UT rallies against Shared Services; 18 arrested

At an April 23 rally, employees, faculty, and students at the University of Texas at Austin slammed a business consultant’s proposal to centralize, privatize, and eliminate staff jobs at UT and called the job-cutting proposal an attack on the whole UT community.

After the rally, students went to the office of UT President William Powers to meet with him and express their concerns about the consultant’s proposal. Instead of meeting with the students, Powers had 18 of them arrested.

In 2012, UT administrators hired Accenture, a global consulting firm based in Ireland, to develop plans for making UT operate more like a business.

Accenture in 2013 produced a long-term plan that would restructure the way that UT provides administrative and other services.

The initial phase of Accenture’s plan, called Shared Services, centralizes administrative services at call centers and eliminates at least 500 jobs.

Austin City Council member Mike Martinez was one of the speakers opposing Accenture’s Shared Services plan.

“I’m proud to voice my opposition to what I see as a dangerous, slippery slope that we’re heading toward with Shared Services,” said Martinez, who said that he would ask other City Council members to join him in opposing the plan.

Because of the fight waged against Shared Services by the UT Save Our Community Coalition, which organized the rally, UT’s executive leadership has backtracked on its implementation plan.

Now, the administration is saying that Shared Services will be implemented on a pilot basis and that full implementation will come only after the results of these pilot programs have been analyzed.

The McCombs School of Business is one department that for two years has implemented the centralization principles of Shared Services.

Roanna Flowers, a staff member at the School of Business, described how Shared Services works in practice.

“I can tell you what it’s resulted in,” said Flowers, a member of the Texas State Employees Union CWA 6186, the UT workers’ union. “Poor working conditions, a loss of community, bottlenecks, higher costs, and extremely low morale.”

UT’s Chief Financial Officer Kevin Hegarty has said that the Shared Services job cuts will come about through attrition and that no one will lose their job.

But the College of Liberal Arts after consulting with Accenture’s Shared Services Steering Committee, centralized its business services office.

As a result, Victoria Vlatch, a course scheduler, lost her job.

Speaking at the rally, Vlatch, a TSEU member, said that when UT starts acting like a business, it devalues the work that she and others do.

“Faculty and staff members are no longer seen as assets essential to the mission of the university,” said Vlatch. “We become instead expenses.”

President Powers argues that eliminating jobs is necessary because state funding for UT has not kept up with growth causing budget shortfalls.

But Adam Tallman, a member of the Graduate Student Workers Union TSEU, told the audience that UT executives’ salaries are partially responsible for the shortfall.

“Why are we broke?” asked Tallman. “There’s another interesting dynamic going on here. In 2008, the overall salary of administrators making $200,000 or more a year was $18 million. Guess what it is now–$44 million.

“As a percentage of state appropriations, the top administrators’ salaries went from 4 percent (in 2008) to what it is now, which is 14 percent.”

In a recent letter to authors of a faculty letter urging Powers to reconsider the Shared Services plan, Powers said that the challenges facing UT require it to become more efficient.

But at the rally, Dr. Mia Carter, a professor in the English Department and one of the authors of the faculty letter, asked, “Why does the zeal for efficiency and restructuring start at the expense of the staff?”

Carter said that the faculty letter to Powers offers a better solution for dealing with the challenges facing UT.

“What makes a public university great? What sustains its values? . . . Who and what are worth paying for and investing in?” asked Carter. “The faculty letter expressed the hope we will collectively ask these questions for they concern us all and are inseparable from discussions about the quality and value of public education.”

If the administration was really concerned about efficiencies, said Bert Herigstad, office manager in the Radio Television Film Department and winner of UT’s 2011 Outstanding Staff Award,  “one of the first things (they) can do is ask the staff, what are your ideas to improve efficiency,” but the administration has failed to do so.

The Save Our Community Coalition has emphasized that the staff job cuts proposed by Shared Services are an attack not only against staff but to the whole community.

Tarel Patel, a UT Student Government representative, explained why standing up for the UT community is important to him.

“When we’re asked to stand to fight for our community, we stand together; when we’re asked to stand together to save jobs, we stand together; and when we’re fighting for our education and our community, we continue to stand together. That’s inspiring to me and future generations of students who will be coming to UT.”

After the rally, a group of students went to the UT Tower, the administration building overlooking the campus, and asked to meet with Powers to explain their opposition to Shared Services.

“We are here to have our voices heard, and they are not being heard by this university so we took our voices to the Tower,” said Sophia Portier, a UT student to KVUE television.

Instead of meeting with the students, Powers stayed in his office.

The students responed with a peaceful sit-in.

The campus police were subsequently called in and arrested those participating in the protest.

After the arrests, UT professor Snehal Shingavi posted on his blog an open letter of support for those arrested and urged faculty members to sign it.

The letter concludes:

We think that it is time for this pattern of responding to protest with police to stop in favor of a policy of active engagement with student concerns. We encourage the University of Texas and the Travis County Attorney to drop the charges against the students arrested yesterday. We encourage the University to revise its policies in dealing with student protesters. But most importantly, we encourage the University of Texas to rethink its commitment to the staff who work tirelessly to make UT Austin the flagship university of Texas and to reconsider its implementation of Shared Services.

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