By Sam Gringlas, Daily News Editor
Published May 2, 2014
Though administrators have spent months addressing faculty and staff concerns, the University’s proposed shared services center continues to face criticism leading up to its official launch date in August.
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In recent weeks, University officials have claimed success in addressing concerns after outcry over the consolidation erupted last fall. However, faculty members continue to voice dissent, as evidenced by a 40-page letter to the regents delivered last week. The letter, signed by a dozen faculty members, railed the University’s high administrative salaries, but also launched criticisms at the administration’s continued pursuit of service centralization.
The proposed project, which would congregate about 250 unit- and department-level staff in a shared operations center, is predicted to save the University $5 million annually and is part of the larger cost-saving initiative, the Administrative Services Transformation.
With the first phase of its implementation set for Aug. 4, 110 staff members will make the initial transition to the shared services building near Wolverine Tower.
Thom Madden, the AST senior project director, said this first round would include centralization of accounts receivable processing, accounts payable, benefits administration and human resource data management.
In this phase, 16 of those employees are moving from units within schools and colleges, the vast majority because they cited preference for positions affected by the center’s first deployment. The remaining employees assigned to the new center will make the move at some point between January and March.
Madden said his project team has spent the months leading up to the implementation engaged in a “collaborative process” to ensure employees are prepared for and comfortable with their new assignments and faculty do not face the burden of additional administrative duties.
The project’s next stage will still require additional engagement on behalf of the University, which Madden said his team plans to continue during the summer. Though construction of the shared services facility will be completed by the end of May, he said the University will work with faculty and staff to mold business process for the new center.
“The next phase has greater touch points with both faculty and staff, so we will have a very comprehensive engagement process in place for this last phase,” he said.
Madden said this kind of outreach has significantly cooled the outrage expressed by many University faculty members of the past year.
“The overall temperature for the shared services center on campus has gone down dramatically,” he said. “I think going through the engagement process, having good, open, constructive dialogue with the faculty, is really starting to resonate. And I think they know we are not just giving lip service, we are truly listening to what they say and we are acting on it.”
American Culture Prof. Anthony Mora, one of the authors of the faculty petition, said this assessment is inaccurate. He noted that surveys asking for input undermined any real critique of the process and that forums to open conversation instead consisted of lengthy presentations touting the merits of AST.
“There’s no way to bring faculty on board to something that they actively oppose,” he said.
Though Mora said the large movement of faculty rallying against the transformation provided cause for optimism, the University’s response has been less than promising.
“It was an incredibly rare moment that there was so much consensus among such a huge section of the faculty and the response by Mary Sue Coleman was just gut-wrenching for all of us,” he said. “It was astounding that she treated the faculty as if they were misbehaving five-year-olds and basically gave us the answer that we were doing AST because she said so.”
Coleman initially delayed transitions beyond April to allow time for gathering feedback on the project, but remained committed to AST’s strategy throughout the process.
Madden said the tangible evidence of the center’s success would convince some of the remaining critics to change their views. Data accessible to the public could include, for example, markers such as customer and employee satisfaction, cost-savings and efficiency measurements.
“These metrics will be very visible and everybody will see how the organization is operating and the organization will be managed based on those metrics,” he said. “I really think that’s what sets this organization apart as being a true campus asset and that’s the way it’s going to be governed.”
The center will also be governed by an institution-wide governance council. The University has not yet determined whether these representatives will be elected or appointed.
“There will be faculty who truly do not believe in this as the right direction for the University,” Madden said. “But until the center is stood up and can prove the value-add that it brings to campus, there’s going to be that segment of campus that doesn’t believe this is correct. But I fully believe that once this service center is stood up and proves this works, many of these conversations will simply dissipate.”
However, if last week’s letter to the regents from a group of faculty is any indication, faculty will likely attempt to keep the pressure on the University. Even though the shared services center is moving forward, Mora said the concerns are part of larger issues with the University’s administration.
“I think there are immediate concerns about AST’s proceedings and we want to make sure staff are protected and they are going to be treated well, but ultimately I think there is this counter pressure to do some house cleaning in the upper administration as well,” he said.
But as the August launch date nears, preparations for the center’s full operational capacity have not stalled. The shared service center’s director, Pam Gabel, officially assumed her duties last week, which Madden declared a “significant milestone.” He also said the project team will continue holding town halls and meetings within colleges to gather as much feedback as possible.
“My full belief is that this organization will be a significant value-add,” Madden said.