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Colleges Say They’re Cash-Strapped Yet Pay Top Dollar for Anti-Union Consultants

Colleges and universities are turning to anti-union “efficiency” experts to address budgetary shortfalls.

When D’Youville College (now D’Youville University) was established by the Catholic Church in 1908, its founders wanted to offer a high-quality liberal arts education to young women living in western New York state. Fast forward 115 years and the school, named to honor patron saint Marie-Marguerite d’Youville (1701-1771), a French-Canadian widow who formed the Order of the Sisters of Charity, better known as the Grey Nuns, has eliminated many liberal arts majors from its roster of options. Gone, or in the parlance of the university, “paused,” are English, history, philosophy and religious studies.

Instead, students can now major in Health Humanities, a discipline that Brandon Absher, president of AAUP-AFT Local 6780 at D’Youville, describes as vocational training for people who want careers in health care but don’t want to take a full range of biology, chemistry or physics classes. Both BA and BS degrees in Health Humanities are offered.

The change followed the administration’s decision to hire Gray Associates, Boston-based consultants whose website boasts expertise in program evaluation and data analysis to help cash-strapped schools make “data-informed program decisions.”

“The consultants were on campus for a month or two,” Absher told Truthout, and spoke to students, faculty, staff and administrators. “They talked about the university portfolio as if they were talking about stocks. They also did what they call a market analysis of different majors.” The outcome, he says, was that the administration put a number of departments on “pause,” which means that they do not have to report the change to the state. “Basically, these programs are still on the books, they’re just not offered,” he explains. “There was no respect shown to faculty when the pause was announced.”

Absher notes another flaw in Gray Associates’s survey of students’ curricular preferences and needs. “On one hand,” he said, “there is some legitimacy to knowing what students are interested in. But there is another large hand. When students come to college, they’re 17 or 18 years old and can’t possibly know what they’ll develop an interest in studying.”

Indeed, exposure to anthropology, sociology or gender studies, for example, can steer a student into a field they had not known existed. As the truism tells us, we don’t know what we don’t know.

That said, colleges and universities throughout the country are, like D’Youville, turning to high-priced consultants and anti-union attorneys to cut costs, offset financial precarity and plan for the future. And even when that precarity is due to gross administrative mismanagement and administrative bloat, liberal arts programs at both public and private colleges are being slashed in favor of more immediate occupational training.

Isaac Kamola, associate professor of political science at Trinity College and coauthor of Free Speech and Koch Money: Manufacturing a Campus Culture War, told Truthout that this poses a danger that extends far beyond the university. “Higher education is not only about learning the practical skills needed to meet the labor demands of today’s employers,” he said. “The university is also where students learn to be active citizens in an increasingly complex world, a place where the ability to understand and appreciate differences will determine whether democracies survive.”

Enter the Consultocracy

But this seems of little concern to the many firms that comprise what faculty have dubbed “the consultocracy.” Among the biggest are EAB/Business Affairs, American College and University Educators (ACUE), The Council for a Union-Free Environment, The Labor Pros and the rpk GROUP.

The rpk GROUP is particularly noteworthy because it had a heavy hand in the “restructuring” of West Virginia University (WVU). As has been widely reported, WVU recently eliminated 32 programs, including foreign languages, math, literatures and linguistics, jazz, ceramics, printmaking, sculpture and creative writing.

And they’re not just doing this at WVU. In fact, rpk has been hired by a long roster of colleges including the six-campus University of Kansas, the sprawling State University of New York, Howard, Gallaudet, Rutgers and the Vermont State College system.

Their role is murky. According to founder Rick Staisloff’s LinkedIn page, the 13-year-old company aims to “find the intersection of market needs and a margin that will ensure sustainable growth” for higher ed.

That intersection has clearly been profitable — at least for rpk.

Take West Virginia University, a school with a projected $45 million deficit for fiscal year 2024. WVU hired rpk to help administrators complete an “academic portfolio optimization” plan. According to a FAQ issued by the university, the company’s senior partner is being paid $500 an hour for his work as a consultant. Another staffer, dubbed a principal, is earning $450 per hour. (Several additional rpk staffers are being paid an hourly rate ranging from $100 to $300.) Their 9-month contract began in mid-April and runs through the end of 2023.

“The consultants … talked about the university portfolio as if they were talking about stocks. They also did what they call a market analysis of different majors.”

And it’s not just consultants who are cashing in. Anti-union law firms — the three biggest are Jackson Lewis, Ogletree Deakins and Littler Mendelson — are also being retained and have played a dominant role in campus union busting and academic reorganization. In addition, smaller and less prominent local firms are often called in to help management when negotiations get thorny.

The point of this is obvious: Institutions of higher education are hiring law firms and consultants to reduce the bargaining power of teachers and instructional staff, and are making the decline of working conditions for this cohort a key element of remaining in the black.

Crisis of Higher Education

Since 2016, at least 44 public or nonprofit colleges have closed, merged or announced plans for closure. Part of this was caused by reduced state and federal allocations for higher ed, from $9,290 per student in 1998 to $7,900 in 2018. Tuition, which provided 31 percent of college income 25 years ago, now comprises 47 percent of income. Add in a decline in enrollment due to demographic shifts and a smaller number of traditional-age students, and it makes sense that schools need to adapt.

This is not what has happened.

What college administrators have done instead is slash academic departments, fire low-level staff, and hire low-paid adjuncts to replace full-time tenure-track instructors.

Still, not everything is shrinking equally, and while cuts have been effected on many campuses, an explosion of administrative bloat and outsourcing has simultaneously occurred.

West Virginia University is a case in point. Staff there fall into two categories. Classified employees have no role in policy setting and earned an average salary of $39,000 in 2022. That same year, nonclassified workers — those who make policy decisions, set rules and run university operations — earned an average salary of $86,000. According to the WVU union, between 2013 and 2022, the university eliminated 1,200 classified jobs but added 1,000 nonclassified ones. The upshot is that spending increased by a whopping $50 million. As the union sees it, cutting the administrative payroll to 2013 levels would eliminate the projected fiscal year 2024 budget deficit. In addition, the union is critical of decisions that plunged the university into massive debt to pay off an $810 million loan for building renovations and the purchase of a satellite campus.

All this while WVU will pay its football and basketball coaches more than $4 million each during the 2023-24 academic year.

Confronting Mismanagement and Bloat

WVU is not an anomaly, and similar scenarios are playing out on campuses in every corner of the country.

Andrew Bossie is the now-unemployed former chair of the Economics Department at New Jersey City University (NJCU). Bossie was laid off in December 2022, shortly after rpk completed an audit of the school.

According to Bossie, rpk was paid $210,000 to do an administrative review; mass layoffs and department closures quickly followed.

“When rpk came in, they did data gathering and presented themselves as only concerned with numbers,” said Bossie. “This was super weaselly. They were assessing profitability. They saw some programs as a drain on the university. In assessing how much each credit hour cost to maintain, in terms of entrepreneurial efficacy, they ignored the actual purpose of a university.”

It’s not just consultants who are cashing in. Anti-union law firms … are also being retained.

This has had dire consequences for NJCU’s largely Black and Brown students. All told, 48 undergraduate programs (including economics, physics, art and teacher education); 28 graduate programs; 20 certificate programs; and 24 undergraduate minors have been eliminated. Thirty tenured and 19 nontenured faculty were axed.

An Educational Shock Doctrine

Sociology professor Johanna Foster, president of AAUP-AFT Local 6772 at New Jersey’s Monmouth University, notes that what has unfolded at NJCU and WVU — and at dozens of other colleges and universities throughout the U.S. — follows a playbook laid out by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, her 2007 book about the ways crises are used to slash public programs.

When consultants are brought in in the aftermath of what is presented as a looming fiscal crisis, they “not only create unnecessary redundancies, and inefficient parallel structures, but also engage in flagrant disrespect of the very professionals essential to the mission of the academic institution,” Foster and Marina Vujnovic wrote in their book Higher Education and Disaster Capitalism in the Age of COVID-19.

This begs the question of who, exactly, is at the helm of the consultocracy.

“There is not a single agenda,” Foster told Truthout, “but there is a lot of alignment among the players. Some are radical libertarians. But ed tech giants are also interested in using technology to capture the operation of colleges and universities” and promote online program management as a way to outsource the labor of faculty and staff. This, she says, poses a threat to the personal relationships that develop between students and teachers and that foster lifelong intellectual exploration and growth.

Building a strong intellectual community was once the raison d’etre of the university, she adds, but she and others fear that it is falling by the wayside.

A similar scenario is playing out at Utica University in upstate New York.

“When rpk was brought in to do an efficiency study in 2017, the provost assured us that they would not cut jobs or departments. We were told that rpk’s investigation was not financially motivated, but when we asked what the motivation was, they refused to answer,” Leonore Fleming, a professor of philosophy and a union activist at Utica, told Truthout.

In February 2023, cuts to 15 programs were announced; two of the proposed cuts were later rescinded. The college also hired Bond, Schoeneck and King, an anti-union law firm, to represent management in ongoing contract negotiations. Although a new college president took office in August, a legacy of mismanagement continues to hover over the college, and while faculty are taking a wait-and-see attitude about him, they’re also continuing to press their demands.

“We have an enforceable retrenchment clause in our contract so they can’t just get rid of faculty,” Fleming explains. “But eight people left after the cutbacks were announced, which may have been management’s strategy. We’re now in negotiations and are bargaining for a strengthened retrenchment clause to further protect our jobs. We’re also demanding strengthened communications between the union and management. Still, the rhetoric has been disturbing. It’s not about cuts, it’s about realignment and right-sizing.”

Similarly, programs are not eliminated, they “sunset.”

Despite the Orwellian overtones, Fleming told Truthout that she is encouraged by what she sees as academic labor’s resurgence. Last year, she says, saw the highest number of work stoppages at colleges and universities in 15 years, and 19 faculty and grad student unions have been recognized by the National Labor Relations Board since March 2022. Moreover, of the 222,206 workers who went on strike in 2022, 137,000 were in academia.

Militance is also increasing.

At Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, Daniel Pieczkolon, president of United Academics of Philadelphia (a union with four separate bargaining units), told Truthout that “we practice open bargaining. Although management lawyers fought us on this, we’ve brought community members, students, parents, alumni and staff from the Museum of the Arts to our bargaining sessions. Although we’ve had to make concessions and keep meetings closed when we discuss finances, most sessions have been open and transparent. Unfortunately, management continues to do a lot of foot dragging.” At the same time, he says that people have been able to see management’s hypocrisy and question decisions that seem arbitrary and capricious.

Similarly, Todd Wolfson, a journalism and media studies professor and president of AAUP-AFT Local 6323 at Rutgers University, told Truthout that despite management’s hiring of anti-union firm Jackson Lewis, a five-day strike last spring led to significant salary hikes and labor protections for adjuncts and other faculty.

“Our assumption is that Jackson Lewis was retained to oppose pay equity for faculty members on different Rutgers campuses and bake in inequities to keep pay down in Camden and Newark. The main Rutgers campus is in New Brunswick and faculty in Camden earn about 20 percent less than faculty in New Brunswick. Rutgers has in-house counsel and an office of university labor relations, but we know that one contract alone netted Jackson Lewis $4 million.”

Not surprisingly, Wolfson finds this enraging, but he is also proud that there is a culture of faculty and staff militancy on campus. “Our strike was a springboard for other actions,” he says, “including organizing at a New Brunswick Barnes and Noble store.”

United Academics of the University of New Mexico is similarly aggressive. Ernesto Longa, professor of law and president of the union ran up against Jackson Lewis in 2019. “We shamed the university about spending public funds to thwart unionization efforts despite having in-house counsel,” he began, adding:

The university regularly uses public funds to obstruct contract negotiations and brings in outside counsel to muck things up. We’re demanding a minimum full-time salary of $52,000. Enrollment is up thanks to the Opportunity Scholarship that allocates state revenue to provide a tuition-free education to the state’s students. But faculty and staff are now filling a number of jobs that used to be done by workers who left and were never replaced. We deserve to be compensated fairly. We further believe that it is a misuse of public funds to hire outside consultants, one of which, the NAPA Group, was paid $181,217 between May 2021 and February 2022. We have the intellectual resources to engage in strategic planning and negotiate with management.

The idea that “colleges need to cut in order to grow,” write Johanna Foster and Marina Vujnovic in Higher Education and Disaster Capitalism, is riddled with fallacies and errors. Proponents of cutbacks argue that all value is derived from the market. This, of course, dovetails with the erosion of the liberal arts, the threats to faculty governance and tenured employment, the closing and consolidation of programs, the promotion of cheaper online instruction over classes on brick-and-mortar campuses, and the elevation of business interests and private gain over the collective good.

“The people who run academic institutions are often embedded in corporate, neoliberal logic,” Wolfson concluded. “This is how they operate. It’s more akin to a business model than one focused on faculty or students.” This, of course, is why the AAUP-AFT is fighting back.

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