As universities across the country try to keep up with increasing demands and shrinking government support, traditional models clash with more corporate styles of management.
The University is struggling with the same issues as many other institutions as it tries to remain flexible enough to handle whatever economic situation it may face.
When former Academic Health Center provost William Brody brought corporate consultants in 1995 to help restructure the organization, however, he started a trend that many at the University feel is ruining its traditions as a land-grant institution.
Critics of the health center restructuring say University administration is overemphasizing financial concerns, and as a result is destroying the traditions that make the school excellent.
What is corporatization?
The buzzword used to describe restructuring at universities is “corporatization.”
The concept involves treating a particular entity as a business, even though it might not traditionally fit into a corporate model.
Brody proposed a major restructuring effort for several reasons, none of which were financial. However, the changing nature of the health care system and increasing demands on modern doctors also played significant roles in prompting the changes.
Administrators at the Academic Health Center employed the services of CSC Index, a corporate consulting firm, to guide the process — at a cost of more than $2.6 million.
Several of the firm’s major players wrote books on re-engineering that suggest most organizations should completely change the way they are run. Also, the books do not promote working with what exists, but rather advocate starting from scratch.
Many AHC faculty members objected to these methods. However, some evidence shows that when Frank Cerra took over as AHC provost in early 1996, he understood how important it was for AHC staff members to invest themselves in the reorganization process.
Nevertheless, faculty are still skeptical of the success of re-engineering efforts in the AHC.
Physiology professor Richard Purple said he felt that Brody’s solutions to the health center’s problems were simplistic and made scapegoats of faculty members.
The consultants were “a bunch of authoritarians in corporate clothing,” he said. “I think Brody spent his first year lining up outside interests and then attacked the faculty.”
Those attacks came in the form of proposed revisions to the tenure code. As a result of Brody’s suggestion that a more flexible tenure code could help alleviate some of the financial problems, other units at the University began examining tenure policies.
Many perceive this as one way the health center’s more corporate model has spilled into other parts of the University.
“Tenure is the most visible element of the problem” of corporatization, said philosophy professor C. Wade Savage. “We used to think that the regents were our defenders and supporters — a group that defended us from an unfortunate, common misperception by the public that tenure is a way for faculty to get cushy jobs and not work.”
Administration vs. faculty
Overshadowing even tenure in the minds of many faculty members is the power the University administration as a whole holds over major decisions.
“The power seems to be moving more into the hands of administrators than the faculty,” said Purple. “What bothers me is that more and more of the administration is making decisions which were handled more through collegial governance (before).
“There is more control than true consultation.”
However, Purple said that the faculty has allowed the administration to take more of the decision-making responsibility on its shoulders.
Physics professor Tom Walsh said the problem with university administrations, especially here at the University, is that sometimes they get bogged down in details and fail to see things from a long-term perspective. However, he said the University faculty has committed the same crime.
“As a faculty, we have forgotten to look at the big picture, too,” Walsh said. “No one seems to pay attention to it.”
Walsh, who has been instrumental in the effort to unionize the faculty on the Twin Cities campus, said many of his colleagues who also favor unionization would support a smaller, stronger administration.
“They would support an administration that had some real authority that mattered,” Walsh said. “Otherwise they can create a bureaucratic tangle that sort of strangles the place.”
Walsh also said administrators go to seminars and retreats where they discuss interesting new ideas. He said most of the administrators go back to their respective schools not intending to use the suggestions they receive until they are proven successes. He said he is suspicious that the University seems to always be ahead of the rest of the country — especially on issues like tenure.
However, Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, said the challenges facing the University are no different from those at other major schools.
“There is hardly anything of substance here that hasn’t happened somewhere else,” Marshak said. He said that even tenure, an issue that seems exclusive to the University, has been on the agenda of every meeting he has attended recently.
Marshak also said that administrators at the University are not making a conscious effort to run things as a corporation would. “I don’t know how a corporation runs,” he said.
Although Marshak said he doesn’t hold the business world up as a utopian model, neither does he attack it.
Rather, Marshak said he prefers to look at what other schools are doing to solve a particular problem and employ the methods that would seem most effective at the University. He also said plans that may not have worked other places may be successful and are worth a look.
The goal is to continually make the University and its image occupy a stronger position among the nation’s top schools, Marshak said.
“The University ought to perform better than it currently performs, because we should always strive to do better,” he said.
Criticism of the AHC restructuring included concerns that students were not being adequately prepared for the challenges they would face in the outside world.
Faculty across the University address the ability for University graduates to remain strong competitors in the job market for many years to come.
“Students need the ability to adapt intellectually in a number of environments,” Walsh said. “Students have the biggest long-term stake in this issue.”
He said there are currently two general trends in society — one that calls for a good general education and one that calls for highly specialized, marketable skills.
Walsh said powerful special interest groups want the more specialized skills that may get students their first jobs out of college, but will leave them looking for employment down the road.
“If you’re a student at a modern University, looking at the kind of environment we’re facing over the next 20 years and the economic changes … I would think you would want a first-rate education in English language and literature — the ability to write well.”
He explained that the core values — history, philosophy, English and the basic sciences — of the liberal arts are giving way to the more powerful demands of programs such as law, business administration and medicine.
“If the core values of an institution go down the drain,” Walsh said, it is lost.
Walsh, supported by AHC professor Judy Garrard, said that academic freedom is also key to a University’s existence.
“If the University is not the place for unpleasant questions, what is?” Walsh asked.
Garrard went one step further, saying that if the University loses its academic freedom, then its teachers, students and researchers can’t be far behind.
“Academic freedom is the lifeblood of any university. It is the one island in our society where we have the freedom to say what needs to be said.”
Many faculty also see a desperate need for the regents, faculty and administration to sit down and try to recover a sense of trust in one another.
“In the long run, the faculty and Board of Regents have to work together,” Walsh said.
However, the consensus seems to be that there will be much more strife before the conflict between the two ends.
Garrard said she places a great deal of hope in University President-elect Mark Yudof. “I think he will be a strong leader, but he knows the academic environment and understands it,” she said.
Although Walsh said he is unsure how much good a new president can do, he respects Yudof for taking on a big job at the University.
“I don’t see a new president coming in here and waving a magic wand and all the imps come out of the closet,” Walsh said. “He’s faced with a medical school that’s slowly eating the University. But all to his credit that he’s willing to take the job.”
Yudof’s record at the University of Texas shows his willingness to use corporate tactics to run the institution. However, he has been an outspoken proponent of academics and excellence at Texas — both on campus and in the Texas state legislature.
Nevertheless, Walsh, Purple and other University faculty members fear that a corporate mind-set will ruin the University.
“Universities are not businesses and universities are supposed to be places for knowledge and innovation,” Walsh said.
Purple said the methods supported by the AHC consultants are about five years old and have only worked “if you own the corporation and don’t care who you hurt. That’s not how academia works.”