If you work in higher education as a professor, staff member, or low-to-mid level administrator, pay attention if you hear some variation of the following coming from the top: We’re bringing in XYZ Consulting to help with strategic planning and to assess what changes we need to make in order to survive/thrive/rightsize/move up in the rankings.
Consultant. The dreaded C word.
Lest I be accused of being so holed up in the ivory tower that I’m living a reality-free existence, allow me to state up front: Change is a part of life, and that includes work life. Furthermore, planning is, on the whole, a good thing. And not all consultants are harbingers of bad things; a good consultant, hired at the right time and for the right reasons, can make a positive difference.
All too often, the corporatized, administrative takeover of the modern university includes board members and senior administrators retaining fancy consultants to press “business like” templates onto whatever institution happens to be paying them the (very) big bucks.
Of course, because this is higher ed, there will be processes designed to create an illusion of input and participation from the worker bees. They may include “open forums,” “listening sessions,” “office hours,” and online in-house surveys. There may even be a strategic planning facade that carefully manipulates the make-up of committees and working groups to ensure that safe and reliable people make up a clear majority. A few contrarians may be included in these groups as well, but they will be politely marginalized and/or ignored.
The final reports may or may not be shared with the broader university community, but you can bet that nothing will be released to the rank-and-file unless it has been vetted and approved by the board and senior administrators. Typically, these reports bear many similarities, usually recommending cost-cutting measures that reduce the number of full-time faculty, administrators providing direct student services, and lower-level staff.
Those who work in the offices of presidents, provosts, and deans often will not be affected by these cuts. However, plenty of presidents, provosts, and deans will hide behind the recommendations of consultants in making “necessary” and “painful” cuts, accompanied by the appropriate crocodile tears. Ironically, the exorbitant amounts of money used to pay consultants could’ve been used to save jobs.
Not infrequently, there’s an incestuous relationship between the world of higher ed consultants and higher ed administrators, with a revolving door similar to how connected operatives go back and forth between policy making government positions and lucrative private sector jobs. Conflict of interest? Maybe not technically, but in other ways that count, absolutely so. The administrator-consultant complex is one of the murkier, under explored aspects of modern higher education.
So, everyday denizens of higher ed: If you hear the C word — consultant — coming down from on high, be afraid, be very afraid.
Consultants and the “outsourcing of leadership” (2014)
One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making (2012)
“Strategic planning”: All too often, a time-sucking bridge to nowhere (2011)
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