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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Grad school not in doomsday scenario

The academic staff ad hoc committee recently released a report analyzing the current state of UW-Madison's graduate school and the Administration's restructuring proposal. Written by seven members of a world-class research institution, the report's conclusion was fitting: Show us more evidence.

After interviewing and surveying staff members from all echelons of the grad school, the committee found several problems, especially in grants management and federal regulation compliance. However, it ""heard no compelling argument"" for the Administration's proposed restructuring, which called for, among other changes, splintering the grad school's current chain of command into research and graduate education branches and ending a tradition of natural interaction.

That's probably not what provost Paul DeLuca and Chancellor Biddy Martin wanted to hear after their vigorous campaign of PowerPoint lectures this fall stressing the imminent financial threats of continuing the status quo.

Instead, the committee's report recommended ""the immediate formation of a committee to conduct an overarching system-wide needs analysis"" to be completed by Halloween 2010, a fitting date given the scare tactics DeLuca used all semester to convince hesitant faculty members to sign on to an ambiguous proposal.

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For DeLuca and Martin, the committee's report should hammer home a lesson the two fledgling UW administrators should have learned this fall while attempting to pacify criticism to a solution perceived by many as rushed, alarmist and worst of all, under-researched. Successfully changing the decentralized and complex grad school structure will require input and consent from all key university players.

Committee member Jenny Dahlberg summed up staff reaction well.

""I fear the provost either neglected to articulate or to consider the potential negative consequences a restructuring could have on both our national research and graduate school rankings.""

Indeed, it's hard to see how the Administration's proposal could directly address many of the biggest problems with the current structure. The committee's supporting documents, for example, note that UW's Research and Sponsored Programs division—responsible for processing and managing UW's $1 billion in research grants—is egregiously understaffed, handling more than twice the grants per employee as the average Big Ten university. Apparently the Administration was willing to budget $600,000 for a grandiose new hierarchy, but not to hire several desperately needed grant managers.

The best thing for Martin and DeLuca to do now is back off. Stop the doomsday lectures about near-misses and let the system of shared governance bring about change. It may seem frustratingly slow, but it is bound to be more effective and produced by those who know the system best: faculty and staff.

Changing a university system that affects thousands of employees and students must be a gradual and inclusive process. Just ask UW's own Administrative Process Redesign (APR) project. If DeLuca and Martin had, they would have learned that APR has been working with faculty, staff and administrators across the campus for more than a year to analyze, of all things, structural problems in the grants management process. APR's small staff has even implemented several solutions, including cutting the average time for setting up a grant from 113 days to just 19, saving UW-Madison millions of dollars. APR is currently working on three other projects related to improving grants management, and yet, the organization and its contributions went almost unmentioned throughout the restructuring scuffle last semester.

If DeLuca and Martin really want effective and fast changes that will be supported by faculty and staff, their best bet would be to tap into APR as much as possible. APR already has an infrastructure and effective ideology for changing complex problems, as well as a wealth of street cred among university staffers for its inclusivity and commitment to solving root problems without targeting individuals.

Another ad hoc committee is set to present its findings sometime in the next two weeks, but chances are they too will need more time to find real solutions. Put the PowerPoints away and let's try giving this shared governance thing a try. 

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