The messaging from the Western Michigan University administration has remained remarkably consistent over the past decade or so: Due to a supposedly chronic financial crisis related to shrinking enrollments, employees must continue to tighten their belts and redouble their efforts to prove their value to the university. The so-called “SRM” budget model is the latest installment in the financial scarcity narrative – a framework being used to justify staffing cuts, program mergers, and various austerity measures ostensibly aimed at creating a more streamlined and efficient WMU. In the midst of this permanently declared state of budget emergency, however, the administration has also remained committed to directing jaw-dropping sums of money to corporate consultants to facilitate strategic planning. The latest beneficiary – this time to the tune of $2.8 million – is McKinsey & Company, a private-sector, non-academic business consultancy whose mission is “helping our clients create meaningful and lasting change.”

To those who have been at Western for more than a few years, this will not come as a great surprise, as our university has increasingly come to rely more and more on exorbitantly expensive external agents to solve its problems or to enact high profile administrative initiatives. So, for example, in 2020-2021, WMU contracted the non-academic consulting firm Designvox to help facilitate/implement the administration’s academic (“interdisciplinary”) restructuring plan. Based on copies of invoices provided to the WMU-AAUP Chapter, the administration authorized this firm to review proposals related to curricular and program changes that had been developed and submitted by WMU faculty. It is understandable if you do not recall the results produced by Designvox given that the entire initiative seems simply to have dissipated from the radar at some point.

Campus constituents have, of course, been highly critical of such decisions. How can the WMU administration and our Board of Trustees justify quietly spending millions on external non-academic consultants for yet another strategic planning process while starving the university’s academic core? Why bypass or ignore proven academic experts – including from among our own faculty – in favor of an expensive professional consultancy firm with no clear, significant evidence of academic expertise? This last question deserves special focus since information about any experience McKinsey might have with universities seems to have been specifically redacted by the WMU administration in the documents we have been provided.

Western’s administration insists that it is only after enrollment numbers improve that we can expect real investment in our university’s academic infrastructure. No doubt, firms such as McKinsey are being engaged to provide some sort of corporate “synergy” to, once again, make our university a destination of choice. However, as staff and faculty have repeatedly pointed out, unless and until Western invests in the people charged with carrying out its core mission, there is little hope of attracting and retaining students in a way that is sustainable. The fact that our administration is willing to write a $2.8 million check to yet another corporate consulting firm while urging students, faculty and staff to keep tightening our belts speaks volumes about our university’s morale crisis.

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