Yet another spin on the proposed graduate school reorganization

While I agree with most of the other points already raised in criticism of the Provost’s plan to reorganize the graduate school and research, I’d like to take yet one more spin on the proposal that I feel has yet to be addressed.

The Provost asked the question in his last town hall meeting on Oct 14th, “How are research and graduate education best organized for success?”  Let’s ask the question another way:

What does UW Madison need to prioritize in order to sustain our success in research as measured by national rankings?

We need to consider the foundation of research:

The very livelihood of our research and graduated education capability is to retain and hire talented and qualified professors/principal investigators/researchers.  The formula is simple:  no principal investigators = no funding.  Given today’s advances in electronic technologies, work is no longer affixed to an office; it is mobile.  Therefore, our talented employees can take their research almost anywhere anytime.  To keep the research here, we need to keep those people employed here.

How do we do that?  There are a two major ways to retain and attract these professionals:

1.  Keep salaries and benefits competitive.  The proposal to restructure does not address or incorporate this incredibly important component.  The University unfortunately failed to communicate the tremendous importance of our research enterprise to our very own the state government when furloughs, pay cuts, and hiring freezes were being discussed.  The hiring freezes choked administrative offices on campus, preventing timely processing of anything.  The furloughs and pay cuts not only cost the state in terms of state income tax revenues and people’s disposable incomes, but they also cost the university valuable researchers who have left (along with their research) to take other more competitive positions elsewhere.

Rather than focusing on a national voice in Washington, I think most people on campus would be thrilled to have a strong voice protecting research within our own State of Wisconsin as a starter.

2.  Provide the best facilities, infrastructure, and support for research and graduate education. This is what the proposed restructuring plan hopes to ensure for the future.

This point is certainly no less important than the previous.  Without capacity and capability to efficiently support research and graduate education, we’ll lose our rankings just as quickly.  The administration function of campus handles a dynamic pool of activities that include but are not limited to:  compliance, negotiating and setting up agreements, invoicing, subcontracting, legal, inventory/purchasing, facilities and maintenance, financial and accounting, etc.  As the Provost points out in his proposal power point, that’s a whole lot of stuff to fall on the shoulders of just one person to manage in addition to the duties of managing graduate education.  Or does it really fall on just one person’s shoulders?

Technically speaking, Dean Martin Cadwallader is in charge of many of those pieces.  But he’s not alone.  For example he’s the manager of the manager, of the manager, of the managers of RSP.  In fact, he has a whole team of managers below him helping with pretty much every function.  How is the proposed plan to reorganize any different than what I’ve just outlined about the current structure?  We’ll have one person responsible for the overall picture, who will manage the managers of the managers of the managers, etc.  Smells like the same thing to me but with a different overall leader appointed.  Take a look at the Provost’s very own power point presentation – print the current versus proposed organization charts and compare them side by side.  The similarities are remarkable.

Getting back to our current status and determining if it’s broken, Dean Cadwallader is responsible for the big picture overall success of all of the components combined, but isn’t/shouldn’t each manager held accountable for their own piece?  Isn’t that the point of electing managers because truly, one person cannot handle everything?  For the record, the big picture shows that we’re doing fantastic as a campus in terms of research, even in spite of our process/resource problems.

Yes, I agree; this campus has problems.  I’ve stood in line with the rest of research on campus waiting to receive a project account for an award that started a year ago.  A processing delay of a full year is costly and inexcusable.  There are many severely outdated processes on this campus that simply cannot handle the capacity of research that we’re doing and yes process changes need to be made.

Amazingly, there is hope in the current structure.  Four years ago, these needs were already being foreseen.  A group of proactive minds got together and determined that times are changing, experienced staff are retiring in massive numbers causing high employee turnover, and this campus is growing faster than our managers can keep up.  Why not tap into the abundant resource of talent on this campus and take a proactive approach to solving our own process problems?”  They received the blessing of the Vice Chancellor for Administration, and the Administrative Process Redesign Committee (APR) was born.  Teams are taught by quality control faculty how to use the scientific method to identify complex problems, sort out the causes, and how to implement fixes using existing resources.  The team has tackled some of these worst process problems on campus and is so far coming out with victorious results that cost the campus virtually nothing.  Most recently this year, the teams have started to tackle the problems at RSP.  Award setup was taking more than 3 months on average and they’ve since reduced it to 19 days.  Has anyone else on campus started to notice that accounts are being set up faster?  I know I have.  Now that I’m not complaining about that anymore, other problems are surfacing now as being more severe.

A team like APR is taking the ideal approach to solving problems:  examine, identify, and define what’s truly broken.  Collect data, analyze the data, identify waste in the current process, and come up with solutions.  Identify fixes for the short term as well as the long term.  Implement what you can, and then after time passes, re-evaluate and determine if it’s still working.  The proposal to reorganize lacks this type of in-depth analysis.  With the Provost citing “problems at RSP” and “how long it takes to set up an account” as fuel for why we should reorganize, it’s clear to me that he, as well as a large number of people on campus, are unaware of APR’s efforts.  For more information, please visit:  http://www.vc.wisc.edu/APR/

I encourage everyone on campus to attend a meeting to learn about the APR project, to lend your voices to support this sort of logical problem solving technique, to hold our leaders on campus responsible to the same level of scrutiny you would expect any proposal withstand from an outside funding source.  It cannot be assumed that our leaders know what’s best for us merely because they wouldn’t be leaders otherwise.  The very business of research and education is all about asking questions!

– JLG

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