No Thanks, Bain
It might not come as a surprise to a lot of people, but a group of university faculty and staff members and a group of Fortune 500 management consultants have different ideas about how a university should be structured and run.
About a year ago, the University of North Texas at Dallas retained Bain & Company, a management consulting firm, to help it design a new model for the university that is more accessible, more flexible, and more student-centered. Bain traditionally works with Fortune 500 companies but has done some work in higher education, including a recent report that suggested a third of U.S. colleges and universities are on an unsustainable path. That report generated significant discussion at this year's annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, with many finance officials calling it overly simplistic.
The consultants made recommendations to the university’s administration this spring. Those recommendations were not made public, but reports based on them state that the consultants called for a narrow set of career-oriented majors, large teaching loads for faculty members and more hybrid (mixed online and in-person instruction) courses, and for recruitment to focus on traditional-aged, “driven” undergraduate students (the university’s current student body is composed largely of transfer students). Bain also recommended low tuition and increased enrollment.
The university sent those recommendations to two groups for evaluation – a group of faculty and staff members, and a “21st Century Commission,” a group of prominent leaders assembled by Bain including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and city Mayor Mike Rawlings.
In a report the university tried to keep confidential but was obtained and published by The Dallas Morning News Thursday, the faculty and staff group were critical of the Bain plans and proposed a significantly different model, one that continues to offer a strong liberal arts core, focus on transfer and underprepared students, emphasizes educational quality over outcomes like graduation rates, values faculty research, and gives faculty a greater say in curriculum development than they’ve had in the past.
“UNT Dallas has already differentiated itself in the marketplace by reaching out to a broad spectrum of students and providing them access to higher education at an affordable cost,” the report states. “The university should continue down this path and emphasize its unique characteristics: transformation, belonging, value, diversity, and legacy.”
University administrators declined to discuss the faculty group's criticism on deadline, but released a statement about the report, saying it was part of an ongoing discussion at the university that will result in a single vision. "The New University Model Research Advisory Panel comprised of UNT Dallas faculty and staff was assembled so that they could review the research conducted by Bain & Co. and be an integral part of informing Our New University Model," the administration said in a statement. "They have done so and their independent insights, ideas and recommendations will be incorporated into the ongoing work of the 21st Century Commission to help determine the future of our university.
"The panel's report is one piece of an ongoing process that may or may not result in policy and operational changes at the University of North Texas at Dallas."
The Dallas Morning News requested the report under the state’s open records law, but the university asked the state Attorney General’s office for permission to keep it private. The news outlet obtained the report through other means.
The faculty and staff report is highly critical of some of the consultants’ recommendations and the general approach to reforming the university. “Bain consultants do not ask what parts of the traditional university model are worth saving,” the report states. “Instead they advocate across-the-board changes for change’s sake.”
They also say the board doesn’t place enough emphasis on educational quality. “Disruptive innovation is an entrepreneurial model designed to win competition for market share. Winning means increased enrollment,” the report states. “It does not guarantee the quality of the product, which in this case is graduates.” The report also notes that a focus on graduates might not be the right measure of the university’s success, since simply getting though several years of college might be a huge achievement for the demographic the university enrolls.
The faculty and staff report applauds only three aspects of the Bain recommendation: the consultants' ability to identify educational problems in the Dallas-Fort Worth area; a handful of recommendations for meeting the needs of underprepared and struggling students, such as an early alert system and five-week summer boot camp; and recognition of areas where costs could be cut without sacrificing quality.
It criticizes the Bain group for making recommendations based on incomplete data and for benchmarking UNT-Dallas against institutions faculty members don’t consider peers. The consultants compared the institution to Brigham Young University-Idaho, one of the subjects of Clayton Christensen's The Innovative University, and Georgia Gwinnett College. The consultants said those two institutions had "innovative four-year models," though the faculty report notes that both also do not have tenured faculty. The faculty report also calls out the consultants' suggestions for making assumptions about emerging fields, the value of hybrid courses, and why students select universities that the faculty don’t necessarily agree with, including that location and price, not program availability and quality, are the factors important to urban students in selecting colleges.
The faculty and staff plan calls for the university to hew closely to its current strengths -- including educating transfer and underprepared students -- while expanding some career-oriented majors. Faculty would maintain similar workloads, though with some emphasizing teaching and others research and service.
The university's administration is supposed to receive feedback from the 21st Century Commission in September. It will take the recommendations of Bain, the faculty and staff group, and the commission into account in determining the university's direction. But given the divergent visions of the Bain and faculty and staff visions, reconciling them will likely be difficult.