it’s part of the wonder of [Stanford]. But to do that, you need help,” Jiménez said. “[Having staff] work for me has allowed me to do infinitely more research and be way more ambitious.”

Jiménez said staff help him broker relationships with organizations, find people to interview and coordinate research efforts with other faculty. For example, while planning an annual graduate student conference, Jiménez said staff helped him save time compared to his public university colleagues.

Similarly, Fearon said a larger staff allows Stanford to host an impressive number of events and speakers on a regular basis, as well as coordinate collaborations between centers and institutes.

Given finite resources, though, Glynn said Stanford “has to make careful resource allocation decisions,” particularly regarding how resources are “spread between the core mission and additional things the University has chosen to do.”

Between the years 2000 and 2023, spending on such auxiliary activities — housing and dining services, athletics, alumni affairs, health care services and other activities not directly related to teaching and research — has risen from 12.2% of total University expenses to 24%. Instruction and departmental research costs, on the other hand, have remained at a constant 34% of total University expenses since 2000.

In financial reports, health care services under the University (not Stanford Health Care or Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital) were listed as auxiliary expenses until 2019, after which health care services became its own category. For graphing purposes, auxiliary spending past 2019 are the sum of the listed auxiliary expenses and health care services. The following categories are not included in University spending: Organized research, libraries, development and SLAC construction.

Glynn noted that “there is a bureaucratic administrative element to a university, and the reality is that bureaucracies like growing in size.” He cautioned the University against straying from a teaching- and research-centered mission, and said it was important to ensure that “the growth of administrative function is aligned with the mission of the institution so that you don’t unnecessarily hire people.” 

At the same time, Glynn said his previous role as the MS&E department chair gave him a deeper understanding of the critical role staff play.

“Faculty could not do the job they do without a very effective and efficient staff,” Glynn said. “I give Stanford staff a lot of credit for why Stanford is viewed as being a tier-one university.”

Erin Loh is a writer for The Daily. Contact them at [email protected].

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