May 26, 2018

The Tricky Business of Restructuring | From the Bell Tower

Restructuring is all the rage these days. Have you seen who’s doing it now? The U.S. government, that’s who. That’s right. Bloated federal agencies, if President Obama has his way, will undergo significant consolidation and streamlining. That sounds unbelievable, because the only thing that changes slower than higher education is the federal government.  Even the U.S. Army plans to streamline and reorganize its fighting forces, reducing its combat brigades from 45 to as few as 32, and eliminating as many as 80,000 soldiers.

Why so much interest in restructuring? Blame it on the recession and budget cutting, but there is also a growing realization that things are never going back to where they were—and our organizations need to reflect these leaner times.

By necessity or by choice
In the world of business, there is always some sort of restructuring taking place. It might be in the form of a merger or acquisition, the sale of a underperforming division, or a shake-up in the C-suite. In some cases, restructuring is required as a condition of emerging from a bankruptcy, as with American Airlines. In other cases, a restructuring may improve an organization by eliminating unnecessary operations, merging duplicative units, and achieving new efficiencies. Unfortunately, whether by necessity or choice, restructuring often results in the loss of jobs, or of services to which customers may have strong emotional attachments. But if done properly, organizations emerge far stronger, and the restructuring results in profits, better services, new jobs, and a brighter future.

Good for nonprofits?
While it’s been said that what’s good for GM is good for America, what’s good for business is not necessarily good for nonprofit organizations like colleges and universities. But, driven by the need for cost cutting and greater organizational efficiency, many higher education institutions are restructuring or planning for it.

It might be as simple as merging two academic departments or eliminating a few underperforming majors, or it might be far more complex, such as merging entire institutions. Academic restructuring can involve the elimination of  entire colleges or satellite campuses when the consequences of failing to act may be serious financial difficulty or decline.

That said, restructuring need not imply loss. It can also add something new, such as an entrepreneurial program that brings competitive advantage in its marketplace. But to add a new online major, for example, might mean reshuffling faculty or administrative staff. The bottom line is that in this post-recession economic environment, especially for public universities in which states are drastically cutting the flow of funds, restructuring will be part of the new normal.

Systemwide streamlining
One of the biggest higher education restructuring moves was recently announced by the University System of Georgia, which operates 35 public colleges and universities. It plans to reduce eight of its institutions to just four. As James T. Minor, director of higher-ed programs at the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta, recently wrote, “there is very little experience in the four-year sector of higher education with modern-day consolidations. Strong positive correlations between this kind of consolidation and educational outcomes do not exist.” In other words, there is no strong track record of successful reorganizations at this level in higher education.  “In the University System of Georgia’s case, what is clear is interest in streamlining, cost savings and economies of scale,” Minor wrote.  He also reminded the reader of something critical: while it is important to achieve savings and create efficiencies, any restructuring plan should begin with student learning, and must not ignore that institutional mission.

Not my program
Here’s the truly tricky thing about restructuring efforts that require the loss of any majors, departments, or even longstanding committees: those doing the restructuring often fail to acknowledge the symbolic value of whatever is targeted. The cultural fabric of any higher education institution is woven from the people and structures that shape its core value system. When a proposal to alter those values surfaces, constituents react strongly—even if the change would eliminate a department that has underperformed for many years, due to obsolescence or dysfunction.

Any restructuring effort needs to recognize how emotional attachment overrules rational decision-making. Even if it makes perfectly good sense and has little negative impact, faculty, students, and alumni may protest the change’s symbolism: “How can you eliminate the philosophy major? This is a liberal arts college. What will it say about us if we no longer offer philosophy?” For administrators or trustees, it may ultimately come down to having the courage to say, “No, we can no longer support this program.”

Never expect it to be easy. But with proper planning, consultation with constituents, strong evidence and clear communication, some of the resistance to and pain resulting from restructuring may be avoided.

Even Harvard
Academic libraries are certainly not immune. With the vast impact technology has on library operations, academic librarians know that organizational change is inevitable, and we are often ahead of the game. That said, academic library staff may resist the changes that restructuring brings. Academic librarianship was recently reminded of its disruptive impact when the Harvard Library system announced major plans to consolidate libraries and streamline personnel. With its massive budget and legendary endowment, few would expect to hear the Harvard Library administrators calling for new efficiencies and cost-saving strategies. It may make perfect sense from a balance sheet point of view, but it appears the way the communication is happening has already led to cries of protest, internal anger, and a rising tide of resistance that will make change all the more painful.

Perhaps the strong reaction is driven by staff worried about job loss—but, on another level, maybe you just don’t mess with the Harvard Library. Consider the symbolism. The restructuring may not diminish the strength of the collections or services, but there is a strong emotional connection to what these academic libraries mean. At your institution or mine, eliminating branch libraries may cause some departmental ill will, but ultimately it is seen as sensible and necessary. At Harvard, it is perceived as an ill-conceived tearing of the cultural fabric.

Restructuring is happening all around us. At every government level, in national associations, at your institution, and even at the mighty Harvard. It is a sign of the times, and we need to adapt. The first step is to separate the symbolism from the reality. If we can understand that restructuring is not about destroying core institutional values, but about strengthening our institutions for future survival, then we can move forward. When we do, we will discover new and possibly better ways to honor the past, and the values we hold so dear.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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