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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Campus organizations host forum to discuss Huron Consulting

Coalition demands transparency and communication about Huron’s recommendations

Over a month after its initial letter to the administration, a coalition — including Sunrise AU, Young Democratic Socialists of America AU, AU’s chapter of American Association of University Professors and the staff union — got some answers on April 4 about the University’s partnership with Huron Consulting. Acting Provost Vicky Wilkins attended the forum to answer questions and address concerns about the potential for layoffs and cuts to academic programs. 

At the forum, Wilkins said the University is only using Huron to gather data, adding that Huron would not make any decisions for the University. The University will use the data to inform how the University should proceed amidst the budget deficit. Wilkins, Chief Financial Officer Bronté Burleigh-Jones and Chief Administrative Officer Seth Grossman sent an email to the AU community later the same day reiterating this information. 

“What we’ve asked Huron to do may differ strongly from what they’ve done at other places,” Wilkins said at the forum. “We’ve asked them to collect data for us — to be a source of data and information for us — to make sure that we have some quantitative data from a survey. And they didn’t offer us mass layoffs. They offered us data.”

Advocacy leading up to the forum

On Feb. 22, the coalition sent a letter to President Sylvia Burwell, Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Matthew Bennett, Burleigh-Jones and the University Board of Trustees demanding a campus-wide forum on Huron. 

After receiving a response to their initial letter from the administration, which “was not helpful and forwarded us to the website, which we already looked into,” according to Lizzie Graff, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences and the communications lead for Sunrise AU, the coalition made their demands public in a petition.

“We decided to escalate a little bit and start a petition,” Graff said. “The petition asks the administration to ‘stop hiding Huron’ and tells the administration that it’s time to be transparent. We also want to let students, staff and faculty know that they have a stake in this fight too.”

The petition, which was posted on YDSA’s Instagram March 7, again called on the University to host “a transparent and open campus-wide forum with administrators charged with facilitating Huron’s assessment and making decisions based on its recommendations.” The organization provided an email template that automatically sent an email that called on University administrators to “stop hiding Huron” and to hold the forum before “any final decisions are made following the cessation of Huron’s contract.” Upon submission, the email template was sent to Burwell, Wilkins, Burleigh-Jones, Grossman and the Board of Trustees.

Before the forum’s announcement, students shared concerns about Huron’s history of layoffs and program cuts. 

“Our biggest concerns are cuts to programs because we’ve seen Huron, at other schools, slash programs, like The New School or the University of Wisconsin,” Owen Camferdam, a sophomore in CAS and campaign chair for the YDSA, told The Eagle. “Some programs are cut to the point where they have to close down completely.”

Camferdam said potential program cuts will be “felt by faculty, students and parents” campus-wide. 

Josh Keilholtz, a senior academic advisor in CAS and representative for the College in the staff union, said the administration’s partnership with Huron raises concerns about administrative transparency. 

“My initial research into Huron Consulting Group revealed the decimation that Huron does to other schools and it did not do much to create trust amongst community members,” Keilholtz told The Eagle.  

Nearly a month after the petition’s launch, Sunrise AU announced the forum with University administrators on April 4 on their Instagram

The forum

Representatives from the different coalition groups read statements to begin the forum, outlining their concerns as students, staff and faculty before opening the floor for questions. 

“Huron is a symptom of a larger problem of transparency and trust amongst leadership and its employees,” Keilholtz said in his statement.

Multiple representatives expressed concern over Huron’s reputation of suggesting mass layoffs and department cuts, such as those at The New School and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside

Student, staff and faculty representatives also discussed the need for transparency regarding Huron’s recommendations. 

“I hope that this forum is a first step towards opening up lines of communication, transparency of information, and staff involvement,” said John Willoughby, a professor of economics and the president of AU’s chapter of AAUP, in his opening statement. 

After opening statements, Megan Gayken, an AU Experience instructor, first-year advisor and representative for undergraduate education in the staff union, asked about the possibility of staff layoffs, claiming that “layoffs and reorganizations have been happening across campus.”

“There’s not a plan. That is not what we asked Huron to do, and that’s not what they did,” Wilkins responded. “So I don’t have a plan for layoffs and I think that’s important to share. And I think it’s important that we don’t create situations in our community that fuel people’s uncertainty and fear with information that’s not correct.”

Other speakers were concerned over the “low morale and distrust” amongst staff and faculty, a finding that Wilkins said was apparent in Huron’s data.

Benjamin Djain, a professorial lecturer of literature, asked about the administration’s hesitancy to agree to the campus forum.

“The question that is gnawing on me and it’s affecting my morale, and I think it’s affecting the morale of a lot of people that I talked to is why didn’t the administration take the opportunity to connect directly with this community when it was asked to do so earlier?” Djain said. 

Wilkins stated that data from Huron was not available to the administration at the time of the coalition’s original request, however, she became aware of the requests after receiving multiple emails generated from the petition. 

“I started seeing more emails that were coming through a petition generator,” Wilkins said. “I could not respond to those emails and so when this invitation came through, I immediately marked my calendar and said I would come and do this.”

Student representatives also asked “who was involved and what factors are considered,” regarding the cost of hiring Huron Consulting.

Wilkins said that “the cost is roughly what we would have paid three to four full-time employees” and explained that the University did not have the survey tools that Huron uses to collect data and conduct assessments. 

Wilkins also discussed the potential for changes to academic programs, noting that these would likely be focused on graduate programs. 

“This is primarily the focus in our graduate programs because graduate [programs have] been a space where we have been extending ourselves,” Wilkins said. “Some of them have basically been closed in one way or another already. Some of them had less than five students for a number of years. We can’t continue to do everything we do in our graduate portfolio and so going forward, tough decisions will need to be made.”

On Feb. 2, Wilkins announced, in a campus-wide email, that an additional $1.3 million will be added to the budget shortfall. Wilkins said that the additional shortfall resulted from “spring graduate enrollments” that were “lower than our targets.” 

A University-wide email after the forum on April 4 said that AU’s current financial situation will impact the University’s decisions about its workforce.

“The university’s financial realities have shifted based on changes in enrollment,” Wilkins wrote in the email. “We must prioritize where we put our emphasis and resources to be effective and efficient. To prioritize effectively, we must also stop doing some things.”

The email also cited three sources of faculty and staff input that the University plans to use to assess the operation of AU and the future of AU. The University will use input from Huron, NFP/Helios, a benefit and human resources consulting firm, and the Provost’s Office.

To close the forum and address questions about transparency, Wilkins said there is more work to be done “in the way we communicate and how we decide things.” Transparency between the administration and AU’s community remains an important issue to members of the coalition. 

“I think it all starts with being transparent and listening to the voices of students,” Graff said. “We want to hold the administration accountable and we want to be a part of those conversations that develop solutions.”

Achyuth Sarath, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs, Student Government senator-at-large and chairman of the committee on campus and student life, also shared concerns about potential program cuts and the administration’s lack of communication with the community about Huron.

“We’re the ones affected by these decisions,” Sarath said. “We’re the ones who study, work and live on this campus every single day. The students and staff on this campus know what’s best for us and have ideas that the administration needs to hear.”

This article was edited by Kathryn Squyres, Tyler Davis and Abigail Turner. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis and Ariana Kavoossi. 

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