What comes to mind when you hear the word “consulting”? The folks at McKinsey who brought you Enron? Bob Shrum, who ignited the dynamite Kerry-Edwards campaign? Or perhaps that unfortunate laid-off fellow next door, who has added “consultant” to his resume in a futile effort to conceal his unemployment.
When I see the words “consulting” or “consultant” I think about PT Barnum’s philosophy of doing business, and how consultants have adopted it with great success to sell their services to higher education. Take Liberal Arts College USA (LAC USA) in the bucolic hamlet of Collegetown USA. The manifold consultants suckling at its budgetary bosoms are sapping the alma right out of this mater.
The national average for consultants at liberal arts colleges is approximately .0005 consultants PSI; at LAC USA that ratio is closer to 1:1. These are important numbers to know, because one of the key assignments that keeps higher ed consultants busy these days is helping colleges develop “metrics” by which they can “measure success” and “demonstrate accountability.” Having a higher than average consultants/per square inch ratio can be read several ways. The positive interpretation is that the institution has buckled down and is calling on outside expertise to identify and provide solutions for the college’s numerous “challenges.” A less positive interpretation might suggest that a campus chock-a-block with consultants is a campus whose administrators lack the requisite skills and experience to do their jobs without the training wheels and steadying hand a personal factotum affords them.
So just who are these hired hands, and whatever do they do? Let’s discuss.
One of the first ways you know you’re in trouble is when the college president suggests a review of the office where you are in charge. Such a review is never, ever good news. At LAC, some years ago the president decreed that an office key to the success of the college and his presidency should undergo such an exercise. To make a long and predictable story short, Consultant “A” was hired to do the review, at the conclusion of which the head of the office met with an ignominious end, and was replaced by a highly inexperienced, callow youth. So young and inexperienced that the consultant—who recommended the appointment—urged that the pup be advised by a more mature, experienced coach. And so it came to pass that Consultant “A” has for years been enjoying a fruitful gig as Yoda to the apparently permanently-too-inexperienced head of the office. One could ask if a more sensible recommendation might have been simply to hire a qualified individual to run things. But then Consultant “A” might not have had the opportunity to fly cross country several times a year on LCA’s dime and enjoy 100% return on the recycled advice he shares with the college, advice that has no basis in, and is in fact counter to, the college’s interests.
Consultant “B” doesn’t have to make a transcontinental flight to reach LCA, although he followed a circuitous route to arrive at its ivied halls. Consultant “B” helps the “expert” hired by the president to sort out the various jurisdictions of the campus’s internecine jurisprudence. He is also the expert’s former boss. The expert had served in the faculty senate of a previous institution, so therefore of course not only possessed deep knowledge of this particularly thorny briar patch of college life, but without question also had the requisite street creds to give LCA faculty the reassurance they needed in order to be guided—expertly, of course—to enlightenment. Have you spotted the emerging pattern yet? Time for a pop quiz.
Consultants “C” through “F” are such fixtures at LCA that one of them even has a permanent office on campus and gets invited to official college celebrations. These guys earn their keep, and it’s a good thing, because they are in possession of intimate knowledge of every nook and cranny of LCA as well as licensures nobody on staff can lay claim to. But, wouldn’t you just know it? LCA chooses not to listen to the advice offered by this phalanx of hired hands. Just this spring decades of expensive and remarkably consistent recommendations were blithely ignored because another consultant—one with a negligible relationship to the college, but advising a new “report” to the president—tossed out a suggestion concerning buildings and grounds. The bloodshed from the ensuing mayhem has yet to prove fatal to anyone, but some vital signs are not looking good.
And then, finally, there is the granddaddy of LCA consultants, the president’s own amanuensis. Gramps has been around since the early days of the president’s tenure and provides recommendations almost as fast as he cashes the checks he receives from the college’s capacious and opaque “general administrative” fund. I came to know this graybeard when he offered me advice on a project that comes around every ten years or so on most campuses. It’s a project I had undertaken more than once (I won’t tell you how many times lest you think I am getting long in the tooth) and for which my expertise had been recognized both on and off campus. Let’s just leave it at this: the president was none too happy when I showed him the how-to manual from which the consultant had cribbed his recommendations. Need I add that the displeasure was not directed at the consultant?
What is the take-away here? It’s not that all consultants are charlatans or never offer original advice. And it’s certainly not that all administrators at LCA are sock puppets animated by unseen and unaccountable hands of off-stage consultants. No, it is, rather, the simple suggestion that if the right person is in charge, then consultants count their stays on campus in days or at the most weeks. They do not become long-term “cost-centers” for the college. And Alma Mater does not become their cash cow.