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August 31, 1995


Picking a chancellor

To the editor:

My uncle Ned R., long since retired from his position as CEO of a failed supermarket chain, offered some advice on how to make "that University you work for" more "productive." Uncle Ned had an MBA and considered himself an expert on efficiency. "Let me tell you how I did it when I was CEO of one of America's best but least appreciated supermarkets," he said. "You know, a university is just another business and it resembles a supermarket." The gist of Uncle's comparison was easy to grasp: The goods on the shelves were the course offerings, the part-time workers were the faculty, the supervisors were the chairs and the deans, the top bookkeeper was the CFO and the top manager was the chancellor or president ("or whatever he wants to call himself"). The students, of course, were the customers.

"The grocery business is very competitive," Uncle said, "and you have to keep labor costs down, make workers work as much as is humanly possible, keep the profitable goods moving, and get rid of the stuff that doesn't sell. You have to keep the organization lean. You have to trim the fat. That's the way it is in the Real World." Uncle continued, "I read the local papers and I read that stuff you've got lying around the house — the University Times, and those memos from your provost. I know you have under-subscribed departments and courses and I know you've got departments and schools that, on the average, cost more to run than others." "That's only natural," I said. Uncle's face turned red as his voice grew louder. "Natural? Natural, did you say? You think it is natural that you and the rest of your privileged buddies can waste my tax dollars? Nosiree! Let me tell you how to do it. Do it just like I did in the supermarket chain I ran. Get rid of the unprofitable courses; trim the size of those expensive departments and schools till they are in a more defensible position and carrying their own weight. Sell to demand, not your silly ideas of what people need! The customer knows best. We got rid of those unprofitable stores in marginal neighborhoods. We got rid of the slow-moving stuff on our shelves. And, we didn't carry too many full-time people (that keeps the fringe benefits in line, you know)." I was awestruck by the clarity and simplicity of Uncle's thought. He made me feel guilty and ashamed that I sometimes took time, on the job, to contemplate how to make my courses better and to read new texts and ancillary material in preparation for my courses. Why, I could even recall times when I discussed the curriculum with my colleagues or spent hours on committees agonizing over a forthcoming accreditation visit. Clearly, that was all "down time." All that wasted thinking and designing when I could have been more productive, teaching five or six courses that could have been designed just once by a central committee using published teaching manuals and workbooks. Then there was all that wasted pro bono public service time. While it might serve some useful purpose in the community and impress a state legislator or two, was that really a "core" activity? Then there was the matter of research. Well, I guess that takes time away from teaching and what's a university supposed to be about anyway? Yes, Uncle was making me see things the way they ought to be seen.

Although one ought to be able to recognize Truth when it is uttered, something at the back of my mind was troubling me. "Uncle Ned," I asked, "what happened when you got the slow-moving stuff off the shelves?" Uncle said, pitying how slow I was, "Our profits per unit went up. We became more efficient." "What about your overall earnings?" I wondered. "Unfortunately, earnings dipped," said Uncle. "Why so, Uncle Ned?" "Some consultant thought she figured that out for us. She said that people come to supermarkets for convenience as well as price. She said that customers liked one-stop shopping and missed the slow-moving items that we removed from the shelves because, from time to time, they really wanted those unprofitable, space-consuming items." I asked, "Did you follow her advice and make your supermarket more comprehensive again?" "Heck no," Uncle said, "her advice was a lot of bull. Efficiency is what counts." "But, Uncle," I said, "you went out of business." Uncle Ned is a great guy, but I hope the board doesn't pick someone like him to serve as chancellor.

Arden E. Melzer

Professor School of Social Work


Reengineering is the answer to problems

To the editor:

Given our current crises in enrollment and budget, two groups have stepped forward with solutions. One claims that General Motors' cut and slash techniques will save us. The other claims that adding an additional layer of management and formalizing the adversarial relationship between administration and faculty will solve our problems.

Unfortunately, neither is correct. If only the students that we are not attracting were going to Japanese universities instead, we might understand the problem. The problem is that we need to perform the same massive reengineering that the surviving American manufacturing companies have had to perform. We are not immune to the marketplace.

We have many wishful thinkers whose advice seems to be out of touch with the marketplace. For example, I have been assured by experts that there is no limit on what people will pay for tuition. When I ask how this can be, I am told that studies have shown this for some time. I have yet to see those studies.

Worse still are those whose strategy seems to be, hunker down and be prepared for the next tide of '50s style undergraduates, who will bear any pain or accept any humiliation in the process of obtaining a baccalaureate degree. We know that learning styles have changed and that student attitudes have changed, so when do we accept that our customers have changed? When I mention terms like "quality" or "productivity" to other faculty, most respond with "How will it be used against us?" This is not the sign of a healthy organization.

I am aware that reengineering efforts have been started, but will they attack the problems of empowerment, responsibility, productivity, and quality deep enough and quickly enough to ensure our survival?

John Slimick

Bradford campus

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