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Consultants

Consultants
 

I didn’t have much contact with the world of educational consultants before I became Provost. As department chair and then dean, I certainly benefited from outside advice, but this came mainly in the form of external reviewers from other schools who could provide some independent perspective on programs. A bit of money changed hands but not usually a lot. I also benefited, though less frequently, from some interactions with higher ed associations, which could provide valuable advice and contacts, for an annual fee to be sure, but usually without huge expense.

So it has been a bit of a surprise, and a challenge, to realize what a vast sea of consultants regularly solicits business and, apparently, survives. I have not studied the genre but I assume it has grown as higher ed encounters new challenges and as new uncertainties prompt a search for more extensive advice. And of course as Provost I have become involved in some issues where (at least in terms of my limited expertise) outside advice seems essential.

Over the years, as Mason has hired consultants, I have benefited particularly from some participations in consultants’ work on facilities master planning; on innovations in classroom configurations, with special attention to more effective science teaching; on better organization of fundraising efforts. I look forward to an imminent report on our operations in IT; here’s another vital category which I certainly know too little about, and where the larger University fairly obviously needed some additional expertise and an external eye.

But I must also report some concern about overdoing the consultant game. We are certainly bombarded by an impossible range of solicitations, whose only merit is the opportunity for quick email deletes. More serious is the temptation to overuse consultants and, frankly, to spend far too much on their services. (The annual outlay can rise to startling levels.)

I admit some vulnerability here. I may use consultants too little (as opposed to less formal discussions with fellow provosts and with others in context of some of the standard higher ed and international ed associations). I think that many universities have considerable internal resources for open-ended inquiries on current operations and leading issues; but again, I may miss some opportunities with this approach. (And I am not trying to contradict the areas where consultations have provided clear benefits, as least to my own thinking.)

But admitting my bias, I do worry that places like Mason have become over-ready to bring in a consultant around every major issue, not infrequently getting advice that differs little or not at all from what we already knew. I wonder if some of us have come to feel a need to have a consultation in order to bolster our position, even when, again, we had a pretty good idea of what was called for already. The result can be relatively harmless, but it can also consume some additional time (gathering data for the consultants is often no small task), and the resources involved can truly mount up.

So I wonder if a partial reset is called for, a bit of rationing. I’m open to opinions to the contrary. The main point is that the subject might benefit from some real discussion.