Sheila Curran is the CEO and chief strategy
consultant of the Curran Consulting Group (CCG)
( curranconsultinggroup.com), a boutique firm that
specializes in higher education strategy consulting.
Prior to CCG, she had held senior positions at Brown
University and Duke University, and also worked at
the University of Michigan and Gallaudet University.
CCG has conducted consulting assignments, both
with and without partners, in over three dozen diverse
institutions across the United States and England.
to make such a decision, even if no
students wanted to major in a subject.
It is notoriously difficult to manage in
an academic environment. One senior
administrator described managing
faculty as “herding cats.” Another
described faculty members as “united
only by a common parking lot.”
The truth is, most faculty members
do not want to manage anything
other than their own lives and work.
Outside of academia, most individuals
like being promoted. But in academia,
the elevation from faculty member to
department head is often considered
not an honor, but a chore. When asked
why a faculty member accepted a
department chair position, the author
has heard responses such as “I was
the last person standing,” “it was my
turn,” and “I wasn’t there when my
colleagues made the decision.” Some
of these quips may have been tongue
in cheek, but they cannot disguise the
fact that in many quarters of academia,
management is seen as something
somebody has to do, just not them.
The faculty culture seeps into all
quarters of colleges and universities.
Faculty typically don’t like making
judgments about their colleagues’
or their employees’ performance.
After all, in three years that same
colleague may be judging them.
So, it’s very hard to get a merit pay
system adopted. And few of those in
management in academia do a good
job of giving staff realistic feedback
that engenders targeted improvement.
One area in which consultants can have
long-lasting impact is in introducing
progressive financial policies and
processes. On many campuses, a huge
amount of money is wasted in May
or June each year because of a “use
it or lose it” budget model, in which
any money remaining at the end of
the fiscal year is returned to central
administration. Departments that
return money—perhaps because they
negotiated lower rates for products
or services—are likely not to be
praised, but rather to have their future
budgets cut on grounds that they
obviously don’t need the money.
Savvy staff know they need to have
a wish list of items ready to go in the
spring for use once a clear projection
of expenses for the year can be made.
But these decisions are rarely strategic,
and by definition, they can only be
one-time expenditures. When staff
members are incentivized to make
good budget decisions, however, their
universities are the beneficiaries.
Academic leaders are, by definition,
smart people. But they may know
little about how a consultant can
really help them. It is essential that
consultants are clear about the
results they expect to achieve and
how they do their work. Clients need
to be confident that consultants
understand and respect faculty culture
and that their recommendations
will not simply impose typical
business practices on them.
Consultants working in this
area must confer with clients on
findings, conclusions, and proposed
recommendations on a regular basis
to make sure that whatever report
is produced is actionable. And, they
need to push back when there are
good reasons not to proceed on a
previously agreed course of action.
On a recent consulting assignment,
a college president asked the author’s
firm to start a search to fill a newly
created senior administrator position at
the same time that it was conducting
a strategic organizational assessment.
During the campus visit for the
assessment, it became clear that the
president was significantly ahead
of academic leaders in his thinking
and that hiring a person before
giving everyone the opportunity
to understand the rationale behind
the position’s creation, would
create far more problems than
delaying the search. The president
ultimately agreed to push back the
search by a couple of months.
A Central Theme
Consultants can have a much greater
impact on the fortunes of higher
education if they think more creatively
about the underlying problems they
are being asked to address. When
colleges are in financial difficulty, there
is often an immediate need to raise
cash while stopping any non-urgent
disbursement of funds. However, once a
cash crisis has been averted, consultants
would do well to help colleges find
and implement longer-term solutions.
Only by doing so can clients avoid
new cash crises in subsequent years.
Most colleges and universities find it
difficult to concentrate on introducing
change over a long period of time.
Therefore, it is useful for consultants
to build into their contracts with
universities a plan for orchestrating
the implementation process and
a retainer to be on call to answer
questions as clients encounter
inevitable implementation roadblocks.
One theme that runs through all the
challenges facing higher education is
the need to improve college graduate
outcomes. A college that can prove
great success in providing both a quality
education and excellent placements
is one that doesn’t have to worry
about matriculation or retention.
Yet, how many consultants have the
expertise to advise higher education on
how to achieve those stellar results—
especially when a college is small, rural,
or lacking a name-brand reputation?
The key is for traditional management
and turnaround specialists to work
with higher education experts who
understand this area to help colleges
and universities survive in the short
term and thrive in the long term. J