Fewer grapes won't fix gripes

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As Marvel Studios gets ready to roll out its planet-saving team in The Avengers, President William Powers Jr. triumphantly announced the creation of his own squad of well-footed business leaders to improve the University’s efficiency.

The group of 13 individuals, many of them with ties to the McCombs School of Business, will be charged with examining three primary areas to increase efficiency: the University’s administrative structure, technology commercialization and asset management, according to The Daily Texan.

The group is composed of several regarded business leaders, ranging from Hector Ruiz, the former CEO of Advanced Micro Devices, to Charles Tate, an investment banker whose fingerprints are scattered from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas to the Commission of 125.

The team plans to examine various aspects of the University’s business processes and issue recommendations at the end of 2012. The frequency and logistics of their meetings, such as who will pay the travel costs and accommodations, are all still being worked out.

While the squad is officially dubbed the Committee on Business Productivity, we will take the opportunity to toss out a few potential movie titles — in case the Longhorn Network wants to pick it up.

The first possibility is The Defenders, which is likely the University’s first pick for the title. After all, the committee’s involvement brings positive publicity for UT, as many of the individuals are alumni who are able to use their expertise to assist in the state’s higher education goals in an active way, rather than just writing a big check. And while administrators are quick to point to the low administrative costs as a percentage at UT compared to other institutions in the state, there will always be ways to be more efficient and effective in the depths of a $2.3-billion budget.

Powers has also been careful in conveying that the committee will be dealing with the University’s operations and not its academics. This somewhat quells the significant concern of corporate models being blindly applied to higher education, at least in this manner.

However, another possible title for the group could be The Cut-Spenders. Kevin Hegarty, executive vice president and chief financial officer, said that while it’s much too early to speculate on layoffs, “It’s hard not to eventually affect the numbers of jobs.”

In an era of reduced funding from the state, sacrifices are being shared across campus. Yet staff have been hit hardest by budget cuts. Though the majority of staff reductions have taken the form of not filling open positions rather than layoffs, staff job security and morale continue to be an overlooked and unappreciated aspect in budgetary decisions made at the top.

Finally, it’s hard to escape the most probable of potential titles: The Pretenders. Though well-meaning and innovative, a committee digging for cost savings in the operational budgets strays far from answering the fundamental financial questions that hound higher education. For that matter, deploying the committee reinforces the talking points that University critics wield with fervor: that all of higher education’s financial problems can be solved by efficiency tweaks such as reducing the number of grapes in the Jester City Limits parfaits — not the refusal of state leaders to value higher education, or the emerging view of higher education as a private and not a public good.

So as the committee members begins meeting in the coming months, we need to see them for what they are: hope but no hero.