Chancellor Says Transformation, Biologists Say Mumbo-Jumbo

At U. of Missouri at Kansas City, a 'blueprint for the future' causes an uproar

The Chronicle of Higher Education/November 1, 2002
By Piper Fogg

Kansas City, Mo. -- During a "transformation workshop" at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, a biology professor is asked to pretend he is riding a magic yellow bus. Imagine, he is told, where the bus will take the university in five years. It will be on a par with Harvard University, suggests one person. Don't be concerned with reality, the scientist is told.

In another meeting, a story is told about 100 monkeys, who taught other monkeys to complete a task by willing them to learn it. The myth is presented as fact.

Those sessions were part of a controversial plan by the chancellor, Martha W. Gilliland, to transform the university. Known as "The Blueprint for the Future," the program is designed to change the university from a "Cartesian" organization -- one that is deterministic and hierarchical -- into a "quantum" one, that is, one that is unpredictable by its nature and stresses relationships among people. By 2006, she envisions, the university will have 10 academic programs ranked in the top 10 nationally, will be among the top universities in graduating minority students, will have 50 percent of its faculty, students, and staff doing public service or scholarship, and will be financially secure.

But the blueprint has also been likened to EST, a self-help movement founded by Werner Erhard in the 1970s. Gordon Starr, the management consultant who is helping to run the program for the university, once worked for a company Mr. Erhard started.

The chancellor's strategic plan -- with a price tag of $2.5-million -- has riven the institution. Some professors call it harmless, and some say it will help the university live up to its potential. But others say it is a waste of time, a bunch of condescending mumbo-jumbo that has no place at a university. Nowhere has it been less welcome than at the School of Biological Sciences, where faculty members deride what they describe as a touchy-feely program that is all image and no substance. As scientists, they appreciate hard evidence and logic, but have found little of either in Ms. Gilliland's ideas.

Meanwhile, the school appears to be paying a price for refusing to buy into her plan. In the summer of 2001, the chancellor demoted the school's longtime dean. Last spring, the administration froze the school's budget. Then it hired an interim dean without the faculty's approval and convened a "task force" to determine the school's fate.

Ms. Gilliland denies that she is punishing the school and insists that she supports the biology faculty members. (She is a scientist herself, having started her career as a professor of civil and environmental engineering.) She does not understand why they are so upset, she says, particularly given that the blueprint held the promise of a higher profile for the life sciences. "The future is in your hands," she tells them at a Faculty Senate meeting. To many professors, however, her actions tell a different story.

'Empty Language'

The university, often called UMKC, stands in the shadow of the University of Kansas, which is less than 50 miles away but enjoys a much higher profile and better reputation. UMKC, whose campus is dominated by boxy concrete buildings and older brick ones, has nearly 14,000 students, but less than 10 percent of them live in dormitories. Many are part-time or returning students who gravitate toward preprofessional majors.

Within the University of Missouri System, UMKC also plays second fiddle, if not third or fourth, to the flagship campus at Columbia and its outposts.

Before arriving at UMKC, in April 2000, Ms. Gilliland, 57, was the provost of Tulane University, where she helped create a plan to open its first "smart" electronic classroom and a faculty-development program to encourage technology-assisted learning. She had served in administrative posts at the University of Arizona and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Eager to make her mark at Kansas City, she presented what she calls her "transformation" plans at her inauguration, in September 2000, after hiring an old friend, Gordon Starr, to help formulate the strategic vision. Mr. Starr had worked for Transformational Technologies, a company specializing in organizational change that was started by Mr. Erhard. From 1991 to 1999, he was a partner at the London Perret Roche Group, a New Jersey-based management-consulting firm. He incorporated the Starr Consulting Group on January 1, 2000, according to his résumé, just months before he received the UMKC contract, and he has never before "transformed" an academic institution. Mr. Starr declined to comment for this article.

In May 2000, Mr. Starr began running the series of transformation workshops, where top campus officials were invited to create a "Blueprint for the Future." The three themes they came up with were: developing "a campus without borders," building "academic excellence," and "unleashing human potential." They also set priorities that included, among other goals, improving the life sciences, building a new student center and a new arts center, and upgrading campus housing.

Next, a group of supporters of the blueprint developed a set of visions and values. They chose phrases like "Education First" and "Energized Collaborative Communities," which were emblazoned on posters and handouts that have been tacked up in offices and hallways throughout the campus. Then Mr. Starr ran campuswide voluntary workshops.

Meanwhile, Ms. Gilliland chose a group of 35 university employees, including the deans and some staff members, but only two professors, to be part of her "cabinet." The committee advises her administration on almost every major university issue. Ms. Gilliland has also created an "extended cabinet" of about 160 people, whom she calls the "doers."

Those somewhat unorthodox structures have rankled some professors. They object to the time-consuming workshops and to the language Mr. Starr and his staff use. One biology professor says he was encouraged "to come to a state where you shouldn't have to think anymore; it should just be automatic."

"It's full of empty language, it's anti-intellectual and unproductive," says Susan Adler, an associate professor of education.

Money is another sore point for faculty members. The university has suffered deep budget cuts because of state shortfalls. But the blueprint costs $2.5-million, and Mr. Starr's contract alone is valued at $750,000.

Gerald D. Jensen, the vice chancellor for administration when Ms. Gilliland arrived, did not think the university could afford the kind of transformation she espoused. "To create a mind-set in your faculty and staff that something's achievable when, in fact, it's not achievable -- I think that's a little misleading," says Mr. Jensen. He quit his job in April 2000 and is now an executive vice president at Cleveland Chiropractic College of Kansas City.

Still, hiring expensive consultants to set lofty goals is not unusual in academe, nor is the negative reaction of faculty members to such hires. Madeleine F. Green, vice president and director of the Center for Institutional and International Initiatives at the American Council on Education, says the practice is common, particularly at universities that want large-scale change. "Change often brings with it controversy, pain, resistance, naysayers, and enthusiasts," says Ms. Green.

And Chancellor Gilliland maintains that the blueprint's financing comes exclusively from private donors, who have earmarked their contributions for that purpose.

Other professors are encouraged by what they have seen. They say the blueprint allows faculty and staff members to interact in ways they would not otherwise. "It's a way of opening up the campus and bringing people together," says Max Skidmore, a professor of political science.

Scientists Reject the 'Transformation'

From the beginning, Marino Martinez-Carrion, dean of the School of Biological Sciences, was concerned about the plan's high cost and was skeptical of the "transformation." "It was a lot of pop-psychology," he says.

One of the blueprint's key goals is to forge off-campus collaborations, especially in the life sciences. Mr. Martinez-Carrion objected to some of the proposed partnerships, saying they would take advantage of professors. A planned collaboration with a private life-sciences institute, for example, would have given its researchers cushy appointments at the school, he says, and would have muddled the rights to any scientific discoveries.

Mr. Martinez-Carrion says he was pushed to get junior professors involved in transformation activities. But believing they should focus instead on teaching, research, and getting tenure, he refused to press them into service. Some professors say they have heard that such participation will be noted in their tenure files.

"It was quite clear I wasn't going to be blueprinted," says Mr. Martinez-Carrion.

Other scientists have similar objections. "It's a complete waste of time," says Edward P. Gogol, an associate professor of cell biology and former member of Ms. Gilliland's extended cabinet. He says most of its meetings were spent haggling over the wording of university values. People hesitated to speak out, he remembers, and ultimately the group decided nothing of substance. "Unless you're bruising for a fight, you don't just stand up and say, 'This is bull,'" he says.

Mr. Martinez-Carrion did stand up, though, and appears to have been swiftly knocked down. In June 2001, two days before a biology-faculty retreat, Ms. Gilliland asked him to resign. He was to cancel the retreat and tell faculty members he was stepping down, despite his 15 years of work to build up the school and its research program.

"I said to Martha [Gilliland], 'If I tell that to the faculty, they're going to think I've lost my marbles,'" says Mr. Martinez-Carrion. So the chancellor removed him and canceled the retreat herself. Mr. Martinez-Carrion returned to the faculty. The chancellor declines to discuss exactly why she demoted him, calling it a personnel matter. "I have expectations of executive leadership," she says, implying that Mr. Martinez-Carrion did not meet them.

The Last Straw

To the administration's dismay, the biology professors rallied around Mr. Martinez-Carrion, voting 41 to 0 to reinstate him as dean. Demoting him, says Lindsey Hutt-Fletcher, chairwoman of the biological-sciences faculty, was a big miscalculation.

"They really thought everyone in the school hated Marino," she says. Although many of his colleagues call him outspoken and brash, Mr. Martinez-Carrion earned popularity as dean by protecting his faculty. "He shouts and yells and can be autocratic," says Ms. Hutt-Fletcher, but he always had the school's best interests in mind.

Ms. Gilliland refused to reconsider her decision. The biology faculty submitted a set of resolutions to her office on June 14, 2001. They called for the administration to keep biological sciences intact, to appoint a search committee with a majority of faculty members from the school to find a new dean, and to continue to support their research.

It took nearly five months -- until December 3, 2001 -- for the provost, Stephen Ballard, to sign the document. A search began for a new dean. But that, too, quickly became contentious, and an advertisement for the post was never approved.

In May of this year, the biologists received their biggest shock. A letter from Provost Ballard accused the school of not meeting its mission, in part by providing inadequate instruction and by being uncollaborative. The provost informed the faculty that he had closed the search for a new dean. He froze much of the school's budget, including state funds and outside grants. "'You guys are done' -- that's essentially what it said," says Mr. Martinez-Carrion.

More strife was in store for the school. An interim dean, chosen with input from the biology faculty, resigned after less than a year. The administration, which says the problem centered on leadership, then turned to an outsider, Frank Horton, a geographer and former president of the University of Toledo. When Mr. Horton began as interim dean, in August, his annual salary of $264,000 (far higher than even the chancellor's $183,750 pay) so outraged the faculty that many professors wrote letters of complaint to a local newspaper.

The cabinet then sent a resolution to Ms. Gilliland asserting that if the school did not accept the administration's interim plan, the school should be dissolved immediately.

That was the last straw. On August 30, the biological-sciences faculty passed a resolution of no confidence in the chancellor and the provost. "People vote with their feet," says Alfred F. Esser, a professor of biochemistry and biophyics, who notes that four faculty members have left since Ms. Gilliland arrived.

W. Kelley Thomas is now an associate professor of biology at the University of New Hampshire at Durham, where he co-directs the Hubbard Center for Genome Studies. "I'm just damn glad I got out," he says.

Gerald M. Carlson, head of the university's division of cell biology and biophysics, has accepted an offer from the University of Kansas Medical Center. Ms. Hutt-Fletcher is also considering a job offer. Junior professors are working hard to win grants, so that they will be mobile. "Anyone with half a brain around here is polishing their CV," says Michael B. Ferrari, an assistant professor of molecular biology and biochemistry. "They keep changing the rules on us, and we get no real input on our future."

An Uncertain Future

A personnel and financial audit of the school is now being conducted by the interim dean, Mr. Horton. He thinks its faculty should stop focusing on the past. Some faculty complaints, he says, "are overdone and overdramatized." He even suggests that faculty members should "get a life."

"I think there's a way to get over this hump of problems," he adds. "The sensitivities are so high, you get a scratch and think it's a big wound."

The provost, Mr. Ballard, envisions several possible endings to this drama. If Mr. Horton gets the school back on track, says the provost, a search for a permanent dean is possible by spring. But if some issues are not resolved, the school could be broken up. The professors could be absorbed into other departments, or a new life-sciences unit could incorporate part or all of the faculty.

Ms. Gilliland says she doesn't understand why the biology professors think their rights are being violated. "The data just don't support that," she says. "The most important thing about this process is choice. What happens is up to them."

Mr. Skidmore, the political scientist, concurs, declaring that academic freedom is not at issue. He says of his colleagues in biology, "They can't say, 'It's my way or the highway.'"

The dean of the dental school and a member of the cabinet, Michael J. Reed, agrees. It's easy to stand outside and gripe about the blueprint, he says, but "it requires a lot more effort to participate." He feels that changes are essential in the biology school, noting that dental students have given the biology professors low ratings. Still, he says, "I don't think anybody's raining down punishment."

Nevertheless, there is a sense among some faculty members outside the fray that Ms. Gilliland is making an example of the School of Biological Sciences. "There is a building paranoia around the place," says George Gale, a professor of philosophy. "It looks to be what counts is not your academic performance but whether or not you're loyal." The chancellor has alienated some of the university's ablest faculty members, he says.

Whichever side is right, Mr. Gogol, the cell biologist and former member of Ms. Gilliland's extended cabinet, expects an exodus of faculty members from the school over the next year or two if the situation does not improve. "If that happens," he says, "I would rather be a part of that exodus than [one of] a few people left to turn out the lights."

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