From the Editor

Managerial Yale

The 1,100 Yale managers who had filled Battell Chapel were utterly silent when President Richard Levin ’74PhD told them, toward the end of a December 1 speech, “We have more people working” in business and administrative staff at Yale “than best practices suggest we need.”

Every Yale department has been required to cut costs by close to 10 percent in this fiscal year, and some 100 people have been laid off. So the audience might have been a little nervous. But Levin wasn’t there to announce a round of layoffs. He’s working on something more long-term, and more radical.

He started with the 11 goals of Yale’s 2009 five-year plan, most of which involve academics. The 11th goal is different: “create a culture of managerial excellence.” The phrasing is crafted for encouragement, but it has a whiff of the grade-school report card, or the performance review: “Needs Improvement.”

Do Yale’s business operations need improvement? Anecdotal evidence is mixed. The Yale Alumni Magazine, though we’re a separate nonprofit and not run by Yale, purchases some Yale payroll and administrative services. There are staff in payroll, HR, and service and maintenance who are so able, helpful, fast, and pleasant that we all but remember them in our prayers every night. On the other hand, people on campus complain about confusing forms, slow response, and byzantine systems, and I’ve heard some eyebrow-raising accounts. One new employee signed up for direct deposit but was paid by check instead. She called employee services, but got misinformation. She straightened it out, but when the first deposit came in, it was somebody else’s pay, and she got an urgent e-mail directing her to refund it immediately. Then a second deposit came in, also for the other employee. She got an e-mail that said Jane Doe could take care of the mix-up, but it gave the wrong number. Then she got the right number. But Jane Doe hadn’t heard of the problem and didn’t know what to say.

Yale seems to think a problem exists. In 2004, Levin brought in the first of a string of executives from major corporations—Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, General Mills—to reform university finance and administration. They’ve achieved one truly astounding change: Yale, once infamous for its strikes, now has functioning union-management cooperation. They’ve also put in many slap-your-forehead changes, like a central number for employee questions and timesheets submitted online instead of by fax.

They’re applying metrics, too. Yale has done a benchmarking study on how many people it takes to accomplish a single task in functions like HR, finance, and procurement. Yale did well vis-à-vis other universities, but poorly vis-à-vis comparable business organizations. These were the data behind Levin’s “best practices” remark. Large businesses have departments of specialists who handle these functions, but universities are balkanized: there are probably dozens of departments around campus that each buy their own pencils.

So Yale plans to streamline. It will be a gradual process—“don’t panic,” Levin said in Battell—but it will begin with the university officers, who “have offered ourselves up as guinea pigs” to try “much more centralized processes.”

Ultimately, Levin says he wants Yale’s managerial staff to be the equal of its faculty. As the quality of the faculty is the single most important factor in Yale’s international reputation, and considerable financial resources go toward maintaining it, this seems more like a motivator than a goal. But we can all use a little motivation. And a little improvement. 

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