The town hall meeting that didn’t happen

I’m frustrated by the proposal to restructure the graduate school.  Indeed, I’m afraid of such action.

I’m frustrated that only one plan is presented. The Provost says at each Town Hall that he has looked at this in a variety of ways and that this is the only solution he can come to. Complex problems need to be addressed by a team of diverse capabilities, so it is not surprising that he came up with one solution, and likely not the best one.

I’m frustrated by the lack of broad faculty input in the development of a plan to address these problems. There is no involvement by the UC, the graduate school or academic staff in developing an appropriate plan.

I’m frustrated by Town Hall meetings and the inability of the Provost to answer questions at those meetings. Seriously, review the videos. Listen to the question and then the Provost’s response. Often his response is an anecdotal story that really doesn’t answer the question posed. Too many times does he say “I don’t see why you would think that.”

So, as Halloween approaches I thought I’d take on a scary costume.

I’m going to pretend to be the Provost and come up with a plan to address these problems.  I know it can’t be the best plan, because it is my plan and there is no input from the UC, the graduate school or PIs across campus, three important groups that know the problems well.  Nonetheless I will present my plan and then I’ll pretend that I was at the last Town Hall meeting and answer those questions (though I’ll paraphrase them a bit).  My plan is simple:

  • Keep the current structure and address any problems head on.
  • Charge the UC and the graduate school to put together a tiger team of faculty, administrators, academic staff and graduate students to analyze campus research endeavors and needs on campus.
  • Have a detailed report by the summer, a report that includes data and evidence of the problems.

I feel that there is no evidence that any of the posed problems are associated with having a particular structure; it is therefore best to address the problems head on and solve them under the current structure. Thus, characterizing the problems listed by the provost into four broad categories, here is my response and how they fit with my plan:

“Under the current structure, the Graduate School is a job that is too big for one person.”

Evidence does not support this statement. Deans of the graduate school have not complained that it is a job they can’t do. Certainly the current Dean has done a fine job. There is no evidence that we need to separate the structure even if this did seem to be true. It is critical that someone on campus oversee the connections between graduate education and research. Separating them may generate unintended consequences in the future. Most of the real problems cited by the provost would still fall under the jurisdiction of one person, the new vice-chancellor for research, so it is unclear how a restructuring would change anything on this point.

“Grants management functions are broken.”

APR is addressing this issue by examining, identifying, and defining what’s truly broken in RSP. RSP has already improved dramatically as a result of this and other actions. For example, the time between getting the award and getting funds available to the PI has improved from 119 days to 23 days. Problems with end of award close-out are serious and need to be addressed by collecting data about the problem, analyzing the data, identifying waste and bottlenecks in the current process, and proposing appropriate solutions based on this analysis. APR should continue this analysis of RSP.

“We need a stronger presence in Washington, DC.”

If this is true, and it is not clear it is, then advocacy is best done by the PI. The Chancellor’s office includes the Federal Relations Office. So, I propose to beef up the Federal Relations Office to assist PIs in working with congressional staff, including the training of PIs on how to communicate with staff and matching travel grants to support congressional visits.

“We have experienced major emergencies involving Safety and Compliance issues.”

Assemble a tiger team of faculty, administrators and academic staff and charge them with determining how best to address these issues.  This is a complex problem, and safety and compliance extends beyond the research endeavor on campus. Indeed, some the problems cited have not even been under the purview of the Graduate School. While there have been threats of huge fines, in the past 5 years or so fines associated with compliance have been less than $50,000.  OK that’s a lot, but the proposed structure will cost $600,000-$800,000 per year (after the transition is completed) by the provost’s own estimate.  Instead, we need to develop a  short term plan to address the time-critical issues as well as a long term plan to better handle future events under the current structure. An appropriate solution will likely require providing appropriate resources so that folks can deal with problems quickly and not have to spend time gathering resources.

My plan is consistent with the Chancellor’s action to add seven FTEs to the Office of BioSafety (OBS). To quote the Chancellor’s memo of June 3 2009, on Investing in Biosafety Staffing:  “I am confident that the actions now being taken will ensure that the university continues to keep our researchers and our community safe and productive.”   Is the Chancellor still confident of that?  If so, then why is biosafety still a major part of the provost’s justification for restructuring?

Graduate education and training.

It makes complete sense to keep the current structure which has worked successfully for many years.  If the graduate school only dealt with professional degrees, than maybe it would make sense to make such a split, but the emphasis of the graduate school is PhDs that require a dissertation and thus research. Having this direct connection between research and graduate education is part of who we are and splitting the two should not be taking lightly.

“We need to foster collaborations with industry.”

I’m not sure what the issue here is. It is a bit of a pain to deal in nondisclosure agreements, but appropriate UW offices handle this nicely.

QUESTIONS FOR THE HALLOWEEN PROVOST AT THE IMAGINARY TOWN HALL MEETING:

(Remember I’m imagining all this, so I reviewed the tape from the last Town Hall, and I’ll use those questions below.)

HP (Halloween Provost): “Before taking questions  I want to remind us all that as we strive for a more efficient process, we must be careful that we don’t make the mistake of sacrificing our research and graduate education excellence for mediocrity.”

Question: Building relations with Federal agencies… “Federal funding is limited with fixed budgets. So how can a single advocate benefit all and not some at the expense of others?”

HP: “There is no evidence that separating the Grad School from research will improve our presence in DC. Nor is there any solid evidence that having that presence is of great value to increasing research on campus. A single example is often made with Cornell, but there is no evidence that the DC presence influenced that decision. Besides, UW-Madison is ranked in the top 5 in research dollars, while Cornell is not – so no need to emulate that structure. UW-Madison has been very successful in getting federal funding and that can be attributed to the PIs on campus. Advocacy is best done by the scientists, but they need to be trained in how to talk with congressional staff. Thus, to improve this we will increase the staff in the Federal Relations Office by half an fte and provide matching travel funds for those that advocate at federally agencies. To have access to these travel funds, you will have to take a training course on communicating with the congressional representatives and be accompanied by someone from the office. As for how compliance/safety on campus are impacted by the federal rules and regulations, I feel this is best done in collaboration with our peer institutes (e.g. through the AAU) rather than individual universities working separately. And so we will continue to work with our peers and in our collaborative structures in addressing this issue.”

Question: “Power points are getting better. But how do we respond to a PowerPoint?  Please write down a plan.  We are doing well with what we got, we need a solid plan to react to.”

HP: “Yes, I agree that the absence of a fully developed, written plan makes it very difficult to respond in detail to any proposal. While there is ‘no debate’ about complaints to the Provost office, faculty have no detail to determine if these are isolated events or part of a systemic problem. Restructuring the graduate school is not a direction we should go if we do not have this analysis. These Town Hall meetings are not a true dialogue with engaged debate, but they clearly indicate folks are not in favor of this.

“We must not confuse a detailed plan, with lack of evidence for the need of a detailed plan. I think the faculty need a written document that describes and provides detailed evidence of the problems at hand. That document is not available to the public (if it exists). Developing a plan to change the campus culture without such an analysis is not good leadership.”

Question from engineering Prof (who I understand is advising the current provost on this restructuring plan): “You shouldn’t have a detailed plan, and a letter from the divisional committee is faculty governance. We are missing opportunities, missing DC presence. For example Berkeley and Michigan are surprised we don’t have one.”

HP: “It is extremely poor leadership not to have a plan when you are suggesting to rebuild an important component of you university structure.  Development of a plan requires a detailed analysis of the problems which is also lacking.

“A year-old letter from the divisional committee cannot be construed as faculty involvement in the restructuring of a major endeavor on campus. To say that something is broken requires prior agreement on a measure of what it means to be broken. Such discussion have not occurred and, as these Town Hall meetings have demonstrated, there is still widely diverging opinions on this. There must be broad participation by faculty in the development of any philosophical change as big as this proposal – that is what shared governance is all about. To paraphrase Aristotle: it is the dweller, not the builder, who knows the value of the house, the diner, not the cook, who is the proper judge of the meal. It is the PIs across campus who understand and appreciate the value of a combined graduate school and the research administration, their input must be considered.

“And third, we are not Michigan, and we are not Berkeley. We have our own culture. Comparison of the funding ranking of those two institutes indicates that there is no real advantage in having a presence in DC.  Michigan usually ranks in the top 5, along with us; Berkeley’s ranking has been steadily getting worse.”

Question from the graduate student: “How will Graduate Education be affected? She is worried about the tone of separating the graduate school. Research depends on outstanding graduate students.  How will this split impact fellowships?”

HP: “Thank you for that question. It is unfortunate that graduate student input has been largely left out of this process. If you have suggestions on how to best engage graduate students I am open to them. Graduate education is important and in a PhD granting institute it is appropriate to tie graduate education and training directly to the research mission through its administrative structure. This tie in administrative structure makes the clear statement of its importance to our success. Changing to a new structure that separates graduate education from the research endeavor administratively makes a different statement about the universities approach and priority to graduate education. It also may cause unintended consequences for the unique aspects of our campus.”

Question from the faculty in the English Department. “Fall research doesn’t supply small amount of money for the social sciences and the arts. You asked where does humanities funding come from – why can’t you answer that question given that you are reorganizing research?”

HP: “Continued funding for the humanities is a high priority. I have to confess that I do not have a complete knowledge to appropriately answer the question ‘where does your money come from’ and I should have been more responsive in my reply to Prof Keller’s question. I recognize that funding levels and scholarship for the humanities are distinctly different from that of the physical sciences. Our University will not thrive unless our research endeavors are strong across all disciplines. I fully recognize the need to continue the WARF’ fall competition. This has worked well for so many years that it is a fundamental argument to keep the graduate school dean and vice-chancellor for research under this continued structure. In a separate structure I feel that it will be moved out of the graduate school and to the vice-chancellor office, as would all the research centers. It just makes logical sense that that would happen.” (As I understand, the real Provost’s current plan is to move the fall competition out of the Grad School, at least that is what someone told me from the humanities, though it is contrary to what the Provost said in earlier Town Halls. This communication problem arises when there is ‘no written plan’.)

Question from a faculty member whose spouse teaches at UW-Milwaukee.  “The Milwaukee campus has this structure, and it caused problems, including a centralization of authority in the hands of the research vice chancellor, a loss of shared governance, and a university-wide shift away from funding for the humanities and social sciences. What administrative guarantees are there that these three shifts won’t occur here?”

HP: “Yes, there are several examples of universities that have made this switch and it has had some unexpected outcomes. This is why we can not jump into this restructuring without a careful analysis and an appropriate plan. Since the current structure is working so well, I suggest that we keep the current structure intact, then we don’t need to worry about these problems.”

At this point the chancellor rose to interject a comment about funding for the humanities. She stated that there is a need to provide assurances that funding will not change under a change.

HP: “Assurances have only been verbal and given the lack of a detailed analysis or faculty input to this plan, not many faculty are assured by these assurances. Not mapping details of a plan is an excuse to make the change without providing details on what the real objective of the reorganization are. Cornell went through this separation, but again they are not ranked as high as UW-Madison research. As the chancellor points out, it is critical to explain how the head the of research and the graduate school will be tied, but there is no description of how this will restructuring will make this happen.”

Question: “While most faculty and staff are in support of looking at and fixing problems, shared governance did not contribute to the original plan that was rolled out by the real provost.”

HP: “Yes, there has been no real input from a broad group of faculty. This is a complex problem, and we know that these types of problems are best solved by a diverse group of experts with varying approaches to the problems. This plan has not incorporated this team approach to problem solving. These Town Halls clearly demonstrate a resistance to a plan to separate – or at least to the PowerPoints, since there is no plan. And there has been no indication from the Provost that he will change the plan. In fact, he begins each Town Hall saying that this is the only solution that he can see.

“I’m frustrated by the lack of broad faculty input in the development of a plan to address these problems. There is no real involvement by the UC, the graduate school or academic staff in developing an appropriate plan. There is a big difference between true engagement and going to a group and simply reporting on your ideas and asking if there are any questions. This is one reason why I am proposing to keep the structure as it is.”

Question from a member of the public concerning animal care and biosafety and presence in DC.

HP: “These are two separate issues, and I appreciate the public’s interest in our discussions. There is not doubt that we must get better at what we do and this will likely mean some change.

“Yes, people are painting an alarming picture of compliance fines, where the wolves are at the door ready to cause havoc on our research capability. There a two important things to remember, the first is that the wolves will always be there; we can never anticipate all regulations and unintended infractions (at least not without very very high overhead rates). Second, we have successfully kept the wolves at bay. So, we must not act hastily in the construction of a new structure as we may find a solution that keeps the wolves at out, but we may end up with a structure with no-windows, a place where no one wants to live. So, we need to continue to deal with the wolves as they arrive with our tiger teams. In addition a special task force should be put together (faculty, staff, and graduate school associate deans) to identify the issues and present options for a complete structure that better addresses and anticipates these issues.”

The chancellor makes a comment connecting compliance and a presence in DC, so see my comment above about compliance and DC and working with our colleagues.

HP: “The university has not yet paid big fines. In the last 5 or so years we have only paid on the order of $50,000s in fine due to compliance – not millions of dollars. So, actually this current structure is working fine. Restructuring is estimated to cost a well over half a million per year. I don’t that is a wise investment, given that the problems can, and most likely should, be addressed in a different manner.

“There is a difference between accountability and responsibility; responsibility requires resources. How the current structure provides resources to address problems have also not been addressed or laid out.”

HP: “In closing let me say that these Town Hall meetings have certainly demonstrated that there is resistance to this plan. Sifting and winnowing is difficult due to the lack of information and, as a result, I feel that we are causing a division across campus — those who are against the plan and those who are for the plan. Indeed, lines are being drawn in the sand. Resolutions are being drawn up in the Faculty Senate and the Chancellor and Provost have reviewed what authority they have to implement this structure over the faculty’s objections. This fractionation of our strong research endeavor is not good for the University. I do not think it wise to fight over shared governance on such an important topic.

“We need to be unified and to move forward with a common voice. I also recognize that the absence of a fully developed, written plan makes it very difficult for you all to respond in detail to this proposal. Therefore, I will start all over, and address these issues with appropriate input for faculty, staff and graduate students.

“My emphasis now will be to engage the campus and work to unify us as we look to make this great university even greater.  I look forward to working with you on this endeavor.”

– HP

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One Response to The town hall meeting that didn’t happen

  1. Kirsten says:

    Long post, but worth it. It makes some very good points.

    And I like the idea of a “Halloween Provost”. 🙂

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