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UMass admin’s strategic austerity plan

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy initiated a campus-wide strategic planning process in the 2012-2013 school year. The Provost’s office and Faculty Senate together formed the Joint Task Force on Strategic Oversight (JTFSO) to facilitate Phase I of the process. “Innovation and Impact,” issued by the JTFSO a year ago in the spring of 2013, outlines the strategic plan. Part I of the document proposes to build a “Culture of Evidence” by “demonstrat[ing] meaningful accountability,” “embrac[ing] student outcomes assessment,” and “promot[ing] evidence-based, intentional resource allocation.” The task force clearly states on page six its desire to change the way we think: “From time to time, events demand a fundamental rethinking of how we fulfill our mission in society. This is one of those times.”

In November of 2013 the Joint Task Force on Resource Allocation (JTFRA) spun out of the JTFSO. (Set aside, for the moment, the fact that the phrase “joint task force” comes from military operations involving multiple branches.) Thus began the implementation, or phase two, of the campus’ strategic plan.

While the Chancellor identifies an interim accreditation report for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges as the reason for instigating the strategic planning process, behind that lies the broader context within which universities everywhere operate. We have faced a long term devaluing of public higher education. As states’ revenues decline due to tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, university budgets are slashed, and tuition and fees rise. This ongoing situation was worsened by the 2008 recession. Across the country, more universities are reviewing their budget models.

All too often, the response to declining revenue is to make cuts, increase efficiency, furlough staff and faculty and freeze hiring. These are the politics of austerity, which offers market-based solutions to problems created by the market in the first place. We’ve reaped the results since 2008: ballooning student debt in excess of $1 trillion; increasing reliance on part-time, non-union adjunct labor and excessively compensating administrators and athletic directors. UMass is not immune to these politics.

To help chart a new course for the University of Massachusetts’s flagship campus, the Chancellor hired Huron Education to guide the JTFRA’s process. Huron is a consulting agency that works in the fields of education, healthcare, finance and law. A quick Internet search of that company shows it was formed by former execs of Arthur Anderson, an accounting firm which went under as part of the Enron scandal in 2001-2002. Huron had a mini-scandal of its own around 2009 or so, causing a number of top executives to leave the corporation. This led to a lawsuit from some of Huron’s shareholders. I raise this point not because I suspect Huron of wrongdoing, but rather to question the culture of a corporate consulting firm within a capitalist economy. I am suspicious of market-based solutions to problems created by the market economy in the first place.

The JTFRA was tasked with considering alternative resource allocation models. Huron was hired as consultants, but they literally wrote the book on RCM budgeting. Whoever hired them must have had an idea of the end result they were seeking already in mind. The book “Responsibility Center Management: A Guide to Balancing Academic Entrepreneurship with Fiscal Responsibility,” distributed by the administration to the JTFRA and other committees, states on page 29 that “RCM bears a strong resemblance to the profit center model of many modern for-profit corporations, particularly conglomerates and multinationals. The two environments share many similar, if not identical, reasons for decentralization.” It is written by John Curry, et. al. Mr. Curry, managing director for Huron Education, was one of the consultants who came to UMass to work with the JTFRA.

The customized Resource Allocation Model (RAM) and Resource Allocation System (RAS) developed by the JTFRA under Huron’s guidance is intended to align budgeting decisions with strategic goals, goals that are themselves a form of neoliberal governance. While we have customized RCM budgeting to fit our campus, it is still a product of the corporate world. Before implementing this incentive-based budgeting, we need to ask what behaviors we are trying to promote. Deans are going to be “incentivized” to keep costs down and be as efficient as possible in order to be as strategic as possible while they start looking for new revenue streams. These streams include aligning research priorities with national and state priorities (in pursuit of the dollars attached), and increasing out-of-state enrollment, but not turning around the decades-long decline in funding from the state. Strategic investment, in this case, becomes the means to move the strategic plan forward. Teaching and research are seen as sources of revenue, not common goods in and of themselves. Students are “butts in seats,” not future citizens of the commonwealth.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek talks about a concept he calls the “chocolate laxative,” which refers to a situation where the cause of a disease is prescribed as its cure. This is how I see the current initiative coming out of the Chancellor’s strategic planning process to reconfigure/decentralize resource allocation. More of what caused the problem in the first place is prescribed to guide our way out of it. This is the essence of neoliberalism—austerity, which benefits banks, corporations and the elite, is prescribed in response to the crisis—a crisis created by bankers, corporations and the elite to begin with.

If you are concerned by these issues, then please attend the campus open forum held by the JTFRA on Monday, April 14 from 1-2:30 p.m. in Campus Center room 163C.

Timothy Sutton is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at tsutton@comm.umass.edu.

Comments
2 Responses to “UMass admin’s strategic austerity plan”
  1. Sam says:

    The Chancellor and administration have consistently been adamant in their support of more funding from the state- the idea that they are not pursuing that avenue is absolutely ridiculous.

    The entire idea behind restructuring our system to be more efficient is to get more benefit out of the money we have. Seriously, what do you want? Wasteful spending? Just because a certain method of resource allocation was inspired by methods proven to work in the business world does not make it inherently evil “because capitalism”.

    The strategic goals which the new allocation system seeks to reach are not profits, but increased educational opportunities for students. Aligning research priorities with those of the national and state organizations not only makes sense, but is imperative, seeing as those very institutions are what a large chunk of sciences funding comes from in the first place.

    UMass wants to attract more money from research grant organizations and spend what money it has more efficiently, both of which are only beneficial to the experience of the students.

  2. Michael says:

    I am curious as to Mr. Sutton’s goals in writing this essay.
    Is he arguing in favor of the current impenetrable and wasteful model of funding the many programs and units that comprise UMass Amherst?
    Does he approve of the model in which a few people in Whitmore make unsupervised decisions about where money should come from and where it should go? That seems far more “corporatized” than the transparent, decentralized model being supported by JTFRA.

    Certainly, given that Mr. Sutton is a member of JTFRA, he should be more aware of the problems with the current system than most of us are.

    Mr. Sutton refers to “austerity” numerous times in his essay, and yet the JFTRA model – for which he is in part responsible – has nothing to do with changes in the sources of UMass’ funding, only what we do with the funding once it reaches our campus. If by “austerity” he means “responsible and transparent use of millions of dollars of taxpayer dollars” then I suppose he is correct. But I don’t get the impression that that’s what he means.

    Mr. Sutton also expresses concern about “incentives.” As I understand it, one of the primary goals of his committee this year was to work with various constituencies on campus to identify the priorities that are shared across campus. Again, this was supposed to be a process in which the opaque was made (more) transparent, and through which those incentives were to be identified. And again, I am curious, in what ways does a more transparent system of finance lend itself to misuse in any way that is not already possible? Does Mr. Sutton trust the Provost and Chancellor so much more than he trusts the Deans and Chairs to know what are the best choices for each department and program?

    If Mr. Sutton has a better solution to the very real financial crisis at UMass – and every other public school and university in the country – then I would certainly be glad to hear it. You may not agree with Chancellor Subbaswamy on every issue, but you must be aware that he does not have the magical power to wish our budget into solvency, or to turn back the clock four decades to a time when public education was an unquestioned good in our country.

    However entertaining Mr. Sutton’s reference to “chocolate laxatives” might be, it is misplaced in this discussion. Yes, one set of problems facing the university results from neoliberal economic policies that led to tax and budget cuts. But another set of problems comes from decades of financial decisions that were either actively shrouded in secrecy, or simply made by administrators who were disconnected from the priorities of the university community.
    Whether or not the model being proposed by JTFRA provides a good solution to those problems is yet to be seen. But one thing is for sure: the status quo isn’t working.
    Mr. Sutton’s tirade offers nothing to those of us who would like to see some improvement.

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