Faculty, senior leaders team up to reduce 'shadow work'

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John Carberry

“Shadow work” – work once done by someone hired to do that job but, through technology or reorganization, shifted to others originally hired for other purposes – has been growing on campus, threatening productivity and impinging on the university’s academic mission.

A working group has begun to examine policies and procedures with an eye toward reducing shadow work and other administrative burdens placed on faculty and academic staff. A key component will be to develop metrics that quantify bureaucratic overhead costs, starting with calculating the hidden costs associated with implementing new policies or procedures.

The Working Group

Avery August, chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, College of Veterinary Medicine

Joanne DeStefano, executive vice president and chief financial officer

David Easley, the Henry Scarborough Professor of Social Science, Department of Economics, College of Arts and Sciences; professor of information science, Computing and Information Science

Sol Gruner, the John L. Wetherill Professor of Physics, Department of Physics, College of Arts and Sciences

Michael Kotlikoff, provost

Paul McEuen, the John A. Newman Professor of Physical Science, Department of Physics, College of Arts and Sciences; director, Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science

Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer

Hunter Rawlings, interim president

Paul Streeter, vice president for budget and planning.

“The time faculty and academic staff spend on tasks not directly related to the academic mission has grown as compliance requirements and the use of technology have increased, and the hidden costs of this shadow work have become a critical issue throughout higher education,” said Interim President Hunter Rawlings. “Faculty and academic staff time should be prioritized toward our primary goal of excellence in scholarship – learning, discovery and engagement.”

Last year, the late President Elizabeth Garrett launched an initiative to reduce the burden of bureaucracy. “President Garrett saw this as an imperative to allow the university to be ‘nimble, flexible, resilient and responsive,’” Rawlings said. “This new initiative is a logical next step, aimed at reducing the expectations for faculty to absorb tasks that do not advance and support our shared focus on scholarship and service. We need to measure the work we ask of faculty and academic staff with each new or revised administrative initiative so that we can reduce – not add to – their workloads through those changes.”

As part of Garrett’s initiative, a committee in the College of Arts and Sciences chaired by Sol Gruner, the John L. Wetherill Professor of Physics, created a report on research administration that Gruner sent to Rawlings when he arrived on campus last spring.

“In our report, we noted the ‘red tape’ at Cornell has grown explosively and is now perhaps the major impediment toward accomplishing Cornell’s research and teaching missions,” Gruner said.

“It is like a brick wall, where each brick of bureaucracy is added incrementally, and each one is justified by good intentions,” he said. “But the cumulative effect impedes our ability to teach, do research or engage in public service. We need to start measuring those bricks and tearing them down.”

Finding better ways to achieve the results is key to lowering that wall. Gruner cited a national survey that found principal investigators of federally sponsored research projects spend, on average, 42 percent of their time on associated administrative tasks. “That is time they could have spent on the research they are being paid to do,” he said.

The new working group has proposed that new policies or changes to policies, requests for compliance or other reporting efforts be evaluated through a “cost of implementation analysis, including measuring the cost of time to complete,” with the results helping determine if the change is warranted, Gruner said.

Gruner said the new travel system, Concur, announced Sept. 30 and to be implemented in January 2017, could serve as a pilot for this metric development. “We are looking for volunteers who will measure the time it takes them to arrange travel under the current system and then again with Concur. That will let us know if the new system creates or reduces shadow work, and perhaps give us a model for measuring the currently hidden impact of proposed changes in policies or procedures,” Gruner said.

The Office of the Dean of Faculty’s website has information about the bureaucracy reduction initiative and includes links to volunteer for the Concur project.

Story Contacts

Nancy Doolittle