Thursday, December 29, 2016

Shadow Work in the University--Administrative Requirements as a Barrier to Productive Work at the University and a Suggested Response from Faculty at Cornell

Existing and new policies run the risk of a hidden cost – increasing the time required by faculty and/or staff for compliance. While this cost may be justified by the risk or benefit underlying the policy, the gradual accretion of these small burdens decreases the productivity of both faculty and staff and that makes it more difficult to pursue the academic mission. Moreover, without examining the time required for compliance, it is impossible to fully understand the cost-benefit of any existing or new policy. (Cornell, Stay Informed)
This is how Cornell University, through the efforts of its faculty and the cooperation of its administrators, has sought to frame the issue of bureaucratic creep that has marked at least one aspect of the transformation of post secondary education as an industry in the 21st century. It is a reminder that administrative creep emerges because of the increasing task for risk management and transparency to outside constituencies and public regulators. It evidences an overlooked manifestation of administrative creep within the risk management university--the rise of responsibilities to feed the administrative machinery with data necessary to fuel the functioning of the administrative apparatus. (The Riskless University and the Bureaucratization of Knowledge: From "Indiana Jones" to Central Planning). At Cornell is is references as "Overzealous Risk Management, which paralyzes research function" (Report, 2015, p. 2).

Cornell has done more than document the way that the burden of a growing administration with an engorged portfolio has increasingly fallen to faculty.  There is a lesson here for many universities--and not just Research 1 institutions.  The most important lesson is one that touches on shared governance in risk management:
These faculty and staff stakeholders should not be called in as advisors in the development of the procedure. Rather, they need to be an integral part of the development process, with the power to prevent the procedure from being implemented until the group as a whole has come to consensus that the proposed procedure is both necessary and as efficient as possible. (Report, 2015, p. 8-9)
This post includes links to the relevant documents produced at and about the efforts to meet the challenge of shadow work at Cornell. 


(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

Cornell has done more than document the way that the burden of a growing administration with an engorged portfolio has increasingly fallen to faculty.  They have also suggested an approach to redistributing the burden of administrative compliance in a way that ameliorates the effects of serving administrative needs on faculty productivity more in line with the core mission of the university--to produce and disseminate knowledge. Its approach has generated interest among influential sources within the academy: 

The Executive Summary and Introduction of the Cornell Report follows:
Executive Summary

Administrative burdens on faculty and staff have grown explosively at Cornell, and they are now a major  impediment to the successful functioning of the university. This report identifies two primary forms of this burden:
(i) Shadow Work, the displacement of work from trained staff onto faculty, and
(ii) Overzealous Risk Management, which paralyzes research function.

We propose a five-part solution to address these issues:
(i) Recommit to the idea that the highest goal of Cornell is excellence in research and teaching, and make all decisions about policy and procedure through this lens.
(ii) Create mechanisms to evaluate all procedures to be consistent with (i).
(iii) Create an anti-red-tape Czar with power and authority to oversee and implement streamlining efforts and to cut through bureaucratic red tape.
(iv) Limit, and in some cases reverse, the centralization of staff.
(v) Align the goals and incentives of central staff to the faculty/staff in the units and to the larger mission of the university.


The fundamental mission of Cornell University is to teach and do research in pursuit of societal goals; performance of this mission is entrusted to the Faculty. Performance of this mission is Cornell University. It is why the university exists. Faculty members are judged by how well they teach and do research. The performance of every other Cornell employee, without exception, must ultimately be judged by whether they enable or hinder the performance of the fundamental university mission.

The central message of this report is that growth in bureaucracy and associated Shadow Work are severely impeding the ability of the Faculty to teach and do research. This is the sense in which we understand President Elizabeth Garrett’s very first (20 August 2015, “Streamlining Academic and Other University Processes and Reducing Bureaucracy”) directive to the Cornell Community:

Cornell University aspires to be a global center for higher education where the very best researchers, scholars and creative minds interweave liberal arts education and fundamental research with practical endeavors focused on challenges of societal significance. To achieve our aspirations, we must rigorously and regularly review ouruniversity processes to ensure that they further our values in the most efficient and least burdensome ways and allow us to be nimble and agile as an institution.
Universities tend to make decisions incrementally, often without scrutinizing the effect of past decisions to ensure that time and energy are directed at current priorities. Overly cumbersome bureaucracy and unnecessarily complicated decision-making processes divert faculty, students and staff from activities vital to pursuing excellence in research, teaching and public engagement.

This report was commissioned by the College of Arts and Sciences to examine research administration inefficiencies in response to President Garrett’s August 20, 2015 call. Although our committee is charged by Arts and Sciences, research at Cornell, and especially interdisciplinary research, more often than not involves centers, facilities and colleagues across multiple colleges and administrative units. Hence, our report is focused on the larger picture of research administration as it constrains the ability to meet Cornell’s core research and teaching missions. The necessity of looking at conflicting, inefficient or redundant requirements across different colleges and administrative units is clearly what President Garrett had in mind when she stated that “Overly cumbersome bureaucracy and unnecessarily complicated decision-making processes divert faculty, students and staff from activities vital to pursuing excellence in research, teaching and public engagement.”

There is strong consensus among faculty and staff that “red tape” at Cornell has grown explosively in recent years, to the point where it is a serious impediment, perhaps the major impediment, towards accomplishing Cornell’s research and teaching missions. This growth has roots in government mandates, legal fears, financial constraints and community concerns. Growth in bureaucracy is an incremental process, akin to adding bricks to a wall. Each brick is just a tiny increase in the wall and is justified by well-intentioned motivations. The cumulative effect, however, is a daunting obstacle that severely impedes the ability to move forward. The tipping point is achieved when the wall becomes so much of a hindrance that faculty and staff are forced to spend a large fraction of their time negotiating ways to get around the wall, instead of teaching and doing research. Cornell has reached this tipping point.

Nor is Cornell alone – peer universities are complaining about, and buckling under similar pressures. It is a national problem. Consider the first paragraph of the Executive Summary of a recent National Science Board report entitled “Reducing Investigators’ Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research” [Arvizu]:

The past two decades have witnessed increasing recognition that the administrative workload placed on federally funded researchers at U.S. institutions is interfering with the conduct of science in a form and to an extent substantially out of proportion to the well-justified need to ensure accountability, transparency and safety. A 2005 Federal Demonstration Partnership (FDP) survey of investigators found that principal investigators (PIs) of federally sponsored research projects spend, on average, 42 percent of their time on associated administrative tasks. Seven years later, and despite collective Federal reform efforts, a 2012 FDP survey found the average remained at 42 percent.

Think about that, 42%! The ability of PIs to focus their thinking on research, as opposed to administration, is arguably the most important resource the Federal government tries to tap into when sponsoring research in universities. If the 42% were reduced to some much lower number then the number of PI person hours focused on research would expand greatly, even without any increase in overall expenditures.

A precisely identical situation applies to Research Administration at Cornell University: There are enormous gains in the number of hours that faculty and staff would have available to devote to teaching and research if red tape and associated inefficiencies were reduced. The National Science Board paragraph above notes the difficulty in reducing red tape, despite efforts to do so. The reason for this difficulty is simple:Each brick in the wall was put there for a reason, and the stakeholder of each brick feels the rest of the wall is where the problem needs to be solved. Cornell has limited ability to solve the Federal government’s problems. But we can tackle our own problems of red tape, thereby both better serving our core missions and setting an example for peer institutions. The key is recognizing that to diminish a wall of red tape requires systematically removing most of the bricks, and this only happens if no brick is sacred.

We could list individual issues and suggest solutions. However, we believe that most issues we might  highlight will already have been noted by colleagues in other colleges and units also involved in this streamlining exercise. Hence, this report will not focus on the individual bricks. Rather, we will focus on the structure of the wall: What are root causes that have led Cornell to so fervently pile bricks onto the wall in recent years and what cultural changes are needed to reverse these root causes?

No comments:

Post a Comment