The Self-Propagation of the Consultants

In its list of the most influential people in higher education for 2014, the Chronicle of Higher Education includes diverse individuals and just one group, “The Hired Guns: The Consultants.”

In her article on the increasing influence of consulting firms on higher-education policies and practices, Goldie Blumenstyk seems to think that this increased influence is largely a good thing: “it’s hard to argue that colleges and universities still don’t need the help. Faced with cost-conscious students, flagging state support, and challenging student-demographic trends, just about every college leader in the nation is searching for the miracle cure-all that will reduce spending and open up new streams of revenue.”

Worse, she strongly suggests that any resistance to the recommendations of these consultants amounts to an self-serving and even gratuitous obstruction of institutional progress: “Yet seemingly more often than not, when the consultants from these national firms show up promoting money-saving approaches—like a ‘shared services’ approach to administrative management (Accenture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Texas at Austin), a restructuring of human-resources operations (Deloitte at the public universities in Iowa), or an academic reorganization (McKinsey at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system)—their proposals are met with resistance and distrust. In Minnesota, tensions ran so deep that two unions representing faculty members voted in October to discontinue working with McKinsey on the system’s ‘Charting the Future’ plan.”

Of course, the faculty unions are at fault, not the consultants. And, of course, the consultants who will be here today and gone tomorrow, with a obscenely large checks in their pockets, have the best interests of the institutions at heart, while the faculty who will spend their careers at those institutions are being driven by very narrow self-interest.

Ironically, Blumenstyk reaches these conclusions even though her article indicates the following: that where consultants’ recommendations have been implemented, the results have been, at best, very mixed; that the consulting firms themselves are promoting the perception that their services are increasingly necessary because the business is already extremely profitable–and yet becoming increasingly more so; and that administrators are often hiring consultants primarily to deflect responsibility for difficult or controversial decisions, not necessarily to come to a more informed view on which to base those decisions.

Blumenstyk observes that “enrollment management, student services, research administration, international-student recruiting, marketing, even libraries—they are now all fodder for the consultants’ makeover.” But she never seems to question why the areas that have seen the greatest increase in professional staffing (minus the libraries, of course) should also require the greatest use of outside consulting firms.

And if someone explains that federal mandates are responsible, my head may explode. Most of the mandates are coming from the corporatizers and the privatizers, who then have had the temerity to assert, without having to offer any support for the assertion, that progressive social engineers are actually at fault. Arne Duncan is not a “progressive,” unless one is using the term very generically simply to measure the degree to which he is selling out public education at all levels to technocrats and other special interests.

It never seems to occur to Blumenstyk to ask, why, in a period of sustained growth in administrative bloat, all of those highly paid “professionals” cannot seem to do anything of significance without hiring someone else to tell them how to do it.

Or why, when higher-education budgets are being squeezed on everything but administrative bloat, there are always revenues available for this sort of redundant expense.

Blumenstyk identifies the major players in higher-ed consulting: Accenture, Bain, EY (formerly Ernst & Young), Huron, McKinsey, Pricewaterhouse Cooper, and the Education Advisory Board. But just as Pearson and McGraw-Hill have spawned countless knock-offs among the “educational providers,” the profitability of the major consulting firms has spawned many imitators with less prominent profiles.

At the December meeting of the Ohio Conference Board, we discussed the fact that HCM Strategists, which has had a major role in developing the new community-college funding formula for the state of Ohio, now seems to be approaching the administration of each community college and proposing services to help them to maximize the funding that they can obtain from the state.

This arrangement seems not even to have raised eyebrows at any level in the state government or among any higher-education leadership groups; in fact, it seems to have been at least implicitly endorsed by the powers that be. And that in itself demonstrates that corporatization has so thoroughly infiltrated our political and educational institutions that we no longer recognize, never mind balk at, even the most flagrant conflicts of interest.

Here is how HCM Strategists describes itself:

About HCM

HCM Strategists is a public policy and advocacy consulting firm focused on advancing effective solutions in health and education. HCM utilizes a network of relationships at the state and federal level to work collaboratively with nonprofits, foundations and corporations.


We ALIGN by connecting a problem to a policy and to practice.

We ADVOCATE by capturing attention and strengthening public will to action.

We ADVANCE by pursuing change through finding common ground, proposing specific solutions and forging strong alliances.

Terrell Halaska, Kristin Conklin, and Michael Manganiello joined forces because they share a vision of and passion for change. Achieving policy change takes a combination of high-level government experience, an understanding of people’s struggles, a network of strong relationships, a keen analytical ability, and the skills to find fresh, creative approaches to addressing issues. When you can enlighten all participants by capturing their attention, finding common ground, and building strong alliances, success is within reach. The result is change that improves our communities and enhances quality of life.

Our Expertise

HCM Strategists partners with clients who share our desire to dramatically improve US education, especially for those students who have historically been underserved. We work with clients across the P-20 continuum who understand that change happens when policy, advocacy and communications are aligned and leveraged in service of a desired outcome.

Our clients are on the cutting edge of reform demanding more and more of our nation’s education systems. We are proud to work alongside them in the development of innovative strategies, policies and solutions that will advance their goals.

The HCM team represents decades of bi-partisan, hands-on experience on the front lines of education reform. Our experts have experience at the highest levels of state and federal policymaking, in coalition building, advocacy, communications and qualitative and quantitative research.

As seasoned professionals, we have longstanding relationships with key national decision-makers and opinion leaders. Our clients know 6 from experience that we are consensus builders, working side by side with national leaders as thought partners and resources in the development of evidence based solutions. That trust opens productive lines of communication and provides a strategic advantage for our clients. HCM excels at bringing groups together in coalitions that capture the attention of policymakers. We artfully frame messages and adeptly employ strategic planning, facilitation and outreach strategies to drive home the importance of improving college readiness and postsecondary access and completion.

From explaining state based K12 accountability systems to restructuring financial aid, to developing better institutional metrics, we communicate complex policy concepts in simple, understandable terms to students, policymakers, the media and other stakeholders.

Our extensive research and evaluation efforts ensure that our proposed strategies are grounded in evidence and aligned with the values we share with our clients. With HCM, clients gain a thought partner deeply invested in their agenda and committed to the soundness of the prescription.

The full text of Bluemenstyk’s article is available at:



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