UT's 'Shared Services' Begins Sharing ... Layoffs

Powers endorses controversial plan

Students show their love for UT staff.
Students show their love for UT staff. (Photo courtesy of Bianca Hinz-Foley)

"BREAKING NEWS: President Powers makes a landmark decision to stand with UT faculty, students, and staff, stop Accen­ture's bad shared services plan, and restore sanity to UT Austin!"

That was the April Fools' status update posted on April 1 to the Facebook page of UT's Save Our Community Coalition. In reality, in a memorandum addressed to the "Members of the University Community," UT-Austin President Bill Powers had signed a full endorsement of the "Shared Services" program just the previous day – stirring UT students, faculty, and staff to implore him to reconsider.

Shared Services is an administrative attempt to respond to UT's budgetary problems in the wake of federal funding cuts, recurring state budget reductions, and rising operations costs. The plan – to eliminate 500 staff positions over time in order to consolidate business operations – has been a controversial one since it was first introduced to the UT campus last year.

In his letter of endorsement, Powers thanked key players behind the plan, as well as UT staff members, for "the important work they do every day."

"I have asked Vice President Kevin Heg­ar­ty to carry out that charge in a thoughtful manner that is customized to our campus," he wrote. Since Powers' endorsement, "carrying out the charge" has meant moving forward with the program's pilot phase of implementation in both the College of Educa­tion and the Office of the Provost. According to Associate Vice President Mary Knight, these pilot programs, along with pre-existing pilots in colleges like the College of Liberal Arts, will eventually be evaluated through measures such as benchmarking, surveys, and campus discussions. She said that while initial reaction to the Shared Services model has been mixed, over time general feedback has been positive. The College of Liberal Arts and Infor­ma­tion Technology Services Customer Sup­port are on a joint pilot, and according to Knight, have rated desktop support "very satisfied" in regularly conducted surveys.

However, not all the feedback has been positive. In response to Powers' March 31 endorsement, more than 100 faculty members signed a letter urging Powers to withdraw his support of the plan. Since the letter was delivered on April 8, numerous additional faculty members have requested that their signatures be added.

The letter was co-written by decorated faculty members Mia Carter, Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor of English; Julius Getman, law professor and Earl E. Sheffield Regents Chair; and Anne Lewis, Radio-Television-Film senior lecturer and UT System Regents' Outstanding Teacher of 2010. In the letter, the faculty members emphasize their belief that Shared Services threatens the sense of community that joins faculty, staff, and students. Staff "are people who help make our campus the compassionate, intelligent, diverse, vibrant, and enviable place that attracts visitors to the Forty Acres," the letter reads. "Their support of faculty and students forge the lifelong bonds of attachment to and affection for the university that are its very lifeblood. We should choose to invest in our campus community as a whole because that investment strengthens our city, its families, and our common spirit."

Getman said he has learned from his 50 years of teaching that staff-faculty relationships are crucial for faculty, and that these relationships could be threatened by a system like Shared Services. "There are financial problems with the university," Getman said. "But I think many faculty feel that in the past, we have tried too much to save money and resources at the expense of staff, who have not had many raises at all in recent years. Staff has been significantly singled out for sacrifice."

Victoria Vlach, the sole course scheduler for the Department of Asian Studies, is one of these sacrificed staff members. Vlach received notice of her position's elimination on Feb. 14 – a day after she appeared in a Daily Texan op-ed piece about Shared Ser­vices, in which she commented that she did not feel personally affected by the program. Vlach said she was blindsided the next day, when she was given "centralization" as the reason for her sudden termination.

Knight said Shared Services and centralization are not the same thing, and that the position of course scheduling is not included in the scope of Shared Services restructuring; moreover, Hegarty has publicly maintained that all eliminated positions under Shared Services would be lost only through attrition. However, an open records request revealed several emails written by Asian Studies Chair Joel Brereton concerning the layoff, and informing other staff members that Vlach was being laid off as "part of the College's move toward shared services, which will eventually affect the staffs of all departments." (Brereton did not respond to requests for comment.)

Vlach said she did not feel as though staff voices had been taken into consideration during the formation of the Shared Services plan. "We know our jobs, and so many of us take so much pride in what we do and being able to do it well," she said. "We'd love to make things be easier, be simpler, be more effective – that'd be great. If they would have asked us – the staff – there would have been so many ideas."

As one of the first staff members to speak publicly about their experiences with Shared Services, Vlach said she believes the staff fear of retaliation is real. "I figure if my speaking out opens the door just a little bit more, so that somebody else feels safe to raise their voice and to speak out, then that's a good thing."

Posted here are: (1) Memorandum by UT-Austin President Bill Powers, endorsing the Shared Services plan; (2) Letter from UT faculty to Powers, asking that he withdraw his support for the plan; (3) Internal emails of the Asian Studies Department, attributing Feb. layout of staffer to "shared services"

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News, University of Texas, Shared Services, Save Our Community Coalition, Kevin Hegarty, Mary Knight, Julius Getman, Mia Carter, Anne Lewis, Joel Brereton, Victoria Vlach, Accenture

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