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U-M professor Fawwaz Ulaby

The Uprising

The U-M staff fight a consolidation.

by Eve Silberman

From the January, 2014 issue

Just after Thanksgiving, engineering Professor Fawwaz Ulaby posted an open letter to the U-M administration, protesting a plan to eliminate more than 300 jobs in the university's departments and schools. The online reaction was swift. Within three days, more than 1,000 faculty members from across the university had co-signed the letter--including half a dozen ex-deans and former president Jim Duderstadt.

The Chronicle of Higher Education took the story national. Weeks later, Ulaby--a former VP of research who says he's "as apolitical as you can imagine"--was still getting 300 emails a day from faculty at the U-M and across the country.

The storm blew up around the awkwardly named "Administrative Services Transformation," a cost-cutting initiative hammered out for the university by Accenture, a global consulting firm. Among other things, AST would outsource financial and personnel tasks now handled within schools and departments to a "shared services center" on S. State Street.

President Mary Sue Coleman has been working for years to cut the university's costs. The administration had already consolidated other services, including last year's campus-wide move to Google's Gmail. But the IT staff who lost their jobs then were faceless to most faculty; AST threatened people they saw--and relied on--every day. Ulaby's letter called it "a misguided venture that will irreparably harm our cherished institution."

"My secretary makes one-fifth of my salary," Ulaby explains in an interview, "and I can do her job about one-fifth as well." She was already supporting eight faculty members. He feared that, without her, a lot of tedious but important work, like arranging dissertation defenses, would end up falling on the faculty--taking up time better spent on crucial tasks like applying for grants. That struck him as "insane."

Though the change was scheduled to take effect in April, the affected workers--bizarrely, Accenture called them "candidates"--didn't learn that their jobs were disappearing until November. Even then, they were instructed not to tell their supervisors. If they wanted to follow their work to the new center, they'd have

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to apply for jobs there--often, at lower pay.

If that wasn't enough to terrify them, the sessions they were required to attend completed the job. One attendee, who asked not to be named, describes their treatment by Accenture staff as "humiliating." When some of the people at her session showed distress, the person running the meeting said brightly, "I apologize. We haven't gotten to anger yet."

When this person asked about attaching a letter of reference to the job application, the response was that it could be attached--but it wouldn't be read. "Another woman said, 'I get up every morning and vomit'--she was a single mom and had no clue if she has a job or not."

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There's always tension between faculty who prize their independence and administrators convinced they can run things better from the Fleming Building. But to history professor Dario Gaggio, AST goes a step further: it reflects, he says, "an organization run as a corporation, with the values of a corporation." Such feelings only intensified when it came out that associate VP for finance Rowan Miranda, AST's main advocate, had previously worked at Accenture.

In a 2012 article, Miranda estimated that the U-M's administrative reorganization--of which AST was just one component--would cost $30 to $40 million to implement but would save the university nearly $270 million over ten years. But by the time it was unveiled this past fall, its scope had been narrowed considerably. According to U-M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald, the estimated cost was "less than $30 million," and the ten-year savings a much more modest $50 to $60 million.

Ulaby says he talked to administrators about his concerns before he went public but was politely rebuffed. Once his letter went online, though, it quickly became clear that anger about the changes ran broad and deep.

Disaffected faculty protested that hardworking employees were being treated shabbily, pointing out that most of those affected are females, middle-aged and older. "They are the most vulnerable part of the labor market," says Gaggio. Although U-M eventually promised that all of Accenture's "candidates" would get new positions, it held open the prospect of future pay cuts.

That faculty members responded so quickly also reflects a growing mistrust of the university administration, uneasiness about the decline of their own influence, and a sense that the university is drifting from its educational mission. Many feel the decision to remove their staff was made without their involvement and shrouded in mystery. While faculty received emails about the project from time to time, Ulaby and others describe them as "vague," the language bureaucratic and confusing.

The U-M's Fitzgerald points to the AST website, which, he says, lists dozens of U-M employees working on various aspects of the project. But many faculty share Gaggio's concern about the "corporatization" of the university. Art prof Sherri Smith was amazed that Accenture assumed that one department's needs are the same as another's. "It's foolish of this firm to think every unit does things the same way, because we don't."

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The administration was caught off guard by the scale of the opposition. Provost Martha Pollack quickly backtracked, promising that implementation would be delayed to gather more faculty input. Then, after weeks of silence, Coleman--who's retiring this year--released a statement that strongly affirmed her commitment to the program.

"The question for me is not whether the university will mount a shared services program," she wrote, "but how to do it in a way that best meets the needs of the Michigan community." But not only was the project delayed for reevaluation--Miranda, the focus of so much mistrust, was replaced. (Showing more sensitivity than Accenture, the university insisted that his expertise was needed elsewhere.)

"Better late than never," Gaggio says of Coleman's response--but he is "dismayed to see AST as fundamentally upheld both in principle and in its basic structure." Miranda's replacement, he emails, is "an implicit admittance by the University of the problematic relationship he had with Accenture and of the unpalatable values he brought to academic life."

AST is now headed by Thom Madden, another administrator from a business background. Ulaby says he doesn't know him and so can't comment on the choice, but does say, "I would have wished for someone who now works or has worked in an academic unit and understands the demands of teaching and research and the associated dynamics between the faculty and the staff on a daily basis.

As for the promised reevaluation, Ulaby emails, he welcomes it--"so long as it leads to a genuine replacement of the current formulation of the AST project into a school/college or department-level configuration that does not reduce the effectiveness and productivity of the faculty."

And though he's pleased that the uprising has forced the administration to stop and think, he's not trying to rub it in.

"If, to save face, they retain the name AST," he says, "that would be fine by me."    (end of article)

[Originally published in January, 2014.]

 

 
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