The Corporatization of the University: Part II — Guest Post By Agnes Larson

Agnes Larson is a long-time university insider. This article is Part II of a three-part series. Read Part I, Part III

Layoffs and Workforce Planning

A time-honored corporate method of reducing short-term costs and plumping up the bottom line is to institute layoffs. The modern university is no different. In 2008, ahead of misery that was to be commonplace, University of Florida did the unspeakable—in addition to letting go 118 staff members, they gave 20 faculty members their hat. The reasoning was by letting go of some, they would have the resources to hang on to others whom they feared would leave to “greener pastures” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

2009 was a bad year to be a university, so the story goes, with sorry returns on endowments and richer alumni having their own money troubles (and less left over for sizable donations). Harvard saw fit to layoff 275 staff due to the drop in the endowment (never mind that there were still billions in reserve) in addition to the 500 who took voluntary retirement. Princeton’s knife was duller, cutting only 43, with 45 retiring. Caltech had to let go 100 staff. MIT cut 175 between January 2009 and June 2010. Cornell laid-off 150 and 432 took the early retirement package. University of Michigan planned to consolidated classes and layoff lecturers, the lowest man in the pecking order. Yale had 300 on the cutting block (including voluntary retirements).

While faculty have had to be let go at several institutions of higher education, it is more often the staff that bears the burden of doing the work of others. However, the faculty’s importance vis-à-vis the student body is duly noted. But as universities increasingly engage in activities that are not directly related to the core of teaching, faculty may find themselves in untenured waters.

Since 2001, Cornell has been upfront about its Workforce Planning Initiative (Link). The Ithaca Journal quoted Carolyn Ainslie, then vice president for planning and budget (and now at Princeton), as saying, “We are not going into this with a plan to initiate layoffs.”1 In the fall of 2002, in a speech to staff members, President Hunter Rawlings declared, “Workforce Planning was not conceived to deal with the short-term problems…It is intended to provide resources to accomplish the university’s academic program priorities and to ensure a balanced operating budget for the long term.”2 Rawlings continued in this vein, “We expect workforce planning to lead to more clearly defined roles, responsibilities, standards of performance and accountabilities…We think our support systems will become more agile and responsive to the changing needs and that staff workload will become more reasonable, rewarding personally, and well compensated.”3 “Agile” and “responsive to change”” are in the lexicon of the contemporary corporate. Hunter Rawlings was no different.

The recent layoffs and hiring freezes give universities some time to rethink their workforce planning, even at places that are not as transparent as Cornell. With an eye on budget issues, universities are consolidating or eliminating departments and functions, slimming and trimming as any enterprise does in order to get sleek for a potential merger or to be more attractive to shareholders.

A small note: In China, universities are routinely listed on the stock exchange. In fact, an enterprise known as EDU is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The owner of EDU is Beijing-based New Oriental and Education and Technology Group, Inc. The aim of the company is to help Chinese students be admitted to US universities.

Clericalization of Professional Work

One emeritus professor likes to say that in the 1960s, his Ivy League institution used to have ‘secretaries running around everywhere.” As discussed above, when the university undergoes layoffs, support staff are the first to be released. This leaves faculty without secretarial support.

Younger faculty are not necessarily in need of heavy administrative support. Maybe they need help with processing paperwork, but they are able to handle the computer environment without any extra help. For those who had their training in the 1960s-1970s, they are less sure. Some older faculty still turn over longhand notes to their assistant to decipher (this is how they conducted business 30 years ago) or are more comfortable dictating emails. This population will always be blessed with administrative support. Their younger colleagues are not so lucky. There is one man who was hired in the mid-1990s and he asked the office manager discreetly about clerical support. She pointed to the computer and said, “There it is.”

The norm is shared clerical support for faculty. That means one clerical worker will be shared by two or three faculty. Problems arise when someone feels that his or her work is being shortchanged or neglected. One faculty member, who has support, does all of his own clerical work because “it is just easier.”


1Campi, Esther. “CU to examine staffing levels.” Ithaca Journal, March 15, 2002.

2Powers, Jacquie. “Rawlings tells staff: CU remains strong despite challenges.” Cornell Chronicle, October 24, 2002.



  1. Bernie

    With all due respect, this sounds like a lengthy inchoate whine – an “ain’t it awful”. What actual problemor problems are you trying to describe? Whose problems are they? How big are they? What solutions do you propose?

  2. maman

    Now, here we are in the correct section, (Part II) for the question.

    Is our Author, “Alice” or “Agnes” Larson, Mr Briggs?

  3. Briggs


    Typo on my part. Should be Agnes. Have no idea why I wrote “Alice.” Starts with an “A” I guess.

  4. Ken

    RE: Bernie’s “this sounds like a lengthy inchoate whine – an “ain’t it awful”.


    As I read this I was flashing back to Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” — seems like A. Larsen has taken Moore’s movie script, replace Flint, MI & GM with university names & made a few other substitutions. Part I wasn’t really much better in this regard.

    Somehow that seems incongruent with the past tenor of this blog.

    People need to face some ugly facts about humanity & organizations — ALL organizations will do seemingly dumb things, or pursue seemingly good objectives in nutty ways. Its the way things are. A good book for the idealistically inclined is: The Ropes to Skip and the Ropes to Know: Studies in Organizational Behavior, by Ritti & Levy (or just Ritti — this has gone thru a number of updates & co-authors over the past three decades or so).

  5. Ken

    Given the recent tenor of this blog relative to disinterested/apathetic students and this latest partly presnted multi-part series I’ll pose a question that cuts to the core of the [apparent] issue here:


    IS A UNIVERSITY EDUCATION more valuable to the recipient than the CREDENTIAL of a univeristy degree?

    ONE PERSPECTIVE: The CREDENTIAL is more valuable. Some recurring advice from people that “made it” in US corporate industry has been, “Get the degree then get the job where you’ll figure out what you need to know to do the job. Most of what you need to know isn’t taught in school and most of what you’re taught you’ll never use.” The value of the education is it teaches one to think & solve problems and know where to look & how to find things out when needed (older folks might recall the movie “Paper Chase” where the contracts law professor has a nice little speech, presented at the outset of each episode of the subsequent TV series, that cuts to the core of this; in the movie a brilliant student washes out because his knowledge of the facts didn’t offset his inability to think & make creative connections, etc.). That’s why graduation is called “commencement” — the START of a beginning.

    IF that doesn’t convince anyone, consider that the single biggest predictor of future on-the-job succes is one’s proficiency with language; closely related is one’s ability to communicate & work well with others. How much college coursework, classroom instruction, etc. “teaches” that?

  6. Briggs


    I see it as more of a “Here are the facts as I seem them” kind of thing. It’s one more brick in the evidence that the system is busted.

    The problems are well known. The fix is even simple, in theory. Split the current system into three: college (for those who want a classical education; where our future leaders will be trained), university (for football players and those wanting a “degree” or training in some field; those who want a “return on their investment”), and research institutions (where scientists can figure out new things and train new scientists).

    I’ll be saying much more about this later.

  7. dearieme

    A friend of mine in an Engineering department was annoyed a few years ago when he found that one of the old fart professors had written a novel in longhand and had one of the support staff typing it up.

  8. Bernie

    The structural changes you suggest makes sense, but Agnes’ commentary is still too diffuse and whiney. I do not see the connection between her comments and your solution.

    She seems to be complaining at the “right-sizing” that is currently going on in a number of universities and colleges. I say “seems” because I find it difficult to determine whether she sees this as necessary or unnecessary, desirable or undesirable. She then pulls a unsubstantiated reason for this slimming and trimming out of the air to lamely support her “corporatization” theme, namely “in order to get sleek for a potential merger or to be more attractive to shareholders.” This is silly.

    There are few organizations which have experienced prolonged growth or a lack of significant fluctuations in their revenues that do not have wasted or misaligned resources. From an organizational process and resource management point of view, workforce planning seems to be an unobjectionable process assuming that it is effective in its own terms. Where’s the beef? Most business organizations no longer have traditional support staff – there is seldom anyone to do clerical work.

    More important in this discussion, in my opinion, is the mindset of all employees of a university or college as they look around their organization and think about their own contribution – including Agnes. Apart from those lucky enough to have endowed chairs and tenure, faculty and staff alike should have a sense of whether or not they are adding real value to the enterprise and are covering their costs plus their share of the overhead. Otherwise they are in danger of becoming victims to what I term the “driver of the empty bus” syndrome, namely, the mistaken belief that as long as they keep driving the bus they will have a job. They see the number of passengers on the bus as an irrelevant consideration. Most self-employed folks and business owners are immune from this syndrome – they have to pay the bills today and are perpetually worried about how the bills will be paid tomorrow. Far too many employees of large organizations – especially those in the public sector with more or less guaranteed revenue streams, develop a sense of entitlement and are disconnected from the economic rationale for their organizations and their role within it.

    We, the tax payers and parents, continue to make huge investments in higher education and much of it, IMHO, is unproductive for both those who pay for and those who receive the education. Having extended discussions on the topic makes sense to me.
    On reflection, these comments seem a little harsh – and I certainly do not mean these comments to be personal. I look forward to Part III of Agnes’ piece.

  9. ScorpionDas

    What is the point? That universities should exist in some dream world isolated from reality? Are you kidding? The horrors. We wouldn’t want these professors to be “uncomfortable” by having them type their own emails. We wouldn’t want them to “feel” “shortchanged”, or even worse, “neglected”, because while the rest of the world actually leverages technology to become more productive, they want their own personal secretary to dictate to. Dictate????

    This is all very disturbing to me.

  10. Bernie

    Having somebody do the typing may lead to fewer typos by YKW though! 😉

  11. JH

    This two-part post brings up the question of whether or how a university, which is not at all like business, should be run like a business in light of budget problems. Should a university operate on a for-profit basis? In an extreme case, it can be tantamount to selling college diplomas. The University of Phoenix, an internet degree mill, is a prime example.

    One secretary for two or three faculty? Agnes, I want to know what university offers this kind of luxury. *_^ This might be possible for ADMINISTRATORS or a special unit of a university though.

  12. Agnes

    The point is not to be whiny, but to point out that universities seem to now be on an irreversible course that will take them far away from “the idea of a university.” Endless regulation and compliance necessitate that the middle layers of admin (note: not clerical) be troweled on. Regardless of calls for “agility” and other “lean” strategies, universities are stuck on this path where they are simply too big to reverse course and must slip more so into the corporate mindset and use the corporate vocabulary and espouse corporate values. It used to be that “education” and “corporation” were poles apart, and now they aren’t, no matter how much we pretend that the university serves a higher purpose than the corporation.

    JH–the proliferation of places like U of Phoenix and Devry cause a problem for the traditional universities. Tuition at a place like Devry can set one back just as much as tuition at a fairly good school somewhere else, but Devry is selling convenience (easy admission! online courses! classes when you need them!). And in this day when everyone needs some kind of credential to get ahead, the big schools have to consider the for-profits as competition on some level.

  13. Bernie

    Many thanks for responding. IMHO, you still seem to be using the term corporate as some kind of broad pejorative. I am not sure exactly what you mean when you say “It used to be that “education” and “corporation” were poles apart…” To what extent is a “for profit hospital ” different from a “not for profit hospital” in its internal management processes? Is one a corporation, and the other not a corporation in the sense that you are using the term above?

    I agree that over the last 40 years Universities and Colleges have increasingly lost confidence in their assumption that they can unilaterally define education standards for undergraduates. In part this is probably because they have responded to the demands of their students/customers – loosening or dropping required courses and broadening the range of majors to include both marginal disciplines and more vocationally oriented courses.

    This may be because of some financial pressures but I am unpersuaded that this is the real explanantion. At the risk of being called a reductionist, the questions I have are: How do these decisions about standards actually get made and who makes them? Who actually lowered the standards and why? My sense is that faculty members, directly because of some odd social/political agenda or indirectly through a lack of interest, have brought this largely upon themselves. How do you get courses like Physics for Poets and Algebra sans Algebra? Sure, politically correct deans exert pressure, but it is hard for me to believe that at schools like Cornell, the faculty intent on enforcing more rigorous education standards would be cowed by a dean. There are undoubtedly social and political forces at work, but I seriously doubt that the Engineering School has dropped its standards to any marked degree – even if it continues to lose quality students attracted by the less arduous workload of other majors. It seems to me that your Corporatization theme does not really address these key decisions. It is too vague and non-operational.

  14. Agnes

    For now, Engineering and like sciences are in a pretty good place. The question is, and the one that I worry about, is where will Engineering be in twenty years? In thirty years? In fifty years? Is one field going to be immune from pressure to “change” because it is so special and so necessary? This pressure is going to come from the university itself, but there also will be political pressures, and other little surprises that our overlords will bestow upon us that are going to make fidelity to purpose and the pursuit of knowledge difficult for those who lack courage.

    Today things are happening that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. For instance, here we have a doctor suing after failing his degree: And here we have a law student alert to his situation that he is nearly unemployable after sinking tuition at BC:

    My general point here is that these external pressures, plus the increasingly accepted notion that the person sitting in class is “consumer” rather than a “student” is leading in a direction where I neither see cheer nor comfort.

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