Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell's new president. Photo courtesy of University Photography

ITHACA, N.Y. — New Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett has tasked the university’s leadership with finding strategies to lower costs and cut red tape.

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“Overly cumbersome bureaucracy and unnecessarily complicated decision-making processes divert faculty, students and staff from activities vital to pursuing excellence in research, teaching and public engagement,” Garrett said in an Aug. 20 memo to the university’s provosts, college deans and vice presidents, among others.

Garrett, who was sworn in as Cornell’s president this fall, says in the memo that universities “tend to make decisions incrementally, often without scrutinizing the effect of past decisions” — and that the cumulative effect of this can direct resources away from “academic priorities.”

The exact impact of the new initiative on university departments remains unclear. (Cost-cutting at Cornell tends to hurt the economy of Ithaca/Tompkins County, since the university has an outsize role in the area’s economy.)

Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell’s new president. Photo courtesy of University Photography
Elizabeth Garrett, Cornell’s new president. Photo courtesy of University Photography

“We collectively have a responsibility to periodically examine our practices and address unneeded complexity,” Garrett says.

“I am therefore asking each of you to assess processes and procedures within your jurisdiction or throughout the university, and work to eliminate unnecessary regulation, duplicative structures, or burdensome paperwork where the goals of the process can be met more efficiently.”

The leaders of the university’s different divisions are expected to submit their plans to Garrett by Dec. 15.

Garrett’s memo can be read in full below:

Cornell University aspires to be a global center for higher education where the very best researchers, scholars and creative minds interweave liberal arts education and fundamental research with practical endeavors focused on challenges of societal significance. To achieve our aspirations, we must rigorously and regularly review our university processes to ensure that they further our values in the most efficient and least burdensome ways and allow us to be nimble and agile as an institution.

Universities tend to make decisions incrementally, often without scrutinizing the effect of past decisions to ensure that time and energy are directed at current priorities.  Overly cumbersome bureaucracy and unnecessarily complicated decision-making processes divert faculty, students and staff from activities vital to pursuing excellence in research, teaching and public engagement.  They also can reduce transparency surrounding decisions.  While there is always some amount of time that should appropriately be devoted to governance and compliance, we collectively have a responsibility to periodically examine our practices and address unneeded complexity.

I am therefore asking each of you to assess processes and procedures within your jurisdiction or throughout the university, and work to eliminate unnecessary regulation, duplicative structures, or burdensome paperwork where the goals of the process can be met more efficiently.  While the primary goals of this endeavor are to reduce administrative burdens and simplify processes, these efforts will also likely generate cost savings that can be redirected to our academic priorities.

The approaches that we will pursue include:

  • Centralization of services where processes are duplicative and efficiencies can be achieved;
  • Consolidation of administrative units and committees to reduce duplication, achieve efficiencies, and implement best practices;
  • Evaluation of our compliance and regulatory systems to provide the most rapid and least burdensome processes, consistent with the highest standards of personal safety and ethical behavior;
  • Redesign of processes within units to improve efficiency and eliminate unnecessary layers of review;
  • Targeted investments in technologies to help achieve goals; and
  • Collaboration across units to ensure streamlined institutional policies and processes.

I am directing the leadership of each central administrative unit and each college to submit a detailed plan to reduce administrative cost and increase efficiency by December 15, 2015. Vice President Joanne DeStefano, Vice President Mary Opperman, and Vice President Paul Streeter will oversee this effort and keep me informed on your progress; they will also provide input and guidance to you as you move forward and coordinate across programs and divisions.  I look forward to reporting to the Cornell community about your plans early in the spring semester and recognizing those who have proposed and begun to implement innovative reforms.  Our work this semester will provide a foundation for ongoing, regular review of administrative processes to ensure that our resources are directed to current priorities and we achieve our academic goals without unnecessary administrative burdens.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.