Search This Blog

Apr 30, 2017

The procedural micro-barriers

I have always hated bureaucratic inefficiencies. Everyone who spent one’s formative years in the Soviet union, does. The First Socialist State was remarkably inefficient. For example, to get a new passport, you would have to take a bus to an office A only to pick up a form and find out that it works on odd days, before noon. Than you would take the form for the clerical intake, quite often to be told that you do not have all the paperwork needed. For example, you should go get a clearance from your neighborhood’s office that you paid the rent on time. On your second, successful try, you be given instructions on how to pay for the service, at a state-owned bank, a few stops by bus, and where to get a photo, another few stops, in a different direction. Then you would gather the receipt for payment and your photos, which of course, would be ready only in three days, and then come back to the passport office. Stand in another line for an hour, and voila, you get your passport with a very sad and tired looking photo of you. Since then, Russians actually had made a remarkable progress in their state bureaucracy; unfortunately, their universities are still pretty bad, even the best ones.

Now, most American universities have undergone a remarkable transformation of student and faculty services that I witnessed. I remember filling out a bubble sheet to enroll at the University of Notre Dame in 1991. We had to stand in line for about an hour, I think. We also had to register for classes through a campus phone, which was only hard because we were international students and had no idea what the machine was talking about. By early 2000-s Banner and People Soft integrated the essential services into one online access system – bursar bill, registration, schedule, etc. Yet at the fringes of university operations, we still have these small pockets of stubbornly archaic procedures. For example, we have these paper forms that need 2-3 signatures, and have to be carried from place to place, and logged in every place, so you do not lose a track of them: Transfer courses equivalencies, Major/Minor Course Substitutions and Waivers, Change of Major, Change of Minor, Add/Drop Petition. Similarly, on the faculty side, I have found this intimidating list of forms.

The problem with these archaic pockets is two-fold. First, they represent what Eric Johnson called “micro-barriers,” which disproportionally affects first-generation, diverse students and faculty. Second, they require extraordinary amount of work, primarily for our staff, but also for faculty members. I have already written about the first problem. The second one is less visible, because staff just do what needs to be done. I am keenly aware though, that unless we decrease routine work for staff, we won’t increase our advising resources. We cannot hire any more people, so we need to do less of clerical, routine work.

The University’s IRT works hard on implementing a whole set of new technological platforms that will make our lives a little easier. It is a new admission platform, a new advising platform, a travel claims processing product, a new learning analytics platform, a new LMS, etc. I am a bit worried that they may stretch a bit too thin. But ultimately, the work routines on campus are too complex, and the needs of each college are too unique to count on large integrated platform solutions. It is not the technologies that we’re lacking. Almost all such problems are organizational. For example, when we developed the new request for travel procedure, we had to take a faculty committee out of the process, because it takes too long to process, and because we may have enough resources to be less stingy. No software can do this; it is a policy decision, an effort to streamline the organizational workflows. The teacher credentials compliance is a problem everywhere, because it involves many non-course requirements. The Registrar’s office is not equipped to deal with them, so it takes a lot of work to monitor compliance. You can tweak the registrar’s data bases to do the trick, or you can develop a bolt-on for your main integrated database, or design a stand-alone system. None of these solutions are perfect.

It is especially wasteful to have faculty members do clerical work. Faculty is the most important, the most expensive resource we have. In fact, salaries are north of 99% of our budget. Every time a faculty is carrying a paper from one place to another, or playing with spreadsheet to keep track of students, my heart aches. I am thinking what they are not doing instead – not preparing for classes, not writing scholarly papers, not talking to each other about program improvement, not resting and recharging.

Many program requirements that faculty establish take little or no notice on how labor-intensive would be to implement them. For example, checking every student’s GPA every semester takes a lot of work, and I am not convinced it is that critical. Why not put the burden of self-policing on them? OK, we may have one or two upset students, but save many hours of staff work, so they can help other, more responsible students. Those are not simple decisions; it is always a balancing act. But we really need to pay attention to our labor expenditures. I cannot do it alone; I need help. We’re lucky to have our own IT specialist, but he is not going to examine every requirement and every procedure. This work should be broadly distributed.

No comments:

Post a Comment