September 3, 2009

Staff Voice Concerns Over ‘Reimagining Cornell’

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Cornell staff members expressed concerns yesterday at an Employee Assembly meeting about poor communication from the administration, increased work loads and further layoffs relating to “Reimagining Cornell” –– the University’s restructuring campaign aimed at cutting costs.
University administrators and the project manager from Bain & Company –– the consulting firm hired by Cornell to examine its non-academic infrastructure –– were on hand at yesterday’s meeting to quell concerns.
Many of the preliminary task force reports for “Reimagining Cornell” call for the consolidation of administrative departments, which will lead to future staff layoffs. 236 staff members were laid off last May in addition to the 423 staff members who left under the Staff Retirement Incentive Plan.
Mark Finlan, project manager from Bain & Company, explained that Bain as well as University leaders are aware of Cornell’s close-knit relationship to Ithaca’s economy and the high chance that those who lost their jobs may have to relocate to seek new employment.
“It’s on ours as well as [Deputy Provost David] Harris and [Provost Kent] Fuchs’ radar, we will take the political impact as well as Cornell’s land grant mission to provide service to the state into consideration as much as possible,” Finlan said.
Finlan said Bain is doing its best to speak to as many employees as possible to make recommendations that respect the life and culture of Cornell. So far, consultants have spoken to more than 350 staff members from a variety of campus units in groups of 20 or less to obtain a well-rounded, broad understanding of problems in the University, he said. [img_assist|nid=37799|title=Let me show you the way|desc=Bain consultant Mark Finlan joins the Employer Assembly meeting yesterday. The company will examine Cornell’s non-academic infrastructure.|link=node|align=left|width=336|height=235]
“One of our goals is to examine how to increase efficiency within Cornell’s bureaucracy,” Finlan added.
In addition to future layoffs, having unfilled positions in administrative offices at Cornell, including the office of the Provost would present — or in some cases has already presented — problems for some employees by forcing staff members to take on the duties of those unfilled positions.
Ned La Celle from CIT is concerned that the expanded burden of work will create trust issues that are potentially damaging.
“I have seen [vicious] cycles like this at NYSEG, [where I worked before coming to Cornell four years ago,] four times,” he said.
The most pressing concern at yesterday’s meeting seemed to be poor communication from the administration to staff members, which employees said often deprives staff members of trust and a sense of security.
“Communication on campus is a huge void,” said Leslie Morris, marketing and public relations manager at the Schwartz Center. “I have a colleague [with children] who has never heard of the Cornell Child Care Grant. This is a person who regularly checks her email, and has worked here for three years,” she said.
Cathleen Sheils ‘98, associate director of admissions for CALS, said “uncertainty” is a major concern for staff members at Cornell. Due to poor communication and a lack of transparency, staff members like her are uncertain about why and how administrative decisions are made, but still have “put out many reports for Deans without knowing why,” she said.
Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources, explained that, although desirable, it would be difficult to construct a precise timeline of every aspect of the potential cutbacks at the moment. Cornell is an enormous university with complex problems whose causes are often difficult to pinpoint and manage, she said.
“[Reimagining Cornell] will be rolling [through] the rest of the year and into the following year,” Opperman said. “We’ll be kidding ourselves if we say we will be finished [with planning] by November.”
According to Finlan, Bain is contracted to finish its work by the first week of November, but will have their reports ready for the Board of Trustees meeting on October 24th. Currently, Bain’s work is slightly more than halfway finished.
Harris clarified that Bain is only “one piece” of the many task forces gathering ideas for changes for the provosts, and emphasized the importance of long term, strategic planning. Bain is analogous to a personal trainer who provides informed exercise plans, but it is up to the individual to carry the plans out if he or she finds them effective and appropriate in the long run, said Harris.
“Also, you don’t magically lose weight and keep it off long term just because you hired a trainer, especially if you cut costs in a way that they will come back in the future, like yo-yo dieting,” Harris said.
David Brooks, executive vice-chair of the Employee Assembly, compared Cornell with University of Iowa, which is where President David Skorton worked prior to coming to Cornell. Iowa’s infrastructure allows for much greater staff involvement; one out of every hundred staff members is represented in their employee assembly, which meets monthly with the president, he said. Brooks said he hopes to steer Cornell’s Employee Assembly in that direction.
In terms of student involvement, Finlan recalled one professor he worked with at UNC asking students to present budget saving ideas, and having Finlan critique them in class.
That may be a possibility for Cornell in the future, but “for now student engagement will focus on mainly communicating [to students] what’s going on, why we are here, who we are. The areas that directly impact students, such as [task forces led by Vice President for Student and Academic Services] Susan Murphy ’73, will get student feedback, but not every area.” Finlan said.
Harris said it has come to his attention that many students and staff members are concerned that they do not know enough to understand and assess the changes happening at Cornell.
He is already working with Tommy Bruce, vice president for communications, to develop a multi-faceted communication strategy in the next few weeks to foster dialogue and allow staff and students to share perspectives in the format they find most effective. He strongly encouraged the Cornell community to attend the open forum on Friday, hosted by President Skorton.
Finlan also noted that although there could be other causes, applications to UNC did increase after their restructuring when Bain consulted there earlier this year. Harris reiterated admissions for the class of 2014 should not be negatively impacted because the budget cuts are motivated by tremendous, exogenous causes that effected universities across the board.
“The [unfortunate economic events] happened [upon] us,” Harris emphasized. “I hope parents and students will see the link to Reimagining Cornell on Cornell’s homepage and see that Cornell is doing something about it in a constructive way,” he said.