Paul L. Caron

Friday, December 23, 2016

Cornell Pledges To Reduce Administrative Burdens On Faculty That Detract From Central Mission Of Excellence In Research And Teaching

CornellInside Higher Ed, Streamlining 'Shadow Work': Cornell Looks for Ways to Cut Time Professors Spend on Administrative Requirements, as Opposed to Teaching and Research:

Bagging our own groceries, printing out boarding passes, pumping our own gas — everyone's day involves some "shadow work," tasks that previously would have been performed by someone else paid to do them. But academics’ professional lives increasingly are subsumed by such shadow work, and the implications for their core efforts are stark. How much actual research does a researcher get to do, for example, when he or she spends hours a week on various administrative burdens?

While faculty shadow work is a widely acknowledged problem, it’s gone unaddressed at many institutions. It’s rarely, if ever, out of malice. But administrators who want some information think nothing of sending a survey to hundreds or thousands of professors and giving them a deadline. It only takes a click from a central office, but it's one more task for professors.

Cornell University is trying stem the tide with a new initiative aimed at recentering academic work on academics.

“There’s a core group of faculty here that’s very sensitive to this issue, and we have to address it, or it’s a path to perdition,” said Sol Gruner, John L. Wetherill Professor of Physics at Cornell and a member of its new working group on bureaucracy reduction. “We’ve also had an administration that’s been sensitive to the fact that academics are feeling increasingly put upon in this way.”

Gruner chaired a committee of arts and sciences faculty members that produced a 2015 report on streamlining research administration. The committee found that administrative burdens on faculty and staff have “grown explosively at Cornell” and are now a “major impediment to the successful functioning of the university.” The report identified two main sources of burden: shadow work, which it defined as the displacement of work from trained staff onto faculty, and “overzealous risk management, which paralyzes research function.”

Regarding shadow work, the report says that there was a time when “faculty and staff research travel was largely handled by a university travel office and when much of the routine burden of writing papers and grants, requesting reimbursements, collecting information for sponsored project progress reports, performing inventories, etc., was handled by secretarial and unit office staff. No longer.”

Today, the committee continued, “faculty and research staff are increasingly required to do these things themselves. In polling colleagues across the college about research inefficiencies, we find the growth of shadow work — the movement of work that does not require a great deal of training to perform from lower-paid staff to more highly trained and paid faculty and staff — to be a serious problem at the root of many complaints pertaining to red tape and work inefficiency. We believe that nothing is more corrosive to academic excellence than squeezing out all time to think.”

Shadow work creeps because it seems likes a simple way to cut personnel cuts, according to the report. But it’s often just assumed that replacement processes foisted onto faculty members, such as data entry, will save time or costs over all.

While the new faculty or staff user “incurs considerable mental overhead in task switching, especially for tasks that are performed only occasionally,” the report says, “a staff member serving many end users can get very efficient at collecting and entering information simply because they do it more often.”

To reduce shadow work, the committee emphasized drawing a clear distinction between centralized staff and those embedded in academic units. While centralized staff often create more work for faculty members, localized staff often reduce it. The report argues, for example, that professors “with major research enterprises are in effect the CEOs of small companies and as such need significant support.” ...

The committee proposed a five-part plan to alleviate the administrative burdens on faculty and staff, including recommitting to the notion that Cornell’s highest goal is excellence in research and teaching, and making “all decisions about policy and procedure through this lens.” Other ideas include limiting and in some cases reversing the centralization of staff and appointing an “anti-red tape czar” to oversee and adopt streamlining efforts.

Cornell Chronicle, Faculty, Senior Leaders Team Up to Reduce 'Shadow Work':

“Shadow work” – work once done by someone hired to do that job but, through technology or reorganization, shifted to others originally hired for other purposes – has been growing on campus, threatening productivity and impinging on the university’s academic mission.

A working group has begun to examine policies and procedures with an eye toward reducing shadow work and other administrative burdens placed on faculty and academic staff. A key component will be to develop metrics that quantify bureaucratic overhead costs, starting with calculating the hidden costs associated with implementing new policies or procedures.

Cornell University Office of the Dean of Faculty, Bureaucracy Reduction:


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.

A Working Group has been formed to look into these matters and it needs to develop metrics that quantify bureaucratic overhead. Faculty and staff who are aware of existing policies that result in increased shadow work should relay their thoughts to the Dean of Faculty, taking care to supply as much concrete detail as possible. In addition, faculty and staff volunteers are needed to participate in the scientific assessment of new and existing procedures. As an example, a  volunteer might carefully record the time required to comply with a particular travel reimbursement procedure. Contact the Dean of Faculty if you would like to serve as a volunteer.

This initiative is not about staff reduction. It is about creating more time for both faculty and staff to work on matters that advance and support the teaching and research mission. ...


Project 1 ( Joanne DeStefano and Avery August)
Study of the new travel system. Use the costs of current travel system as a control and compare it to the costs of the new travel system to be implemented in the next six months. Bench mark faculty and staff time in addition to total process cost.

Project 2 ( Mary Opperman and Paul McEuen)
Help staff, faculty, and administrators work boldly together to tightly align administrative and student support functions with the central teaching and research missions of Cornell. Celebrate and reward creative and innovative staff.

Project 3 (Mike Kotlikoff and Hunter Rawlings)
Discuss with the Provost and Vice Presidents before any policy is changed or created/implemented the need to measure faculty and staff time and total costs.

Project 4 (Paul Streeter and David Easley)
Determine how FY18 budget actions relative to the administration budget might impact work for colleges, departments, and faculty – i.e. what is the downstream impact ultimately on faculty, if any, if we make budget cuts or constrain cost growth in the administration budget.

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American faculty do less adm. work than faculty anywhere else in the world.

Posted by: mike livingston | Dec 24, 2016 3:46:13 AM

I had a hard time suppressing my gag reflex while reading this piece. It seems someone told the Cornell faculty about law schools, which from top to bottom have been run for decades to benefit faculty above everyone else, even students, and to treat the former as if they are god-like beings whose every whim must be indulged. I recommend that the Cornell faculty take a harder look and see how well that model has worked for law schools lately.

Posted by: Al Alhazred | Dec 23, 2016 1:51:47 PM