"Eliminate 'top-down' initiatives": UT regents' report sees curtailed role for system administration

The report forecasts a reduction of up to 110 full-time positions within the system administration and a shift to a "service provider" model.

The University of Texas System Board of Regents sits for a special meeting Aug. 4, 2018, in Austin. | by Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune
The University of Texas System Board of Regents sits for a special meeting Aug. 4, 2018, in Austin. | by Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune  Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

A report posted online suggests the University of Texas System Board of Regents is pushing to further curtail top-down initiatives and headcount in its central offices, deepening a break from a vision held in past years that saw a far more expansive and ambitious role for the system administration.

The report, anticipated for months, is the result of a broad review that began last year after the system had begun to receive scrutiny from lawmakers over its growth and spending. Characterized as an exercise in good governance, the review was overseen by a task force of four regents headed by former Republican state Sen. Kevin Eltife, an outspoken critic of system-led projects.

The recommendations — which forecast a reduction of up to 110 full-time positions, out of 700 within the system administration — will be presented to the full board of regents in mid-November. The UT System's new chancellor, James B. Milliken, is expected to put forward his own plan for how to implement the report's guidance.

A system spokesperson said Milliken "has consistently expressed support for efforts to ensure that the UT System administration is efficient and cost effective," and that "he and his senior officers are conducting additional analysis recommended in the task force report as well as additional budgetary and operational review, and will provide an update" to the regents.

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Eltife said the report “is phase one of an ongoing effort to look at the UT system, and we look forward to working with Chancellor Milliken on implementation."

Posted Thursday, the report envisions a system administration that acts primarily as a facilitator for the system's 14 campuses, calling for the elimination of all "top-down" initiatives in favor of having a "service provider" model.

“Institutions" — "customers," in the parlance of the report — "widely expressed a preference for new strategic initiatives to 'bubble up' from a critical mass of institutions, rather than having them imposed in a top-down fashion by System Administration,” the report said. It singled out former Chancellor Bill McRaven’s signature “Quantum Leaps" plan, a series of initiatives regents had initially backed with tens of millions of dollars, as a “repeatedly cited" example.

"Institutions did see System Administration as having a role in empowering institutions and helping them find resources to start initiatives," the report said, "but believed that System Administration should play a limited role beyond that."

The report says system operations may also be re-organized to better support small campuses, like UT Permian Basin, that are more reliant on the system's shared resources.

The 40-page document largely reflects views vocalized by regents like Eltife and Janiece Longoria, who were both appointed to the board by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in early-2017. Together, they brought a new skepticism about pursuing costly system-level initiatives they said would draw resources away from the campuses.

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“Do we want initiatives that are started at the system level and pushed down to institutions, or do we want our institutions to bring us the initiatives they want us to help them with?” Eltife told The Texas Tribune in January. People "think we’re just trying to cut expenses. ... Really, any money we save at the system ends up at one of our institutions.”

The task force, formed last November by board chair Sara Martinez Tucker, was given broad leeway to evaluate the structure and scope of the system's administrative offices. A memo outlining its work said regents wanted a system administration that was "lean and efficient," and were concerned by how the administration's headcount and budget had swelled between the 2012 and 2017 fiscal years.

McRaven, the former chancellor, oversaw personnel cuts at the system's offices, which were reduced by 228 positions, or 25 percent, over two years, according to system documents. Tucker mentioned the cuts in a note sent Monday, announcing her intent to resign as a regent in January, two years before her term would have expired.

Thursday's report suggests further cuts are looming, particularly in the system's offices for facilities, employee benefits and general counsel, with estimated savings reaching up to $15 million a year. A further analysis of those departments is expected to be conducted, and 17 other system offices have yet to be reviewed in depth.

"System Administration has gone through several cycles of cutbacks and reductions," the report says, noting at one point there "was a general sense of confusion associated with the continued contraction and expansion."

"This exercise needs to take this into consideration and approach the future changes in a manner that works to preserve engagement, support morale and be as transparent as possible for all employees involved," it says. But changes undertaken "without a specific plan to address impact on the culture will also not yield the desired results."

Disclosure: The University of Texas System, UT Permian Basin and Ernst & Young have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.