Looking for an Answer

The negative effects of Operational Excellence on the Ethnic Studies department.

“Red tape, I can see, can’t you see?
…Red tape, killing you, killing me.”
Circle Jerks (1980)

by austin houlgate

In Fall 2009, UC Berkeley hired an outside consultant group, Bain & Company, to streamline the university and cut costs. With the goal of saving $75 million annually through various cost-cutting measures, the Operational Excellence program emerged as an effort to deal with our budgetary deficit. With the staff cuts mandated through OE’s Organizational Simplification initiative set to happen by the end of the academic year, it’s difficult to predict the effects
Operational Excellence’s programs will have both campuswide and in localized settings.

The Ethnic Studies Department is undergoing a series of changes and cuts mandated by OE that have generated many critical reactions from our students, staff and faculty. While grappling with the decisions handed down by Operational Excellence, however, it has been incredibly unclear who to communicate our grievances to and how to cut through the red tape of the program.

OE’s Organizational Simplification initiative, in their own words, “will provide faculty, students, and staff with a working environment that is both more efficient and more effective, and which
promotes the growth and professional development of our staff.” However, the recent decisions being executed make its moniker and mission statement seem euphemistic.

Among the most controversial of decisions is the proposal to merge the administrative staffs of three departments – Ethnic, African American and Gender & Women’s Studies. This merging is to be done concurrently with staff cuts across departments. These staff cuts include reducing Gender & Women’s Studies’ Student Affairs Officer and several Ethnic Studies department staff members to part-time, as well as outright layoffs. OE’s Organizational Simplification initiative is cutting 2.5 full-time equivalent hours from the Ethnic Studies department this year – one FTE cut is a full-time position layoff while half of an FTE is a reduction from full-time to part-time employment. In this sense, FTE reductions underestimate staff losses, since half-time employment is not a sustainable option for some workers.

Layoffs and time cuts are only the first round of consequences from OE’s initiatives.

The very motives of the Organizational Simplification program are obscured by their implementation. According to Dean Andrew Szeri, the faculty head for Operational Excellence, the restructuring initiative measured the quantitative ratio of workers to management and acted to create a ratio of six to one. This objective is contradicted by the layoffs across the Ethnic, African American and Gender & Women Studies departments, which primarily targeted non-managerial staff. In fact, many of the reductions targeted SAOs, who provide the vital service of
recruiting and orienting new and first-generation students to the majors and our campus.

In a meeting with a coalition of students, staff and faculty from the three departments, the Dean of the Social Science Division, Carla Hesse, indicated that all staff being laid off will be placed in a pool for preference hiring as new positions opened up, but this stipulation comes with no guarantees. OE staff have stressed that cuts through Organizational Simplification are being done equitably campuswide in an attempt to distribute the pain of budget cuts equally. Nominally, this seems like a fair strategy, but there is no staff representation from the Social Science or Humanities Division of the College of Letters & Science on the main Organizational Simplification Team. Although Deans from each division are consulted in the implementation of the initiative’s decisions, the amount of influence they have on the decision-making process is all too ambiguous. Additionally, these cuts are being made under an ahistorical frame that elides the legacy of our departments.

The imperative for struggle is clearly rooted in our departmental history. Asian American, African American, Chicano, Native American and Ethnic Studies programs were established through student strikes during the winter quarter of 1969. Not only are our departments relatively young
as institutions, it has taken additional student and faculty struggles to simply maintain our departments. In response to budgetary and staff cuts, exacerbated by faculty attrition and the University’s refusal to make new hires, to the Ethnic Studies department in the 1990s, students organized protests and hunger strikes in affiliation with the Third World Liberation Front, the organization that won the establishment of Ethnic Studies programs in 1969. The efforts of the movement secured some new faculty hires in the department and the eventual development of the multicultural community center.

Cuts being carried out on the Ethnic Studies department must be considered within this broader context of struggle on behalf of students and the lack of institutional support for our department. Even more immediate, OE needs to take a less myopic approach in distributing cuts across departments. A 2.5 reduction in FTE staff is one of the largest cuts in the Social Science division, and it also does not take into consideration the two FTE staff that resigned last year. This constitutes a huge 4.5 FTE staff reduction in an already small department. How it came to this is unclear. Despite multiple meetings with different levels of OE staff, fingers are being twisted back and forth to indicate who passed the decisions down to whom, who made the final call, and what sort of advice they were given.

Faculty members, such as Dean Hesse and Dean Szeri, involved in the implementation of the Organizational Simplification initiative have attended several open meetings held by stakeholders in the Ethnic, African American and Gender & Women Studies and the ASUC. It has remained thoroughly unclear, however, what person or level of staff could ameliorate the concerns of staff, students, and faculty. More critically, the concerns and criticisms from our departments have gone either unaddressed or crucially misunderstood.

The metrics that were used to divine cuts to staff allegedly focused on increasing efficiency in staff and raising ratios of employee to management. In a meeting with the ASUC, Dean Szeri noted that many of Operational Excellence’s programs were designed to optimize what he called the University’s two main businesses: teaching and research. If teaching is one of the main businesses of the University, who is being taught? Which socioeconomic, racial and geographic groups are going to have access to this education if the staff that does critical work in recruiting a diverse campus are being laid off or put on part-time? Are current and future students going to receive the vital staff support they need to successfully navigate the University?

The argument has been made several times to incorporate a metric that considers the field work that staff, faculty, and students of certain departments do, especially in the recruitment and retention of working class and underrepresented students of color. This metric – somewhat
mislabeled as a “diversity metric” – seems to be habitually misunderstood by OE personnel. This metric would not simply be a numerical tally of how many people of color are on staff or faculty, but assess hours that different departments and staff members contribute to hosting and participating in different outreach and recruitment programs and events, especially when these hours are done pro bono.

The sheer struggle to get any definitive answers from OE personnel demonstrates the startling lack of transparency built into the program. The discourse around initiatives such as Organizational Simplification is that the whole University is undergoing cutbacks, and the entire campus will be taking blows. But the suggestion that each department is suffering from
equivalent or equally proportional cutbacks is fallacious and completely obscures the constant litany of struggle that our departments’ students, staff and faculty have had to endure. It also ignores the institutional stability of larger, older disciplines and completely disregards the work of our departments’ staff in recruiting and retaining a diverse student population.

The staff of the Organizational Simplification initiative isn’t representative of our departments, or even our division. OE personnel, while giving staff, students and faculty multiple audience, have either misinterpreted our critiques or been callous to them. Layoffs are scheduled to take effect at the end of the academic term, and we are still looking for an answer.