By Sam Gringlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 20, 2013
With the University’s Shared Services Center scheduled to open next year, University officials have scrambled to quell the fears of faculty and staff amid a growing chorus of complaints.
Since the beginning of November, at least seven University departments have submitted letters to University President Mary Sue Coleman or Provost Martha Pollack criticizing the University’s implementation and communication of the shared services initiative.
The consolidation of services is a part of the Administrative Service Transformation Project, a cost-saving measure that will transfer 275 departmental human-resource and finance staff to a centralized location where the support staff can be shared across departments. Earlier this year, the University hired Accenture LLP, a major consulting firm, to plot out how to implement shared services. The Accenture contract is valued at $11.7 million.
The initiative was initially expected to save $17 million per year, but that estimate has been reduced to savings between $5 and $6 million. On Wednesday, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the reduction in estimated cost savings came about because administrators decided to decrease the extent of the changes to services.
However, University faculty members have voiced concern focusing on the project’s transparency and equity, as well as its consequences for the intellectual environment of departments and academic units. Some University employees interviewed about shared services agreed only to speak anonymously due to the sensitivity of the matter.
In a Nov. 1 letter obtained by The Michigan Daily, 19 LSA department chairs and program directors called on University leadership to arrange a meeting with department representatives to address concerns related to shared services.
The letter was addressed to Coleman; Pollack; E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life; Timothy Slottow, executive vice president and chief executive officer; and Laurita Thomas, associate vice president for human resources.
The signatories listed three main concerns with the project’s implementation. First, the chairs and directors said they should have been consulted earlier in the decision-making process.
Second, they claimed the project has been characterized by an aura of secrecy, which spiraled rumors and increased anxiety among staff.
Third, the departmental leadership said shared services “amounts to a dehumanization of the workplace.” The authors were also concerned that most of the affected employees are predominantly women from lower-income backgrounds.
“In a recent communication, President Coleman writes that the ‘Victors for Michigan’ campaign ‘starts with the heart of our university — the faculty and staff who dedicate themselves to excellence at Michigan.’ We agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly, and respectfully request that AST be implemented with the respect and appreciation the staff members at the heart of the institution so richly deserve,” the letter said.
Silke-Maria Weineck, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature, said in an interview that University administrators had cleared their calendars for a meeting during the week leading up to the Victors for Michigan campaign launch. Pollack, Slottow and Thomas attended the meeting, which took place on Nov. 7.
“They responded immediately, and they responded with great openness,” Weineck said. “I think it was a very constructive meeting. Martha Pollack seemed very open and acknowledged that mistakes had been made. They asked many times what can we do to make this better.”
Weineck said LSA’s department leaders’ most significant demand was a promise of no layoffs.
While the administration could not commit to this promise at the meeting, University leaders announced in a Nov. 14 letter that no layoffs would result from the transition to a shared services center.
Before the University made this announcement, many University staff members were concerned as uncertainty mounted in their departments.
In an anonymous letter submitted to a department chair — who wished to remain anonymous speaking about AST — one day before the administration’s announcement, an employee expressed anxiety related to the minimal information provided regarding her future at the University.
“I cannot even tell you how anxious and worried and sick this charade has made me,” the employee wrote. “I cannot sleep. I do not know what I will do if I find myself without a job next year. I have worked for the University a long time. I am not ‘young’ and I have family who relies on my job. I do not know what will happen to us. I try so hard to do a good job and I’ve never received a bad job review or have been reprimanded about anything about my job performance, ever.”
The administration addressed issues surrounding communication in their letter distributed to faculty and staff.
“It is clear we were not sensitive or consultative enough in the planning and communication of this initiative,” the statement said. “We deeply value every member of the university community, and regret that the early stages of the process did not live up to our shared values.”
Even after the University promised no layoffs would occur, faculty members continued to send letters regarding the anticipated effects on their respective departments.
“However important as this is for the targeted staff, the crisis we now confront as a university and a community is less a crisis of money than a crisis of values,” a letter from the Women’s Studies Department said.
The letters expressed disappointment in the University’s decision to pull valued staff from their departments. In some cases, impacted staff members have worked in their departments for more than three decades.
“From our perspective, AST will disconnect vital individuals from our departments and warehouse them in remote locations,” the Department of American Culture letter said. “While the AST architects have attempted to give this a nice gloss, we view these new working conditions as unacceptable, promising a grim existence that others have compared to an ‘accounting sweatshop.’”
American Culture Prof. Alexandra Stern said moving key staff to an off-site call center would immensely damage the department’s everyday functions.
“There’s a lot of local knowledge in departments,” Stern said. “Departments are organic communities where there’s a lot of on-site problem solving.”
She said a move toward shared services could decrease, rather than improve efficiency.
Staff not only handles financial and human resource tasks but also plays a key role in coordinating the inner workings of University departments.
With these employees relocated, Stern said faculty would need to spend a greater proportion of time handling paperwork, systems or scanning.
“I’m not whining or complaining about this,” Stern said. “I’m not saying that faculty shouldn’t do their share of needed work for their own projects and their own teaching. I think it could have an impact on the quantity of time faculty can spend with students, which none of us want.”
Though Weineck, the Comparative Literature chair, will not lose any employees in her department to the shared services center, she, like other faculty members, has felt affected by the transition.
“I’ve noticed that even staff members who are not affected at all have taken this as a very worrisome institutional process by which they feel threatened,” Weineck said. “There has been a certain kind of understanding that we are community. We do care for each other and this process seems extraordinarily cold.”
In an interview with the Daily, one LSA chair who wished to remain anonymous said her department’s staff convened in her office, together with their one staff member told she would be transferred to a shared services center. They cried together.
“This is real pain,” the chair said. “They are the heart and soul of this department.”
On Wednesday, Pollack met with individual departments, including American Culture.
American Culture faculty asked the University to postpone the shared services transition for one to two years — a period after the University’s next president and permanent LSA dean assume office, according to a faculty member present at the meeting with the department. That timeframe would allow faculty and staff to participate in the decisions surrounding a shared services transition.
The faculty members also requested no staff in their department be transferred to the shared-services center until the end of that period.
“The meeting with Pollack, who seems like a very nice and completely reasonable person, went well in a way — that is, everything was communicated honestly and cordially on both sides of the fence,” said a professor who wished to remain anonymous. “But it was also kind of depressing because of course no decisions were actually made.”
Weineck said she sees the shared services conversation as an opportunity to strengthen ties between faculty and University officials.
“I’m quite hopeful,” she said. “I think this process has been on the whole a positive experience because it opened up channels of communication between faculty and several administrators that weren’t there before.”
As Universities across the nation begin to adopt shared services models, Weineck hopes the University will choose an alternative course.
“My hope is that Michigan, rather than joining the trend, can actually establish itself as the University that does things differently.”