Boris Tsang / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Gruner says the practice of assigning work to faculty originally hired to do something else has hurt performance throughout Cornell.

November 30, 2017

Reducing Bureaucracy at Cornell an ‘Existential Crisis,’ Prof Says

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“Reducing bureaucracy at Cornell is an existential crisis,” said Sol Gruner, John L. Wetherill Professor of Physics, at a College of Arts and Sciences forum about bureaucracy reduction on Wednesday.

Gruner, member of a working group of faculty tasked with critically examining the University’s bureaucracy, discussed the findings of a recent report regarding bureaucratic processes and operating structures within Cornell.

He elaborated on the findings within the report, highlighting the current bureaucratic problems facing Cornell, as well as proposed solutions.

“What we found was an incredible growth of shadow work,” he said, referring to a common and growing practice of shifting work to employees that were originally hired to do other work.

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Gretchen Ritter ’83, also in attendance at the forum, said that, “We hire great faculty here to help us do two things that are important to this University: research and education. When we, instead of doing those things, burden those faculty with other things, or burden our talented staff members with things that are not in their particular areas of specialization, we are doing ourselves a harm, in terms of our overall mission.”

“People are the most important expense that Cornell really has … shadow work compromises faculty performance, and afflicts all of Cornell,” Gruner added.

However, he said he also identified possible solutions in curbing shadow work.

Gruner proposed that by using the results of experiments conducted on small subsets of faculty, one could identify how shadow work perpetuates, and then eventually extrapolate these findings in the backdrop of larger groups.

Another bureaucratic issue found in the report was overzealous risk management. Gruner said the growth of bureaucracy at Cornell is largely caused by attempts to avoid risk.

“We often have people doing things that are not necessary because the cost of avoiding the risk can exceed the cost of the risk itself,” he said.

To solve this, the report suggests forming a committee-based mechanism to employ end-user faculty, or gate-keepers, who would have to approve risk management processes before they are enacted.

Finally, Gruner said Cornell needs a “red tape officer,” or someone who will curb and lead the fight against excessive bureaucracy.

Overall, Gruner said that there have been “lots of meetings, lots of efforts and some promising changes in attitudes, but few permanent results,” but that progress can be made against excessive bureaucracy for the future,

“There is lots of good will, but little willingness to rock the boat, and to do the work that is needed,” he said.

“Unless Cornell is willing to commit to institutionalizing concrete steps towards bureaucracy reduction, the effort will fade away.”