For eighteen University of Texas at Austin students, occupying the school president’s office was the way to make their voices heard and their demands clear.
On Wednesday, April 23, students and demonstrators protested the proposed “Shared Services Plan” put forward by Accenture, a consulting and outsourcing firm. Demonstrators demanded that UT Austin President Bill Powers immediately halt the plan that would put 500 UT employees at risk of losing their jobs.
Accenture was commissioned by the UT Austin administration to look at the university’s costs and determine how money could be saved. The goal of Shared Services is to centralize UT’s human resources, finance, information technology and procurement operations.
In the process, the plan calls for 500 positions to be terminated. Shared Services is just one part of “Smarter Systems for UT,” which will also raise costs for food, parking and housing on campus.
UT Austin is not the first university to implement this kind of scheme, but rather one of many including Yale University (through their Finance and HR office) and University of California at Berkeley (Finance, HR and Procurement). Currently, UT is beginning to implement pilot versions of the plan in the Office of the Provost as well as the College of Education.
But the most worrisome aspect, according to some who oppose the plan, is the relationship UT has developed with the private firm Accenture. Computer engineering and Plan II senior Jauzey Imam said the adoption of Shared Services at UT will only aid the move toward privatizing public education, from grade school all the way to the university level.
“Education and other public institutions are being sold for corporate gain,” Imam said. “We see this happening at UT through the almost blind reliance UT has on Accenture to fix the university’s budget problems. The fact that UT follows a chain of other universities attempting to enact a Shared Services plan, including A&M, is indicative that the privatization of education is a very real and growing thing.”
Imam said he not only fears for the privatization of public education – but also the quality of education that students are paying for.
“The fewer staff we have running our university, the harder it will be to actually function as a university. We saw this happen at Yale, Berkeley, and Michigan. Is that something we’re willing to compromise?” Imam said.
Many who oppose implementing the plan believe there are other solutions that would avoid eliminating jobs and still allow the university to continue daily operations – starting with salary caps for UT employees who earn more than $250,000 a year.
UT Austin assistant English professor Snehal Shingavi said there are lots of possible solutions that do not involve the sharp cuts associated with Shared Services, but first there needs to be more transparency with the university’s budget.
“Other solutions could include revisiting the division between the Permanent University Fund and the Available University Fund, so that money could be reinvested in the educational mission of the university,” Shingavi said. “But again, these are things which require more people having access to the budget so that they can see what our options are.”
While community members, students and academics like Shingavi believe reaching a solution that works for everyone is still possible, open dialogue between the administration and students and faculty is crucial – and up to this point, there has been none.
“One of the easiest things that we could do is to involve the staff in real discussions about how to improve efficiency and how to save money, i.e. seeing them as assets rather than liabilities to the university,” Shingavi said.
A reduction in staff equals a reduction of services, added Shingavi, which will only make student life harder.
“There will be a longer wait for financial aid, longer lines for registration, more difficulty when trying to get in touch with an advisor, fewer librarians, and even more difficulty trying to get IT support in classrooms,” Shingavi said.
Impatient that their demands were still being ignored, students recently took a stand against the Shared Services Plan and called greater attention to their cause through a peaceful sit-in. Middle Eastern studies sophomore Senan Shaibani said he believed students putting themselves at risk of arrest was worth getting the attention of the UT administration.
“I chose to protest because all other attempts to engage with the administration had been exhausted, and with summer fast approaching, what other options did we have?” Shaibani said. “It makes no sense that those who are paying for their education, at rates which are already increasing, are being ignored when they demand transparency.”
Shaibani and other arrested students were part of the opposition movement organized by the UT Save Our Community Coalition, an organization comprised of different campus groups including the University Leadership Initiative and International Socialist Organization, as well as non-university organizations like the Workers Defense Project and Texas State Employees Union. The main goal of the coalition is to protect the rights of on-campus workers and the health of public education.
“I participated in the sit-in to show solidarity with the workers who significantly contributed to my blessed experience at UT,” Shaibani said. “There is no price worth disrespecting and mistreating the workers who keep the university functioning.”