Operational Mediocrity

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Thursday columnist Roman Zhuk and Opinion Page Editor Kelly Fitzpatrick discuss campus inefficiency and the upcoming Senate and Governor's races in California.

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It's always wonderful when we spend a huge chunk of money to learn the obvious-large organizations are wasteful. Our campus, being one, is no exception. Can I be a management consultant now?

Last Friday, the administration released an interim report from its "Operational Excellence" initiative. Bain, an eminent consulting firm, is running the project for a cool $3 million. The underlying reasoning is that the campus will save lots of dough by following Bain's recommendations. How necessary it was to hire an outside firm to do what seems to be the job of the rather expansive administration remains an open question.

The report was as disappointing as it could be. It consists of a 19-slide PowerPoint, more than half of which couldn't be characterized as useful in the least. It took Operational Excellence four months to get to this point. Most of the useful information was pulled from databases-that is, it was data that had already been gathered. Are the Bain people hell-bent on bringing back the three-martini lunch? (There are few other excuses for a PowerPoint stating what is already known taking so long.)

From the few useful bits of information in this report, we learn that a quarter of campus staff supervisors oversee one person, and two-thirds supervise less than five people. In other words, two-thirds of supervisors are basically glorified babysitters.

It is worrisome that the campus considers some staff so incompetent that they require such a level of attention to do their job properly. Are we hiring people who can't do what they are supposed to without having a person assigned to oversee only them? Or are we creating bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy?

We learn that administrators have no idea if campus space is being distributed among staff in a rational manner-"space utilization is not tracked." Oops. We have approximately three times as many vendors as the industry standard. Which makes sense; otherwise, our biology department couldn't pay $74 to one vendor and $115 to another for the same case of microtube racks. We learn that some campus servers have limited backup capacity. Comforting, right?

My point, however, is not that Bain is wasting our money by taking four months to point out that the campus may not be managed in the most efficient manner. (Shocker, I know.) Rather, let us look at the reasons why these inefficiencies exist in the first place and why any "detailed solution design" can only be a temporary Band-Aid.

Organizations strive to be efficient in order to beat the competition by providing a better, cheaper product. The flip side is that the stronger shape the institution is in, the greater the temptation to tolerate inefficiencies. After all, if people will pay for one's product without regard to the cost of the inefficiencies, one has little incentive to optimize performance.

And at the end of the day, the University of California still offers a highly desired product-a quality education at a reasonable price. Hiking tuition by 32 percent does not fundamentally change the paradigm that for many college-bound students the choice remains between paying $10,000 at a UC campus or $40,000 at a private school of comparable quality. Thus, the university remains as desired a destination as ever.

I am sure the administration understands the consequences of continuing to cut services while increasing prices. However, the incentive to increase efficiency remains low as these consequences have distant time horizons. A slow decline in educational quality bears far fewer political risks to the administration than firing excess employees. On the other hand, an inefficient company will quickly start seeing the effects on its bottom line. Its stockholders can demand change or replace the executives with individuals more amenable towards streamlining.

Since the university lacks a profit motive, there is no powerful constituency similar to stockholders demanding a reduction of waste by the university. The far-left, rather than offering solutions, proposes ridiculous, counterproductive ideas-"democratizing" the regents or making education free.

Many, who would ordinarily be critical of administrative waste, feel that the choice is between siding with the administration or throwing in your lot with the loons illegally occupying campus buildings. There ends up being no space for reasonable criticism. After all, demanding efficiency just isn't as sexy as chanting "Layoff Yudof."

Striving for efficiency is often painful. It may mean cuts in compensation to some, or even layoffs. It means reducing some conveniences not essential to the core mission of the university. Moreover, such an effort is not something you do once in a while when things get bad, but an ongoing process. All this requires political willpower and imagination.

Nothing we have seen from the administration suggests an ounce of either. We have seen outside companies hired to tell us what we know and have seen blue-ribbon commissions formed. But bold ideas from the administration about how to optimize this university's performance remain conspicuously absent. Instead, we see pursued the path of least resistance.


Tell Roman he lacks imagination at [email protected]

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