The thought of UT students learning something from their traditional rivals in College Station may seem tantamount to blasphemy for many. However, recent campus controversy surrounding a move by John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, to outsource university operations like food, housing and facilities maintenance could serve as a valuable lesson for students and employees at UT.
Last week, President William Powers Jr. announced the formation of a 13-member committee made up of business leaders from around the state who will scrutinize non-academic operations in search of inefficient and underperforming operations in the university’s administration, research commercialization and facilities management departments. UT’s chief financial officer, Kevin Hegarty, described these departments as “back-end” operations that aren’t as visible to students and the public as the university’s core operations like teaching and research, according to The Daily Texan.
Though the committee is newly formed and has yet to provide recommendations, an article in The Texas Tribune suggests that the most likely strategies to improve operational efficiency include better sharing of services across campus and the outsourcing of some services. As sources of funding for higher education become increasingly less dependable, efforts to maximize value in any of the University’s operations are both laudable and necessary. When planning these efforts, it is important to consider more than just short-term financial savings.
In College Station, custodial staff have protested outside of A&M’s Student Government Association meetings to try and build student opposition to a plan that would outsource their jobs to private maintenance companies. The move to outsource has been proposed as a way to save the university money. Proponents of the plan say that many custodial positions will be transferred to whichever company wins the bid to maintain A&M’s College Station campus, and that wages and benefits will remain virtually unchanged after the switchover. Opponents point out that there is no language in the proposal that guarantees this scenario, and the A&M Faculty Council has passed a resolution against the plan, citing concerns about employee morale.
Meanwhile A&M’s student government has passed a resolution that urges administrators to consider staff livelihoods when making a decision regarding outsourcing of maintenance operations, but also states that price and quality of the service provided should be the highest priority concerns. Students opposed to the resolution claim that the issue is between staff and administrators, and that students should not get involved insofar as it does not affect their daily campus experience.
This way of thinking deprives students of a say in how their campus is run and is detrimental to campus unity. The relationships formed between students and the staff members they encounter on a daily basis are part of what foster a sense of belonging and community on campus. As important members of the UT campus community, students should support staff in all University departments.
Additionally, the outsourcing of University operations would reduce the school’s ability to control certain aspects of the its public reputation. An article in the Texan from earlier this year describes how the foodservices company contracted by the UT Athletics Department to manage concessions operations during athletic events has been accused of workers’ rights violations in the U.S. and abroad. Though UT Athletics have established a business relationship with this company, they have little power to influence the way it conducts business in other venues.
Though outsourcing in any form garners a bad reputation because of the perceived loss of jobs the term implies, the idea of contracting work to a more efficient entity is sometimes the best way to ensure a quality product or service at a reasonable price. Last year, UT students created new university email addresses using the new UTMail product managed by Google. This service replaced the old webmail application that was powered and maintained by UT’s Information Technology Services department. By outsourcing University email to Google, students were provided with a service that better fulfilled their changing online needs, while saving the University the cost of maintaining and upgrading an outdated service.
Email and facilities management are indeed different operations that will require different types of solutions. As Powers’ committee of business leaders begin to analyze university operations, they should be careful to balance their business acumen with an understanding of what makes UT such a special place for so many students and alumni. We should welcome their efforts to make UT financially stronger, while ensuring that these efforts do not weaken the already strong community and identity that exists amongst students, faculty and staff.
Finke is an architecture and urban studies senior.