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Sunday, April 14, 2024
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American University’s hiring of Huron Consulting further closes students and staff out of key decision making

Since the University hired the controversial consulting firm, keeping students in the loop is more important than ever

The Eagle’s editorial board is comprised of its staff but does not represent every individual staffer’s views. Rather, it provides an insight into how The Eagle, as an editorially-independent institution, responds to issues on campus. 

The New School, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside have a few things in common: they faced serious budget shortfalls, hired Huron Consulting and subsequently laid off numerous staff and faculty. Many other universities faced similar fates after hiring Huron or other consulting firms. 

American University announced to staff and some faculty in December 2023 that it was hiring Huron to launch a strategic workforce assessment for staff — defined as non-teaching employees — at the University, and faculty who supervise staff. 

This announcement, which was not released directly to students and other community members, brought about immediate concerns due to Huron’s reputation for recommending mass layoffs in higher education. While this reputation is not necessarily true of all of Huron’s work — as it is currently working with over 400 schools and hospitals — it is of huge concern to staff and faculty.

Founded in the wake of the Enron accounting fraud scandal, Huron has shifted its focus to higher education in the past decade. Utilizing a model developed for Louisiana schools following Hurricane Katrina, the firm recommended that universities engage in mass cuts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It follows the logic that universities can’t operate at typical functioning after extreme events such as these. 

However, universities are not like all other corporations. Students are more than just customers or shareholders, and decisions to greatly reduce staff and faculty will affect them directly. 

Huron often refers to its work as “reimagining,” but the hiring of a third party firm further removes students, staff and faculty from reimagining what their ideal workforce organization should look like. 

The consulting firm plans to assess staff and faculty supervisors of staff in a study and through focus groups and other assessment measures. This in and of itself is not a problem. The fact that the AU community didn’t get an adequate notification of or say in the decision to hire Huron to spearhead this staff re-evaluation effort is symptomatic of a larger issue: a lack of transparency and shared governance. 

Restructuring our staff and administrative departments may help the University going forward, but Huron’s reputation to recommend mass layoffs deserves acknowledgement. 

Legally, public universities have to make Huron’s studies and recommendations publicly available. However, as a private university, AU is not obligated to release the results or detail the process of Huron’s upcoming study. 

The University should take this project as an opportunity to rebuild trust within the AU community through transparency and inclusion in this process.   

Students are often in the dark about what goes on behind the scenes to keep our University afloat and functioning daily. Even faculty and staff members often don’t know about new policies until they are put into place. The possibility of massive shake-ups among our staff organization is daunting, and the lack of understanding about this entire process makes it even worse. 

The AU community is likely to jump to the worst possible conclusion about the University’s decision to hire Huron and the assumption that mass layoffs are practically set in stone. Perhaps this project will not take the shape of Huron’s infamous COVID model, but we will remain on edge until the University decides to clue our community in on this transformative process. 

This piece was written by Jelinda Montes and edited by Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti.

editor@theeagleonline.com


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