From “shared governance” to “shared services”: Lessons from the University of Michigan

A revolt is brewing at the University of Michigan. More than a thousand faculty members have signed an open letter to President Coleman and Provost Pollack“Restore sanity to the University of Michigan.” A recent article in InsideHigherEd tells the story: “Corporatization” schemes, which are typically packaged and presented as necessary and consistent with a commitment to continued excellence … can upend core academic values of transparency, and shared governance, and strike at the heart of workplace equity.” 

A series of recent announcements at my home university and my front-row seat as a UBC Governor have made me realize how real and how close to home these stories are. Faculty members must educate themselves about the basic fiscal operations of the institution in these changing times and reassert their leadership, especially now that we are in the process of selecting a new president, and electing new faculty representatives on the Board of Governors.

The reality is that the corporatization of the university began a couple of decades ago. We are now entering a new phase, where the rise of professional administrators at universities is leading us straight to the era of the consultants.

The rise of the non-academic manager was inevitable once the modern university started adding new “mandates” to its original mission of research and teaching. University mission statements now include expected contributions to innovation, regional economic growth and wealth creation, fund-raising, financial management of endowments, real-estate development and exploitation of university lands, professional engagement with alumni, worldwide student recruitment, advanced communication, and let’s not forget public relations, etc.

It should therefore not come as a surprise that in UK universities, for example, the number of managers employed rose by 33 per cent between 2003-04 and 2008-09. During the same period, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of academic staff increased by 10 per cent and student numbers by 9 per cent. And according to the Faculty Association, UBC was not immune from this meteoric increase in the number of senior managers relative to those of research faculty.

But the most important shift in recent years can be seen in the universities’ mushrooming bill for professional and consulting fees. University managers often recruited from the private sector, try to convince the remaining few academics in central administrations of PSE institutions to look toward the corporate sector for cost-cutting models and for profit-seeking consultants to improve efficiencies on university campuses. The pitch often focuses on promising long-term fiscal solvency by paying consultants up-front for the implementation of “real-world” strategies. Their recipe often consists of centralizing redundant tasks, thus allowing certain jobs to be eliminated with no awareness of how academic units function on a daily basis.

According to Professors Anthony Mora and Alexandra Minna Stern, “their models start with the presumption that every staff member is interchangeable and every department’s needs are the same. They frame departments as “customers” of centralized services, perpetuating the illusion that the university can and should function like a market. This premise devalues the local knowledge and organic interactions that make our units thrive. Indeed, it dismisses any attribute that cannot be quantitatively measured or “benchmarked.”

That’s where the story at the university of Michigan started. Consultants (in this case Accenture) claimed that their proposed “Administrative Services Transformation” (AST) plan would render a savings of $17 million (mostly through the dismissal of 325 staff). Over time that figure shrunk to $5 million, and by some accounts now is reputed to be as low as $2 million. Yet the university has already reportedly spent at least $3 million on this effort with even more spending on the horizon.

But do not think that these so-called solutions are confined to the campus of the University of Michigan. Here is a quite revealing essay from the new CIO at UBC, who used to head the “outsourced IT department of Best Buy Canada”. It starts with an interesting take on how “operating efficiencies … induced through the competitive pressures of privately held enterprises” are required to fill in the gap left by governments who are divesting from public institutions.

And then you read this statement, which is worth comparing to what the faculty at Michigan are saying loud and clear.

“University CIOs across the country are increasingly being drawn into conversations with administration functions and Faculties to provide shared support services: at a recent meeting of Canadian university CIOs in Vancouver, we found that across the country discussions about shared support models are increasingly initiated by academic units, looking to off-load commodity work to better focus on their core academic activities.”

Faculty must educate themselves about the basic fiscal operations of their institutions and reassert their leadership, even if those who reject the consultant’s solution will “quickly become characterized as “change resisters”: backward, tradition-bound, and incapable of comprehending budgetary complexities.”

Closer to home, the faculty need to step up during this time of change at UBC, both at the presidential and at the Board levels. The next administration needs to be well aware of the proliferation of opportunistic management consultants seeking to use fiscal crisis as a source of profit. The next faculty representatives at the Board of Governors must be both vigilant and vocal. Don’t forget to vote!

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4 Responses to From “shared governance” to “shared services”: Lessons from the University of Michigan

  1. Phil Hultin says:

    The University of Manitoba narrowly averted a faculty strike earlier this fall and the issues were exactly those you describe here. Your article could have been a description of how the administration at my university operates and the concerns that faculty have about it. Things came to a head when the faculty contract was up for re-negotiation and the Administration hired an outside chief negotiator who is a noted anti-labour lawyer who had previously represented the administration at Brandon University during their protracted strike.

    The Faculty Association at Manitoba stood firm and eventually the Administration blinked. But we had a clear view of the corporatized vision our Administration holds dear, and it is nothing short of a complete abandonment – or perhaps erasure is a better word – of the values that made the concept of a University in the western world so successful.

    University faculty must fight against this trend, but we must present a positive alternative model. We cannot hope to succeed simply by saying “No”.

  2. Viqar Husain says:

    Here is a another relevant piece:

    A Machiavellian Guide to Destroying Public Universities in 12 Easy Steps

    • Walid Abou Salem says:

      One can “watch” (read) what is happening in real-time in a Canadian university over here:

  3. Pingback: Return on investment in faculty rarely captured by university CFOs | Piece of Mind

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