SACUA discusses concerns with cost-cutting process

Allison Farrand/Daily
SACUA Chair Karen Staller, an associate professor of Social Work, speaks at a meeting of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs Wednesday in the Fleming Administration Building. The meeting primarily addressed concerns with the consolidation of support services on campus. Buy this photo

By Stephanie Shenouda, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 11, 2013

The latest meeting of the Senate Advisory Committee for University Affairs was spent learning about the concerns of LSA faculty and staff members regarding the recent efforts to cut costs.

The reduction of vendor cuts and consolidation of support services like finance and human resources is a part of the Administrative Services Transformation Project, an administrative initiative intended to improve financial efficiency and meet a $120-million savings goal by 2017.

Following the lift of a gag order among department chairs regarding the initiative, History Department Chair Kathleen Canning summarized the concerns of LSA faculty but emphasized that she wasn’t the group’s formal representative. She discussed a letter to University Provost Martha Pollack and other administrators authored by 16 department heads.

Canning explained that most of the concerns as department chairs are procedural, including the fact that faculty and staff will have to reapply for their positions.

Canning felt the process was rapid and poorly communicated, and that the situation “lacked transparency.” She added that the project has progressed without consulting faculty chairs.

“We need to know who was driving the process, who owned and who’s accountable for the fall out it will cause,” Canning said. “We were subject to a gag order, which is quite unprecedented, meaning we weren’t allowed to talk to anyone — even in our department — about this process.”

SACUA member Charlie Koopmann said the silencing of employees has been a continuing trend throughout the last half of President Mary Sue Coleman’s tenure, citing various instances where employees issued a gag order.

“The disability to speak is a trademark of the second half of Coleman’s presidency,” he said. “It’s a prevailing philosophy and probably why they want this done before getting a new president.”

Canning added that she felt this was a “major mistake” by the administration because it added to the looming disconcert over the situation.

“We’re all trying to do our jobs. There’s a huge, simmering anger among faculty and graduate students; it’s going to blow up and go public very soon,” Canning said. “We’ve been trying to govern our departments and do the best we can. We’d really like them to commit to no layoffs because it would make the pain and agony of this process much less. It’d still be scary but much less.”

Canning said there has also been a discrepancy between initially projected savings and what the administration currently expects, which added to the tension among department heads.

Savings from the project were initially projected at $17 million, but are now expected to be just $5 million in four years. This caused the group to question whether the AST was the most efficient way to cut costs or if other methods such as attrition or reorganization could have achieved their goals with less “human pain.”

“If they knew it would really save money, we would find it easier to accept, but the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t make sense,” she said.

Canning said department chairs have asked the administration to slow down the AST, in hopes that leaders will wait until a new president is in place. They hope that SACUA will explore the situation and formulate its own opinion to be conveyed to the administration.

Nonetheless, Canning said the LSA chairs felt like their complaints have been heard by the University’s leaders in the Flemming building.

“They heard us and realized it was very painful,” Canning said. “They said they would consider our requests, and I think it would go a long way to making this process better.”

She added that, overall, the ATS initiative seems “out of sync” with the University’s standard approach to change, and it’s not indicative of what’s expected of a school frequently ranked in the top universities to work for nationwide.

Canning and her peers continued to question the validity of the campaign, citing similar efforts at other institutions — including Yale University and University of California, Berkeley — that didn’t yield desired results.

At the end of their session, SACUA chair Karen Staller said she feels it’s important to now hear the administration’s view on the situation and plans to address the issues with AST further when Provost Martha Pollack attends the meeting in two weeks.

In a statement Monday evening, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the administration expects there to be little if any need for reduction in force as a result of the sharing of support services, as the 325 affected by the initiative are now vacant or filled with temporary employees.

Fitzgerald said the University will discuss the changes with employees this week. He added that the University does not expect to reduce pay for employees who make the transition to the shared services model.