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AU working with Huron Consulting, faculty and staff express concern at group’s reputation

Huron previously recommended mass layoffs at multiple universities

American University has hired Huron Consulting to launch a strategic workforce assessment, according to a December email to staff and faculty supervisors of staff that was obtained and verified by The Eagle. Huron has recommended layoffs and program cuts at other universities in the past.

Hiring Huron is part of AU’s seven-year strategic plan, according to Elizabeth Deal, the University’s assistant vice president for internal communication. One of the imperatives of the strategic plan is to “improve how AU works to cultivate a work environment that enables our faculty and staff to thrive,” according to the plan’s website. That imperative, Deal said in an interview with The Eagle, is led by Seth Grossman, vice president of administration and chief administrative officer, Vicky Wilkins, acting provost and Bronté Burleigh-Jones, chief financial officer, vice president and treasurer. 

The Dec. 4 announcement said that “the launch of this initiative also reflects feedback the university has heard from our staff about the need for a holistic assessment of our workforce strategy,” which Deal said recently came from a staff survey conducted in spring 2023. 

“It has always been our intent to do this work, and as we free ourselves up from other, equally critical initiatives like designing and implementing the model for hybrid work, Workday implementation, etc. we are able to take on this and other related workforce initiatives,” Deal wrote in an email to The Eagle.

Huron will assess AU’s staff and faculty supervisors of staff through focus groups and a study and make recommendations to AU based on its analysis. It will then be up to the AU administration to make decisions based on those recommendations, Deal said.

Huron’s history

After the accounting firm Arthur Andersen collapsed amid its connection to the Enron scandal, two dozen of its partners went on to found Huron

The energy giant Enron, a client of Arthur Andersen, was accused of hiding millions of dollars in losses and debt using transactions with some of its senior officials. Arthur Andersen had been accused of shredding documents and deleting records relating to the case. The firm was ultimately convicted of obstruction of justice, though the Supreme Court later overturned the criminal conviction.

Huron then experienced its own scandal in 2009, when it was accused of misleading its investors and overstating its income, resulting in the firm having to pay a $1 million civil fine. 

Huron has since shifted its focus to higher education.

As universities have been struggling to recover financially after the coronavirus pandemic, Huron has been tapped by multiple schools to help close budget deficits. AU is currently experiencing a $33 million deficit as a result of lower undergraduate and graduate enrollment in fall 2023 and spring 2024. 

In a 2020 report entitled “COVID-19 and Katrina: Parallels and Lessons Learned,” Huron outlines a model for universities to respond to COVID-19 that mirrors how universities in Louisiana responded to Hurricane Katrina. The report cites how Tulane University laid off over 650 full-time employees, Xavier University of Louisiana laid off over 300 full-time employees, Dillard University laid off over 200 full-time employees and Louisiana State University Health Science Center - New Orleans furloughed 3200 employees for six weeks. 

“These universities’ post-Katrina responses resemble the approaches now observed across higher education as institutions respond to COVID-19, illustrating that significant changes to financial, operational, and programmatic profiles may be critical to ensuring longevity,” the report said.

The report goes on to describe the resulting program cuts at these schools, including Tulane discontinuing eight of its Division I athletic programs and half of its doctoral programs. The report said these cuts show that the schools knew “continuing to operate under the status quo would not be sustainable in the near or long-term.”

AU has worked with Huron in the past to utilize customer relations management software from Salesforce, which Huron partners with. Huron began meeting with staff and faculty who supervise staff in December, according to Deal. 

“We hired them based on their reputation, the tools they provided and their ability to do the work and help us move the needle forward,” Deal said. “They are particular experts in higher education.”

Huron has gained a reputation for recommending layoffs and program cuts based on its prior work with other schools. 

In 2020, The New School hired Huron to help the university with restructuring. Five months later, 122 employees were laid off, many of whom were in essential positions including health services, departmental administration and student advising. More than a third of those employees were union members.

The University of New Hampshire paid Huron $600,000, also in 2020, to help identify where it could save money and announced probable layoffs as a result of their recommendations. 

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences announced it would lay off 51 employees in September 2023 after hiring Huron amid a shortfall for the 2023 fiscal year.  

The University of Wisconsin-Parkside announced in November 2023 that it would seek to eliminate 50 jobs via layoffs or voluntary retirements to help close a $5.3 million budget gap. The layoffs would comprise 10 percent of the school’s workforce, and even though Huron made suggestions, all final decisions are up to administrators. 

The AU community responds

When The Eagle asked if Huron’s reputation was of concern, Deal said that Huron is working with over 400 organizations at the moment and that this reputation is only based on “a handful of colleges.” Not all organizations Huron has worked with have experienced layoffs or program cuts, and Deal said that those that did were in a “dire situation” different to AU’s. 

“There’s a list of consultants. If you Google them, they will have similar results,” Deal said. “Our job is to ensure that we're doing our due diligence as to how we get the best feedback.”

Amanda Choutka, a senior professorial lecturer in the Literature Department, has a fellowship through the Working with Washington initiative, which falls under a different strategic imperative in the strategic plan. Choutka said her experience working on a strategic imperative team has been positive. 

“It's actually been a really nice way to collaborate with different staff across the University,” Choutka said. “And for me to understand better how … external affairs makes choices on the work that happens at AU, so it was a little surprising about the Huron information.” 

Other staff members expressed immediate concern about Huron’s reputation. 

“I’m first and foremost worried about staff, but really they shred these communities in ways that don’t leave them as healthier thriving places,” said Sam Sadow, an at-large union representative for AU’s staff union and a visual resources curator in the Art Department. “When they leave, they leave anger and mistrust. Broken communities are weak.”

In the faculty senate meeting on Dec. 6, Wilkins held an open discussion about the decision to hire Huron in response to concern from faculty and staff. Wilkins helped make the decision to hire Huron and, according to minutes from the meeting that were obtained and independently verified by The Eagle, she was surprised by Huron’s involvement with mass layoffs and program closures. However, she pointed out that this is not the type of review Huron is completing at AU.

According to the minutes, Wilkins said that many staff members report that they are taking on responsibilities of two or more positions, and departments and units say they don’t have adequate staffing. The goal is for Huron to recommend ways to fix this.

Huron is currently carrying out a study and numerous focus groups, which, according to Deal, have over 50 percent participation from included staff and faculty. Wilkins also said that it would be time-consuming and labor-intensive for AU to complete a similar analysis without Huron’s external tool. 

While Wilkins said that Huron’s work will only impact staff and faculty who supervise staff, community members remained concerned.

“If you impact staff you’re going to impact faculty and students,” John Bracht, an associate professor of biology, said. 

“I think it’s very interesting that the University is leaning very hard on the fact that they're looking at staffing and this will not affect faculty and academic units,” Choutka said. “The University is an ecosystem, and it takes a number of stakeholders to make the University work, and while I appreciate trying to find out where we need more staffing, better staffing, how staffing may be reimagined … it does give me pause that folks who are running the University think that this would not have an impact in some way on academic programs.”

A number of faculty members expressed concerns about a lack of shared governance in the decision. Bracht is the secretary-treasurer of AU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and advocates for student and staff participation in developing AU policies. 

“When you don’t have shared governance, worse decisions happen,” Bracht said. “It may be faster and more efficient, but the decisions are worse — you need a broader group of minds, especially at a university.”

Wilkins announced a working group on shared governance at a Feb. 7 faculty senate meeting, according to Deal. Deal also said that before the Huron decision was announced, stakeholder groups were made aware of it. 

“There’s this mystique about decisions being made behind closed doors. Do some decisions need to be made that don’t involve every single person? Probably,” Deal said. “Every institution has its own way of incorporating different voices in the decision making process.” 

Both Deal, in an interview with The Eagle, and Wilkins, at the faculty senate meeting, pointed out that most consultancy firms have similar reputations to Huron and that this is the nature of the work. Staff and faculty — including Saagar Gupta, the assistant director of community-based learning & special programs, who attended a Huron focus group where he was the sole attendee — remained concerned that AU chose not to get the information they needed internally.

Gupta said that faculty and staff, particularly affinity group leaders, already have insights on the University and are already experts. 

“I feel like already that if we had a listening session, or something that staff will come out to where we’re actually able to just give our voice, we probably could have done the same thing,” he said.

Dan Prengel, the assistant director of data analytics in the Kogod School of Business and a union representative for Kogod, shared similar concerns.

“There’s so many experts and organizations [at AU], like organization management and survey tools and things like that,” Prengel said. “These experts, that they're already paying … they’re on the ground and they know how things work. What is it about this, but not Huron, that is making the administration put so much stake and effort into them versus their own people?”

Correction: A previous version of this article used the word survey to refer to Huron's study. The article has been updated to reflect the correct language. A previous version of this article also referred to AU making stakeholders aware of its "decision," without clarifying that it referred to the Huron decision and not the working group on shared governance. The article has been updated to clarify this.

This article was edited by Walker Whalen, Tyler Davis and Abigail Turner. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton and Sydney Kornmeyer. 

investigations@theeagleonline.com


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