Open Mike: Balance of Power – The evolution of UO administrative decision-making

Dear University of Oregon community members,

When I arrived at the University of Oregon in 2015, I heard the same clear and overwhelming message from virtually every constituency I met with: the university needed strong, decisive, and consistent leadership from Johnson Hall. The faculty, staff, and alumni, along with our Board of Trustees, were not satisfied with the UO being known more for athletics and a recent incident involving sexual violence than our academics. These internal concerns were reinforced by an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education my first year which pointedly bore the headline “An Academic Reputation at Risk.” The message was clear: we needed to focus on building excellence, which included both a greater emphasis on academic research and helping our students learn, graduate, and move on to successful and fulfilling careers—and we needed to do it right away.

After years of changes in our executive leadership and governance, our community was hungry for progress, but a simple question demonstrated the challenges that would need to be overcome in order to move the institution forward in a meaningful way. I had not even unpacked my boxes when I asked how many faculty members would we have in September. As it turns out, at the time no one kept that data in the central administration. To make matters worse, we didn’t have the ability, for a variety of reasons, to get the data in real time from individual academic units. My question and its answer, which encapsulated one of our greatest challenges, were just the first of many illustrations of the extraordinary decentralization of the University of Oregon circa 2015.

I asked more and more questions, and learned that five of our eight schools and colleges were spending more each year than they were taking in. I learned that, although some departments were experiencing significant drops in student demand, they continued hiring more teachers, all without oversight by Johnson Hall. Schools and departments spent millions of dollars on duplicative computer systems that did not speak to each other. Even more worrisome, those duplicative computer systems operated on an antiquated internet backbone that was in danger of collapse and which conveyed data at speeds so slow that it was faster for scientists to drive hard disks in their cars between Eugene and Portland than utilize our networks. For a rich university, this type of wasteful behavior might be a sustainable, albeit indefensible, use of resources. But not at the UO, where state funding regularly ranks among the lowest of its peer group.

We have taken a number of steps over the past three years to address some of those challenges and to make sure that we create a culture of transparency, efficiency, and accountability at the university. For example, we now have current information on faculty members, student credit hours, and faculty workloads down to the departmental level. This information is now available online. We also have developed a centralized and transparent process for determining tenure-related hiring. Rather than having academic departments fill slots each year based on who has retired or left the university, they make recommendations to their deans, who then make recommendations to the provost based on an assessment of overall needs in their schools and colleges. Following a collaborative discussion among all deans and a committee of senior faculty members informed by data on operational and mission metrics, the provost publishes a plan authorizing searches for all to see.

In terms of the budget, we have sought to ameliorate the havoc that changes in student demand and state retirement and health-care costs have had on our academic departments by changing our financial model. Rather than continue the old practice of tuition following student enrollments, with all costs for faculty and administration picked up by the schools and colleges, we created a new system in which we pay for all tenure-related faculty members centrally and make budgetary allocations to schools and colleges for the rest.

We have also taken steps to realign some administrative services. For example, rather than every administrative unit having its own independent communications staff, we have tried to improve collaboration and coordination and achieve economies of scale by moving to an integrated model. We have begun rationalizing IT services throughout the university to achieve better and more reliable service, greater data security, and hopefully some economies of scale. Most recently, we have realigned development staff to better meet the fundraising needs of the university. In the campaign extension, which I announced last week, 45 percent of the fundraising will be done centrally, largely out of the president’s office. At present, however, only 16 percent of the fundraisers report centrally. Obviously, some realignment of resources is necessary for us to be successful in raising money for university-wide priorities such as student advising, need-based scholarships, a new classroom building tentatively dedicated to environmental sustainability, and research initiatives.

When taken together, many of the changes we have made are quite significant, particularly in light of the historically decentralized nature of our university. While all of the practices we adopted exist among many of our peer universities, there is no denying that the results have been jarring for some members of our community. Indeed, some have talked about the “centralization” of authority in a way that suggests a zero-sum game—increased authority in Johnson Hall must necessarily come at the expense of our colleges, schools, and departments. I fundamentally do not see it that way.

I served as a dean for 11 years at two different universities prior to becoming president of the UO. For good or ill, I always try to view campus decision-making through my current lens as president as well as from the perspective of a dean or faculty member. To be candid, if I were wearing my dean hat, I would have mixed feelings about some of the changes we have made at the UO. I would greatly appreciate that the financial risk for tenure-related faculty members and their benefits has been lifted from my shoulders. I would also be relieved that the revenue of my college or school wasn’t solely determined by the course choices of undergraduate students. And, if my own and my faculty’s priorities aligned with central priorities, I would be delighted to participate in university-wide initiatives. On the other hand, I might not like the fact that the provost could second-guess my budgetary decisions. I would be frustrated that some services I consume would no longer be under my direct control. And, if my school or college’s programs did not align with central academic priorities, then I think I would feel left out or pressured to find ways to align. I also probably would not love being held accountable for a set of metrics that I approved, but perhaps never wanted.

A more robust role for the president and provost in academic matters might also implicate issues of shared governance. One of the great strengths of American higher education is that decision-making authority with respect to academic matters is shared among the faculty, deans, the president, and the provost. This is the way it should be. Curricular decisions, degree requirements, faculty qualifications, tenure decisions, and similar matters should require faculty approval. Similarly, research and creative work are not done by administrators; they are undertaken by academic faculty members and judged through peer review. Many folks outside academia are critical of shared governance and express frustration with the slow pace of change it often fosters. Nevertheless, I remain firm in my belief that this is the best system I know of to promote the creation of knowledge and its transmission to future generations, and I will work hard to make it more effective at the UO.

I am comfortable that the greater role Provost Jayanth Banavar and I are playing in our university is consistent with our joint commitment to shared governance and the appropriate role of faculty members as custodians of the institution’s academic mission. Each major initiative we have undertaken—whether it be the Knight Campus or the Data Science Initiative—as well as possible future initiatives in resilience and the humanities and social sciences have been conceptualized and are governed by our faculty. Before we created the new faculty hiring process and budget allocation process, our ideas were discussed and modified after many meetings involving faculty members, deans, and members of the University Senate. And now that those procedures are in place, every faculty slot the provost approves in the Institutional Hiring Plan has been proposed by the faculty and discussed by deans and faculty members.

Of course, there is no precise formula to determine the appropriate balance of decision-making authority in a university. It is fair to write that our old, extremely decentralized model was harmful to our mission and wasteful of resources. The point of shifting some of the administrative burden to Johnson Hall is to establish the capacity to steer our university toward the goals we mutually agree to pursue and to create more bandwidth for academic leaders to attend to core local unit activities. But we need to be careful that we do not go too far and lose sight of the fact that virtually all of the important work of scholarship and education takes place outside of Johnson Hall by our exceptional faculty members in our schools and colleges. Our deans and department chairs will always play the central role in setting local academic priorities, promoting world-class research, raising funds for these purposes, and serving the educational needs of our students.

As we begin the school year, I am excited about our future. As I meet with presidents and teachers around the nation, I hear them talking about our great faculty achievements, about our research initiatives, and about our students and the education they receive. I no longer hear about an “academic reputation at risk.” As Jayanth and I, along with our deans, lead the university, I commit that we will continue to seek out and listen to the views of all relevant constituencies, including the University Senate and the ASUO. While we might not do what every person or group wants, I also commit that we will be transparent and give reasons to support our actions.

Thank you.

Michael H. Schill
President and Professor of Law