Slippery Rock’s “Third Way” to Retrenchment?

Slippery Rock Provost says: Grease the Operational Wheels of the Collective Bargaining Agreement

Slippery Rock University’s Provost Philip Way says that while he intends to abide by the faculty’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) he wants to “grease its operational wheels” as a “Third Way” to make deep cuts at the university. Way laid out his case to the local faculty union president, Dr. Patrick Burkhart, in a letter obtained by Raging Chicken Press earlier today (read the full letter here).

In the letter dated October 14, 2013, Way says that he wants to steer away from a win-lose dynamic in which either APSCUF (the faculty union) or Management seek to win at the expense of the other side. He suggests that a “win” for one side would ultimately be a “loss” for the University as a whole. Instead, Way proposes the following:

A third way that would provide mutual gains would involve two strategies:

  • First, in addition to not replacing departing faculty and not filling vacancies unless absolutely necessary, we would need to reallocate faculty who would otherwise be retrenched from declining or low-performing or non-mission-critical programs to those in need of faculty replacement or enhancement.
  • Second, we would need to work together to increase the net revenues accruing to the University.
  • Throughout, we would abide by the CBA, but would attempt to grease its operational wheels. In this sense, there would be no givebacks by APSCUF. Management would also retain its prerogatives under the CBA, notwithstanding the cooperation on matters within its control.
Photo: Slippery Rock University public relations. Philip K. Way became Slippery Rock’s provost on Feb. 14, 2013.

Way is essentially making a case for “reengineering” the university instead of simply cutting from the bottom up. “Reengineering” is a management buzzword first popularized in 1990 by management guru, Michael Hammer, in the Havard Business Review and later in Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution, written with James Champy. The Economist explains Hammer’s idea of reengineering:

The technique involved analysing a company’s central processes and reassembling them in a more efficient fashion and in a way that rode roughshod over long-established (but frequently irrelevant) functional distinctions. Functional silos were often protective of information, for instance, and of their own position in the scheme of things. At best, this was inefficient. Slicing the silos into their different processes and re-assembling them in a less vertical fashion exposed excess fat and forced corporations to look at new ways to streamline themselves.

BPR’s originators, Hammer and James Champy, maintained that re-engineering had a wider significance than mere processes. It applied to all parts of an organisation, and it had a lofty purpose. “I think that this is the work of angels,” said Hammer in one of his more fanciful moments. “In a world where so many people are so deprived, it’s a sin to be so inefficient.”

But, as the editor of Machine Design, Leland Teschler, recently wrote:

The Harvard Business Review has a reputation for carrying articles detailing the cutting edge of management practices. Or at least that is the impression HBR likes to cultivate. So, it is interesting to find that fewer than 4% of the 65,000 living alumni of Harvard’s own illustrious business school subscribe to HBR …

… In my own case, I began noticing that strategies introduced in HBR articles, often with a lot of fanfare, would invariably be discredited within a few years of publication.

The prime example is the concept of business-process reengineering. The term became a euphemism for downsizing. Companies that zealously “reengineered” their processes often found they were left with staffs so lean that the absence of one or two workers jeopardized the output of the whole operation.

If you think I may be reaching by suggesting that Slippery Rock’s provost is drawing from particular trends in management practices such as reengineering, I get it. But once you consider Way’s academic and professional record, the connection becomes more evident. Way has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Selwyn College (1976). He also earned and a masters in Industrial Relations (1976) and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies (1986)  from the University of Warwick. A quick glance at the academic book reviews he wrote in the 1980s and 1990s, shows his interest in changing trends in management – especially regarding labor relations and labor unions in the UK.

The fact that Way was educated in the UK also adds another dimension to his call for a Third Way. The “Third Way” was, of course, a political strategy deployed by former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and our own former President Bill Clinton. The “Third Way” was a strategy of synthesizing right-wing economic policies with left-wing social policies – a synthesis that has led to the consistent rightward shift in economic policy since the 1980s. Bill Clinton was a master of this approach – he was the “I feel your pain” president that signed NAFTA into law, something that his Republican predecessors were not able to accomplish.

Philip Way’s letter outlines a process of reengineering focusing on severing faculty specialization – that is, the areas of study in which they earned their PhDs – and their work assignments. For example, under the subheading of “Reallocation of Faculty,” Way writes:

Management believes that there is scope for reallocation within related disciplines of most of those who would otherwise be retrenched. If departments were to agree on reallocating qualified faculty other than the potential retrenches, that would be acceptable. Retraining is an option where appropriate. Repatriation to the faculty members’ former departments would be possible if and when circumstances reverse and openings occur. Positive votes by sending and receiving departments would be required before October 24, 2013. Later, should circumstances changes, and further reallocation is required, we would engage in the same cooperative behavior.

The carrot for the union is to find a way for faculty members to keep their jobs – even if there is only about a week before this reorganization has to be formalized through departmental votes. The stick, of course, is what has happened at Clarion, Edinboro, Mansfield and seems likely at East Stroudsburg: deep cuts and dozens of faculty lay offs.

Faculty and faculty union representatives will ultimately have to determine whether the provost’s offer of a “Third Way” actually presents a viable alternative to the gutting of faculty members and programs, or if it is part of a well-established strategy to co-opt and weaken union power.


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2 Comments on Slippery Rock’s “Third Way” to Retrenchment?

  1. I can’t say I like the proposal, given its heritage and the lack of details, but it is certainly less offensive on the surface than the plan Clarion’s administration presented and is currently revising in top secret meetings. It seems that the SRU Provost may evee have a passing familiarity with the CBA (only passing as there were a few things in his letter that struck me as treading on the edge of contractual acceptability).

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