Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When Universities Grow in the Wrong Places

A bit of a rambling post here but here goes anyway ...

Well, normally I have avoided digging in to UC Davis too much here on my blog.  Mostly because it does not really fit with the themes of evolution, open access, microbiology, genomics, etc.  Plus, overall, I really really like Davis and UC Davis.  The town is very pleasant - simple - but very nice.  I lived on my bike in the Washington DC area, taking my life into my own hands, and now living in bike town USA is great.  In fact, I even have a blog about life in Davis.  And UC Davis is overall a great place to be for me, especially with its strengths in evolution and ecology, population biology, and various aspects of microbiology.

But alas, now all is perfect here in blissville. And one thing that drives me crazy is the mind numbing complexity of the bureaucracy.  I note, I moved to Davis from The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), a small non profit research institute that helped lead the genomics revolution.  And mostly I have suffered annoyances of the crazy giant complex system here in silence (except for with a few colleagues here and there).  However, I have been planning to start to discuss some of these issues in public more.  And just as I was thinking about this, it seems that others are also discussing some issues with the need to reform some UC Davis admin activities.

You see, last year we got a new Chancellor (the name they use here for the head of the University).  The new Chancellor is Linda Katehi.  I have met her a few times and overall I am very impressed.  Perhaps the thing that impresses me most is that in times of somewhat bad financial struggles she has decided to take on the bloat in the administrative side of things as one of her first activities.  And it seems this is not all talk.  For example our great local newspaper, the Davis Enterprise has been running a series of articles, most by Cory Golden, on some reports and announcements from UC Davis suggesting that Katehi really will be trying to change things around here.  Alas, the Davis Enterprise is not available for free on the web for all to read.  If you want to get some really insightful stories about UC and UC Davis, you should subscribe.  It is not much and if you have any connection to Davis it is worth the money.

Fortunately for me, and perhaps for you, the Davis Enterprise has agreed to let me post extensive quotes from their articles especially as they relate to UC Davis.  I will delay a bit in posting to try and respect their need for subscribers (unlike with scientific publications, which should all be open and freely available, I do not feel that way about private enterprises like newspapers).  Anyway - I am posting below two stories by Cory Golden of relevance to the UC Davis attempts to change the way things are done here.  One is about reorganization of some administrative functions.  And one is about an outside evaluating group that just wrote a report on some of the challenges for research at UC Davis.  A third is about a campus "vision" statement put out by Katehi.

The main gist is, that UC Davis has enormous potential that is being impeded by some bureaucratic complexities and inefficiencies.  Some good quotes include:
Those included “overstaffing, ineffective personnel and playing 'lawyer games' to be sure that no risks threaten the organization.”
“Over many decades Davis has developed a culture that permeates its institutions and people, one that can best be described as risk-averse, modest and insular.”
And Katehi seems like she is going to try and fix many of them.  No - the plans are not exactly what I would do.  But more on that later.  The direction things are moving is very appealing to me.  I was not inspired by the previous leadership of UC Davis.  I am much more hopeful now and am awaiting these changes very impatiently.

Anyway - thanks to the Davis Enterprise for allowing me to post here.  And please consider subscribing to the paper.  That way you will get stories as they come out ...


Reorganization ramps up at UCD

By Cory Golden

August 18th, 2010

Enterprise staff writer

UC Davis leaders have OK'd in spirit a plan to cut up to $16 million in staff positions while rolling campus information technology, human resources and finance offices into a single shared services center.

An all-staff forum about the reorganization is set for Thursday at 10:30 a.m. in the UCD Conference Center Ballroom.

Chancellor Linda Katehi said last week that her goals for the effort, dubbed the “Organizational Excellence Initiative,” are to redirect money to academics, student services and other priorities while improving the service given to the campus.

For now, staff members are left with questions and union leaders have growing concerns.

Among them: how many jobs will be eliminated, how positions in the proposed new center willbe filled, how fast UCD will make the changes and how much money the campus will invest in technology intended to increase efficiency.

Some answers may come from a meeting of the chancellor's cabinet Aug. 31.

At its last two-hour meeting, last week, the cabinet decided to move forward on the outlines of recommendations made by the Atlanta-based consulting firm ScottMadden, based on more than three months of on-site assessment.

About 6,500 finance, HR and IT employees would be affected by the first phase of the project, as drawn up by the consultant.

“On the amount of savings projected, what percentage of that is from staff positions?” asked a woman in the audience during a presentation Monday to employees of administrative units that would be part of the proposed center.

Answered Karen Hull, associate vice chancellor for human resources, “Those savings reflect staff positions.”

Just how many would be cut, she said she didn't know.

“We don't know that for a couple of reasons,” Hull said. “One is that we don't know for sure whether the cabinet will support the recommendation that ScottMadden has made, so that's one big variable.

“(It) would be very misleading to connect the (estimated savings) to actual positions,” she added. “There's a lot of dynamic changes that occur. We have natural attrition every year. We have natural turnover. We have retirements. We will not be wanting to fill any of those positions while we are forming the shared service center.

“I know that it sounds alarming — and it is alarming. These are your jobs, but I think that when we get the picture painted in a more detailed manner it will be more clear as to what will be the potential job loss.”

The consultant found that, at a core cost of $54 million a year, the campus' human resources, information technology and finance staffing exceeded those of similarly sized organizations.

Among its recommendations: creating a shared structure with one director, improving the use of technology for timekeeping, purchasing, accounting and other tasks, and simplifying policies and processes.

The report pegged one-time or recurring costs, much of it from computer software systems, at about $19.5 million. If UCD follows its suggested timeline, the report says the university should begin saving money in less than three years.

Under the proposed model, about 80 percent of faculty, staff and student questions would be handled through self-service, either through a web portal or interactive phone system.

In what's likely to be a controversial recommendation, the consultant suggests that the campus create job descriptions for the shared services center, then have employees apply for those positions.

“They recommend kind of an open slate. Everyone has an opportunity, and you compete for those jobs,” Hull explained, adding that the administration may yet choose another way to staff the center.

Among existing problems the consultant's report pinpointed: large amounts of the same or similar work being done by multiple departments, excessive reviews, delayed service and multiple IT help desks. It also found “manual data collection, transcription of data, high error rates and significant rework.”

One employee at UCD might process about 1,065 invoices per year, working on paper with a long approval process. At Johns Hopkins University, which uses a shared service center model and automated system, one employee can process 45,000, the report says.

Union leaders interviewed Tuesday wondered aloud if the reorganization was an attempt to weed out their members.

Dorie Decosta, president of UCD's chapter of the Coalition of University Employees Local No. 7, said there was a “general feeling of unrest and discomfort” among staff.

The prospect of automation replacing personalized customer service “sounds like hogwash,” she said.

“You need that element of continuity and what UCD says it stands for: caring about students, caring about staff, caring about faculty.”

Wrote Susan McCormick, president of the University Professional and Technical Employees Local No. 6, in an e-mail message, “I am getting the feeling that UC is finding ways to eliminate the highest-paid employees. They are eliminating at the top of the pay scales, those at UC the longest and those with the most knowledge.”

ScottMadden's contract calls for a fee of $350,000, plus up to $70,000 in expenses.

The proposed reorganization comes as UCD continues to grapple with an unprecedented $150 million in state budget cuts since 2008-09. It has cut 1,062 positions: 459 layoffs or employees who had hours cut, the rest through attrition or voluntary separation.

The campus has cut 30 percent of its administration's core budget, compared to a 15.4 percent cut for academic units.

UCD faces another $38 million to $78 million shortfall depending on the outcome of state budget talks this year.

— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net. Track him at http://twitter.com/cory_golden.

Reports rap UCD research
By Cory Golden
August 15th, 2010

Enterprise staff writer
If UC Davis is to continue its climb in national status, it has its work cut out for it, according to a blunt assessment by an outside consultant.
While the campus has its share of advantages, including its broad research portfolio and location, it has been stymied by a risk-averse culture and a bottleneck in its research support structure, according to the Washington Advisory Group.
The advisory group, led by Eric Bloch, a former director of the National Science Foundation, interviewed more than 100 people on campus, from senior administrators to graduate students, over three days.
Many of the themes its 74-page assessment sounded were echoed in recently completed reports by two in-house “blue-ribbon” committees, one each on research and technology transfer. In an interview last week, Chancellor Linda Katehi said the campus would begin making changes in response to the three reports this academic year.
UCD ranked 36th among U.S. universities in the 2009 Academic Ranking of World Universities.
Despite state general fund cuts that could total more than $228 million since 2008, depending on the outcome of state budget talks, UCD “knows what it has to do,” the consultants write, to improve to a rank of between 20th and 30th. That group includes Northwestern University, UC Santa Barbara and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Katehi has set a new goal of $1 billion in outside research support. UCD more than doubled such funding from $295 million in 2001 to a preliminary estimate of $679 million for 2009-10.
Claire Pomeroy, the chair of the blue-ribbon committee on research and dean of the School of Medicine, called it “a new era” for research.
“There's a pent-up desire among the faculty and the staff and the students to really optimize how our research enterprise is functioning and a recognition that we have some work to do in that area,” she said.
“The statement that we made in the blue-ribbon report on research that UC Davis is 'less than the sum of its parts' reflects the idea that we have incredible excellence here, and if we can just bring it together and support the people and give them the administrative support and infrastructure support, then we can really propel this university up to the next level.”
Campus culture
To reach such heights, UCD will need to undergo a personality change, the advisory group writes:
“Over many decades Davis has developed a culture that permeates its institutions and people, one that can best be described as risk-averse, modest and insular.”
While collegiality can result in the interdisciplinary research that UCD touts, it “can also have negative consequences when events and behaviors are tolerated that in other similar institutions would cause friction and result in remedies. The prime example we heard about is tolerating decision-making delays that at times may have dire consequences.”
The university has been slower than its peers to embrace partnerships with industry, described by the consultant's report as “frowned upon by former administrations as counter to what a university is all about.”
A lack of aggressiveness has sometime been costly in other ways, the advisory group writes. For instance, UCD “seems to have missed the opportunity to expand programs in human genetics, genomics and other 'omics at a time of explosive growth in funding in these fields. This problem must be rectified swiftly.
“UCD and its accomplishments are not as well-known as they deserve to be, in large part because of some of the cultural traits discussed,” the report says.
Andrew Hargadon, chairman of the blue-ribbon committee on tech transfer and professor of technology management at the Graduate School of Management, said he did not think the campus suffered from “collegiality to the point of complacency.” However, he acknowledged “a long history of cultural conditioning” on the campus: feeling forever overshadowed by UC Berkeley and UCLA.
“We had such a huge growth of faculty in the last decade, and the increase of research dollars as a result,” Hargadon said. “When you look at the faculty we've got — they weren't there in the '50s and '60s; they weren't there when that identity was being shaped.
“They would very much like to have an impact, even if it comes at the cost of driving their agenda forward.”
Research support
The main target of the complaints that the advisory group heard: the Office of Research.
Those included “overstaffing, ineffective personnel and playing 'lawyer games' to be sure that no risks threaten the organization.”
The office is made up of three sections: sponsored programs, which submits thousand of grant applications; institutional review boards, which govern protocols for clinical trials; and technology transfer and business development, which handles applications for patents and royalties and acts as a broker between researchers and the corporate world.
Those interviewed by the advisory group said the sponsored research group is often “overbearing,” “dictatorial” and “prone to almost missing filing dates for proposals, thus jeopardizing the opportunity to participate in important competitions,” the report reads.
The blue-ribbon committee on research, in its own 20-page reported submitted Thursday, writes that its members are “greatly concerned that UC Davis, including its research administration, has become overly bureaucratic and risk-averse, and is too narrowly focused on compliance with rules and constraints. This risks frustrating creative researchers and reducing the level of scholarly creativity and productivity.”
Said Pomeroy, “We need to find the right balance between, of course, emphasizing safety and research quality and research compliance with being at the cutting edge of discovery. I think there has been a desire to minimize risk, sometimes at the expense of efficiently processing some of the research applications.”
Additions like expanded use of technology can help speed the process, she said.
The 12-page report by the tech transfer committee recommends creating a new office that would concentrate decision-making authority for technology licensing and industry research agreements. It also urges the establishment of standards for transparency, timeliness and accountability of patenting, licensing and processing industry research agreements.
The advisory group also found that area sorely lacking: “We did not get the impression that UCD has taken this general subject of intellectual property rights and technology transfer very seriously.”
UCD doesn't have a long tradition of spinning off businesses, Hargadon said. That means that while there are faculty who have started a business, they aren't great in number. So those who aspire to do so must lean on the tech transfer office for help.
“There's no hard and fast rules on tech transfer. There's no clear value with any intellectual property,” he said. “There's a lot of clear-cut ways to go wrong, in terms of the legality of contracts and conflicts of interest, but there's not clear-cut ways to go right.
“It would have taken a lot of strong leadership and vision to get the process to one where the university could make bold bets and make a claim that a particular patent would have more impact if it got out than if it got out with some sort of onerous revenue obligation associated with it. As a result, the office, without that sort of leadership vision, ended up weighing compliance and weighing risk mitigation higher than was really good for the system.
“Basically, we spent more time trying to stay out of trouble than trying to launch companies.”
Increased workload
The doubling of research funding has meant a greater workload for staff. That money has increasingly come from the federal government, which has steadily imposed more stringent regulations and reporting guidelines.
At the same time, the office's staff has been trimmed from about 90 to about 75, said outgoing Vice Chancellor for Research Barry Klein.
He said of his staff, “These are very good people working very hard for the university, but very good people working hard doesn't mean there aren't ways to make our organization better; there are.
“If you look across the country at organizations that have these sort of hot-button service roles as we have, they are always subject to criticism. It's impossible to be perfect,” Klein added.
“The faculty are like thoroughbreds. They want to win the race. It's a mad dash to the finish line, but that causes a lot of tension and getting things in at the last minute and quickly, so there's always this dynamic tension with the research office.”
Klein said being less “risk-averse” will increase the risk of violations and fines, but his staff would oblige.
“The people in my office don't make the rules, they implement the campus culture,” he said. “And if it's a culture that's emerging now where you're putting more things back to individual responsibility — having less oversight of details and assuming the departments and colleges and individuals will follow the rules — staff will move in that direction as well.”
One of the longest-serving vice chancellors for research in the UC system, Klein was due to step down in June 2009 but he said he stayed on to smooth the transition for the new chancellor, who arrived last August. His return to the physics department, announced last December, was a joint decision with Katehi.
“I was ready for a change and it was good for her to bring in some fresh blood,” Klein said.
Other findings
Among the other findings in the advisory group's report, UCD:
** Lacks a five-year strategic financial plan;
** Needs a new strategy for technology transfer and business development;
** Suffers high student-faculty ratios in some areas;
** Should invest in technology on par with peer institutions;
** Needs a well-organized campaign to make itself and its faculty more visible if it's to become a household name; and
n Faces a space crunch, including a lack of Biosafety Level 3 and 4 containment facilities, and should build them elsewhere if the community is opposed.
The advisory group also found that school- and college-level strategic plans were “meaningful and well-documented” but that “an institution as complex and broad as Davis requires a five- or 10-year strategy, plan and budget. No such interlinking documents exist today.”
Katehi recently unveiled a vision statement for the campus. Next, units will set out plans to meet those newly stated goals and, sometime next year, UCD will begin funding those priorities, the chancellor said.
The advisory group found it worrying that it received different financial information about research depending on who provided it.
“One wonders: What are the numbers that are at the chancellor's disposal?” the report asks.
The advisory group also received complaints of “bloated” administration generally, despite recent cuts. UCD is rolling out a new effort this month to further reduce and reorganize its administration.
UCD paid the Washington Advisory Group $226,000, plus up to $30,000 in expenses.
— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net. Track him at http://twitter.com/cory_golden

Katehi details campus vision
By Cory Golden
July 30th, 2010

Enterprise staff writer
UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi and other campus leaders have crafted a “Vision of Excellence,” 10 months in the making, to guide the campus for the next 10 years.
The 17-page document combines many of the themes Katehi has sounded since her arrival last year, about the campus' readiness for greater national and international prominence, with long-standing notions of UCD's land-grant identity.
Released last week, the vision statement received a warm response from faculty, staff and student leaders reached for comment for its positive tenor, even against a backdrop of ongoing financial turmoil.
“To transform our university, we must chart a new course of action, an equally transformative vision to guide our actions and define our future,” Katehi writes in the document. It lays out goals like “foster a vibrant community of learning and scholarship” and “champion health, education, access and opportunity.” The document also describes how progress toward each goal will be assessed.
Bob Powell, chair of the Academic Senate, said the vision statement spells out change in ways both big and small.
“Before, it was about collaboration and now it's about leadership,” he said. “It's one thing to say you're going to develop joint or international programs to enhance UC Davis, but this, to me, is a step above anything we were talking about before.”
Powell read one line aloud: “UC Davis will provide an efficient, professional administrative organization that is committed to serving and advancing the university's academic mission.”
“From the outside, people would say, 'Isn't that obvious?' Well, I've been here 26 years and it's never been obvious,” he said. “To have that as an explicit statement is really important.”
Powell said he believed the document would go a long way toward building “grassroots support” when it falls to the colleges, schools and divisions to flesh out corresponding goals and plans to realize them.
An example of the document's approach is its emphasis on increasing UCD's international reach.
UCD will seek to increase the number of faculty, scholars and students from abroad and the number of students and faculty who pursue academic experiences overseas, the document says.
To accomplish those goals it will evaluate its needs in attracting, retaining and supporting international students; develop joint, collaborative international graduate programs; launch academic and clinical health research projects that tackle global challenges; strengthen and expand international alumni and global business ties; and provide the technological tools, cultural programs and student services to expand international dialogue.
Linda Bisson, professor of viticulture and enology and past chair of the Academic Senate, said the “solid” document is important for what it includes — and what it does not.
“It is different than what we're used to because it has metrics,” Bisson said. “Typically, these kinds of vision statements are kind of just platitudes stuck together.
“This is going to sound weird,” she added, “but the change of focus that I see is that we're not apologizing for who and what we are. Previously, things like this have read like we're apologizing for not being (UC) Berkeley, the jewel of the UC crown.
“But this says, this is our value internationally: We're problem-solvers — we're a different kind of animal than Berkeley. It says we are very strong and proud of what we do — and that we're not going to chase esoteric things when there are real things to be addressed.”
Though talk of breakthrough discoveries and spinning off research into new businesses can sometimes leave those in the humanities left wondering where they fit in, Margaret Ferguson, a professor of English and former chair of her department, said in an e-mail message that she felt that was not the case here.
“Im thrilled to say that this vision statement does speak to many of the questions that preoccupy those of us in the humanities, arts and humanistic social sciences,” she said. “These areas are mentioned early on as among the comprehensive research universitys 'core disciplines,' and the vision statement includes among its goals some that will particularly excite those students and faculty whose work focuses on deepening and expanding our understanding of past cultures as well as on creating new ideas for the future.”
She said she also was happy to see the goal of increasing need- and merit-based financial aid for both undergraduate and graduate students — which is “especially important for humanities graduate students, who are rarely supported by federal grants.”
Dan Wilson, chair of the Academic Federation, praised the vision statement's emphasis on collaboration across disciplines, its promise of incentivizing success and its commitment to UCD's land-grant role in improving the fates of the state and region.
Money, of course, remains the $228 million question mark. That may yet be the size of state cuts, dating back to July 1, 2008, depending on the outcome of the stalled state budget.
Bruno Nachtergaele, chair of the mathematics department, said in an e-mail message that he and many of his colleagues felt the document took into account their goals while also showing “the personal vision and commitment of the chancellor.”
“The recession we all suffer through is a hurdle, but not one that will stop her from promoting this vision and the long-term project of making UC Davis into the best university it can be,” Nachtergaele said.
Chair Peter Blando said in an e-mail message that the Staff Assembly was “extremely pleased to see a positive campus vision that takes us beyond the near daily concern over our job security and the university budget.
“While both are important,” he added, “staff morale is helped by providing any positive vision of the campus.”
Jack Zwald, president of the Associated Students of UC Davis, said he liked what he read, too, but was left wondering how Katehi would manage to increase the size of the university's endowment while expanding programs. Likewise, he had questions about how UCD will be able to expand need- and merit-based aid to students.
“I think they're going to give it a shot, but do I think it's going to get done? I'm not overly optimistic it's going to happen,” he said.
Wilson said the chancellor was right not to set the university's sights lower because of the financial crisis.
“We don't want to crawl into a shell — we want to move forward as a university,” he said.
To read the full document, see http://vision.ucdavis.edu.
— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net. Track him at http://twitter.com/cory_golden

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