Strategic Planning Comes to Berkeley

BY HANK REICHMAN

This morning University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent an email to the entire university community announcing a new strategic planning initiative.  The entire lengthy but frustratingly vague message has been reproduced on the Remaking the University blog.  Summaries were also quickly released by Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Dirks promises that the new planning process will be “comprehensive, encompassing academic and administrative realignment, investment in our fundraising and revenue-generating activities, and the reexamination of all our discretionary expenditures, including athletics and capital costs.”  He says the initiative is necessary because “for a variety of reasons, both internal and external, we face a substantial and growing structural deficit, one that we cannot long sustain. Because this deficit does not reflect a short-term dip in funding, but a ‘new normal’ era of reduced state support, responding to this deficit requires that we take a long-term view.”

Reference to a “new normal” will, of course, be familiar to faculty members at many other institutions, where administrations have begun — and far too frequently imposed — “planning” initiatives that at best prove inordinately wasteful and unproductive and at worst decimate genuine education in the name of accommodating an allegedly changed reality.  It remains, however, to be seen whether or not this will again be the case now that the administrative-corporate fetish for “strategic planning” has arrived at the nation’s most prestigious public research institution.

Obviously sensing the concerns that might arise among faculty in particular, Dirks declares:

This endeavor must not be interpreted as an abandonment of our commitment to a public mission nor to our efforts to advocate for increased public funding for higher education.  We are fighting to maintain our excellence against those who might equate “public” with mediocrity, against those who have lost faith in the need for higher education to serve as an engine of social mobility, and against those who no longer believe that university-based inquiry and research have the power to shape our society and economy for the better.  What we are engaged in here is a fundamental defense of the concept of the public university, a concept that we must reinvent in order to preserve.

As someone who earned his Ph.D at Berkeley and has lived most of his adult life within two miles of its campus I certainly hope this will be the case.  Berkeley is a great institution with an even greater faculty, committed deeply to public higher education.  But as a veteran of several such planning initiatives in the California State University system and at my own CSU, East Bay campus, I will be forgiven, I hope, some hard-headed skepticism.  And informed by that skepticism and experience I want to offer my colleagues at Berkeley and elsewhere a number of perhaps overly cynical but nonetheless realistic comments on Dirks’s proposals, however inchoate and vague these still are.

Dirks’s message proposes several “long-term initiatives.”  Here is the first:

Evaluating our workforce in relationship to our changing needs and resources. This will also entail a new mechanism for the monitoring and control of staffing levels – mirroring the discipline we have long applied to hiring of faculty. We will also review our senior administrative functions, including central units, to reduce redundancy and create new forms of collaboration. We will complete the assessment and analysis of Berkeley’s workforce and its future needs by the end of the current academic year.

Uh-oh!  “Discipline … applied to the hiring of faculty?”  At most institutions — and from what I’ve heard too often at Berkeley — this simply means not hiring enough full-time tenure-track teachers.  Will that “discipline” now be applied to staff?  I presume the staff unions will have something to say about that.  As for “senior administrative functions,” “redundancy,” and “new forms of collaboration,” one wonders why Dirks won’t take the bull by the horns and honestly and directly ask the real questions: “Do we, like so many institutions, have too many, and too highly paid, administrators? Are we burdened unnecessarily by administrative bloat?”  Perhaps it’s not the functions that need to be reviewed but those who fulfill them.  Just saying.

Here’s the next initiative:

Improving support for our teaching and research while also redesigning many of our work processes in order to achieve greater efficiency. For example, to better support our faculty’s ability to compete for research grants, we have begun an end-to-end review that includes research support activities in academic units, the Sponsored Projects Office, Campus Shared Services (CSS), and Contracts and Grants Accounting.  The shortcomings in CSS, which we have already begun to address, will continue to be evaluated; we will make all necessary changes.

Sounds promising, perhaps.  But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and I must warn my Berkeley colleagues that we in the CSU have learned from painful experience how somehow, it seems, such redesigns really don’t create efficiencies, only new administrative positions.  Be careful!

And the next one:

Making new investments to expand our fundraising capacity along with other new areas for external support. In order to achieve the best results in this domain, we are also designing a campus-wide approach to philanthropy – one that will increase our endowment, expand our fundraising abilities, improve donor relations and reach out more effectively to supporters.

Actually, as an alumnus bombarded with Berkeley’s fundraising appeals I always thought they did this pretty well.  However, whether or not improvement is called for, the fact remains that such efforts rarely support the essential teaching and research functions of the university.

Now here’s where it starts to get tricky (at least from my perspective):

Achieving additional revenues through our “brand,” land, and other assets.  This initiative will ensure that we are earning maximum revenues from licensing and other financial agreements, while protecting our image and being true to our values.  It will also explore ways in which the wise use of our real estate and other assets can both yield revenues and help to address the ever-pressing housing needs of our faculty, staff, and students.

Licensing of what?  Faculty research?  To its great shame the University of California has already taken the lead in corporatizing faculty scholarship by compelling all newly hired faculty members to sign a letter assigning ownership to all their future inventions to the university.  Existing faculty have been told that they will receive no support for their research unless they sign such a letter.  (On this see AAUP’s 2013 report “Defending the Freedom to Innovate: Faculty Intellectual Property Rights after Stanford v. Roche.”)  As for real estate, I might point out that the university is the largest employer and property owner in Berkeley.  It also owns considerable property in neighboring Albany, where I live, in the form of a married students housing community and an agricultural research plot (the “Gill tract”), on which as a state agency it pays no property taxes to support schools etc.  I seriously wonder what Dirks means here and how it will impact town-gown relations.  But perhaps it means that after nearly 50 years the university might finally build something on the former “People’s Park.”  But, remember, in the once-Berzerkly memories can be terrifyingly long.

Then there’s this:

Working with the Academic Senate leadership and the deans of the schools, colleges, and Letters & Sciences divisions on the redesign of some of our academic structures. Realignment will ensure that we are excellent in all we choose to do, in our research and in our educational mission.  In some instances, this means strengthening units as is; in others, it means narrowing the focus to specific areas of excellence; and in some instances it means combining and rearranging to capture intellectual synergies and to ensure sufficient scale academically, administratively, and financially.  Even if our financial situation were better, these changes make academic sense, ensuring that all our units have a scale, and sufficient support, to mount the strongest programs. This initiative will involve extensive consultation, consideration, and testing.

For those of us in the CSU and in similar institutions this language will be too, too familiar.  I won’t doubt Dirks’s good intentions here, but I will simply warn my Berkeley colleagues that more often than not such realignments, which consume extraordinary amounts of faculty time and energy, most often result in a marginally effective rearrangement of the deck chairs, whether on the Titanic or not.

And this:

Expanding online offerings and enrollments in University Extension, as well as professional and other master’s programs that earn revenue. In addition, over the course of the next few years, financial support for our admitted doctoral students will be improved, while some enrollments will be reduced and brought into alignment with those at peer universities in order to better support the quality of these programs.

Improved financial support for doctoral students will certainly be welcome, although I must point out that increasing tuition payments, especially in professional schools, raise questions about how successful that might be.  Take Berkeley’s prestigious law school, where my wife once earned a degree for about $700/year.  Annual tuition, even with a pitiful in-state “discount,” now approaches $60,000 annually, and is higher than at Harvard!  So much for “public education.”  University Extension is certainly a useful endeavor; as a Berkeleyan I’m currently enrolled in a class that is part of the extension’s lifelong learning program (a bunch of old lefties studying Brecht and, apparently, helping fill the university’s coffers as we do).  But, again, the proof of the pudding . . . .

Finally:

Re-examining the gap between Intercollegiate Athletics’ revenue and expenses, which has widened in recent years.  To reverse this, we are pursuing major opportunities to increase revenues and donor support for scholarships, while looking at ways to reduce administrative costs and other team expenses.

Am I dreaming?  Will Berkeley, which famously spent some $13 million on two football coaches at once even as their athletic program finished in absolute last place among Division 1A schools in academic achievement, take on the athletics monster?  Will the “Athens of the West” at long last put academics first?  I won’t hold my breath; more donor support for athletics is the answer, of course!

OK, I shouldn’t be too cynical about all this.  And hopefully the intelligent and informed voices of my Berkeley colleagues will soon be weighing in.  But at this point I hope they will excuse me if I say, on behalf of my colleagues at the “lesser” state institutions, “Welcome to our world!”

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