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Commentary: Tough Month?

Posted By NAEP, Thursday, September 21, 2017

By: Neil Markee
Editor in Chief-Purchasing Link

If you are wondering why your Chief Business Officer seems a bit distracted of late, you might want to take a look at what they have been reading in the media.  Last month, we discussed two articles recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and very likely to have been read by every Chief Business Officer subscriber.  One article dealt with maybe-abusive and unproductive management at the highest level (or micro-management run amuck). The other dealt with sexual assault and our lack of compliance with the demands of justice. Neither was complimentary and both pointed to a need for change.     

The front page of the Chronicle’s August 4 issue added three more important articles to campus business leader’s reading lists.  One related to an unhappy private defense attorney who had represented individual student athletes and was now washing a major institution’s dirty linen in public. Another is about an apparent conflict of interest involving serious money, a very senior academic administrator, and her abrupt termination. In the third, a high-profile professor believes he was misled or hampered in his efforts to carry out what he thought he was hired to do. In the national media, another article discusses affirmative-action failure in admissions.  Dealing with those four topics might be more than enough for a governing board meeting agenda.

In an article titled “A Warning, a Crusade, and a Public Reckoning at the U. of Florida” published in the August 4, 2017 Chronicle, a very unusual tale unfolds.  Huntley Johnson, a lawyer who had represented individual university athletes, was apparently unhappy with a recent contentious fee-negotiation involving a football player and took action based on public-records requests. “The thousands of pages of records he obtained revealed numerous unflattering details about the University of Florida, including pornography purchased by a top administrator, and improper spending on a new presidential house.” As the disclosures went on, the issues involved broadened. ”It’s a textbook example of how Mr. Johnson’s battle against the university has at times veered into unexpected terrain, bringing fresh scrutiny to issues the administration might rather keep quiet.”  “Month after month, the university has been pummeled by negative headlines in The Gainesville Sun, just as Mr. Johnson promised. Is this a form of accountability or is it vengeance?  Maybe it’s both.” In closing, author Michael Vasquez asked, “Are more shoes about to drop?” “Unfortunately,” Mr. Johnson says, “this is not a two-legged animal.  The answer to your question is yes.”

Vulnerability to this sort of legal digging is, no doubt, widespread on campus.  I suspect at least a few campus decision-makers who came across this article read it muttering to nobody in particular, ”There but for the grace of God go I”.  As a nation, I think we have learned dealing with an exposed cover-up is more difficult than with the event itself.  Maybe the challenge for the business side of the house on campus is selling transparency across the board. 

The Chronicle’s “What’s Behind Texas A&M’s Rush to Fire Karan Watson?” needs a follow-up to complete the file.  This article suggests there might have been other issues but doesn’t provide specific reasons, other than the stated appearance of conflict of interest.  The abrupt termination came just two months after a laudatory farewell reception in honor of the soon-to retire provost and a few days before her scheduled departure.  “An audit had found the appearance of – but no evidence of – misuse of resources related to a conflict of interest involving Ms. Watson’s wife.”  Over a period of several years the University had paid a company owned by Nancy Watson $438,000 of which, “about $114,000 was paid through the office overseen by Karan Watson.” The rest was apparently handled via a normal procurement process.   Whether or not an improper conflict of interest influencing procurement occurred was not established in the article.  But I can imagine the consternation in purchasing, the business office, and the president’s office when the issue surfaced. There was no mention of any procurement department involvement in this case and that may be part of the problem. But I’d wager every CBO and NAEP member procurement professional cross the country with access to the copy of the Chronicle closely read this article more than once. I imagine the CBO spent some time responding to inquiries from his governing board and peers.

 “Tough Talk,” published in the same issue of the Chronicle, discusses the reaction to statements of an outspoken, prominent, black, philosophy professor hired by a major public institution in a conservative state. “The philosopher wanted to talk about race and violence. People didn’t want to hear,” reads the copy accompanying his picture on the first page.  As I digested the long article, I came to believe that this was an example of how the smoke of hot rhetoric can both command attention and obscure the message.  I don’t believe that Professor Tommy J. Curry was advocating the use of gun fire to redress racial issues in America. But apparently some did.  I think his goal was to draw attention to what he sees as a major national fault, not the possible need to kill more white people. But I imagine his university’s CBO needed more than a purple pill or two before going to the president’s office the after hearing from those on campus and in the larger community, who felt threatened or, maybe, insulted. Language can be a powerful tool available to all sides—and hot words, although very inexpensive to utter, can be incredible costly to recall.   

The Chronicle wasn’t the only bearer of troubling news. A front page above the fold headline in the August 25 issue of the New York Times declared, “Affirmative Action Yields Little Progress on Campus For Blacks and Hispanics.”  The subhead was, “After 35 years, Racial Gaps Widen at Top U.S. Colleges, an Analysis Shows.” Maybe you and your CBO thought the U.S. Supreme Court had settled that discussion and corrective action had been taken. I did. Higher education has devoted a lot of time and treasure to addressing this problem and, according to the article, had come up short among the elite institutions.

What has all this to do with purchasing in support of higher education? Only one on the list was directly focused on traditional financial transaction issues but all involved the business office, one way or another. The September–October double issue of the Harvard Business Review carried an article titled, “Why Do We Undervalue Competent Management?” The subhead was, “Neither Great Leadership Nor Brilliant Strategy Matters Without Operational Excellence.” To earn a voice in the discussion, procurement professionals and other business leaders must use their understanding of the organization’s goals, challenges. and options to provide the necessary operational excellence in their area of expertise and offer relevant input.  

What is high on the Cabinet’s agenda as, probably behind closed doors, members seek to establish, review and fund institutional priorities? The Chronicle and the national media are good sources of information.  What the general public thinks of our stewardship matters and media coverage of higher education provides a view into the workings of the administration on campus and relationships among the players, as viewed from an off-campus perspective. Being aware of the public perceptions, implications, and pressures can maximize your ability to contribute to a successful outcome

The challenge around the Cabinet table is always what to do? I’m sure your CBO wants to contribute something positive to the discussion. Given the matters outlined above, what might the message be?  What would you say?

What’s happening on your campus?    

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