A Short History of the Struggle against AST, So Far

Shared Services Implementation Timeline

In early November 2013, the University of Michigan announced that it would be implementing a downsizing program called Administrative Services Transformation (AST) which would consolidate and centralize its human resources and financial services. The program would involve cutting 50 positions and forcing employees to reapply for their jobs. Estimations of how much the downsizing program would reduce costs varied wildly. The project would be managed by a private consulting firm called Accenture, which was contracted for $11.7 million, and led by the University’s Associate Vice President of Finance Rowan Miranda, who had previously worked for Accenture. The project was met with immediate criticism, both for its merit as a worthwhile method of cost-reduction and for Rowan Miranda’s obvious conflict of interest. On December 9, 2013, a month of popular dissent culminated in a march across campus of students, faculty and staff who demanded that Rowan Miranda reapply for his job. The direct action produced an immediate result: two days later, Mary Sue Coleman announced that Rowan Miranda would no longer be heading the project. More recently, it was announced that Miranda is leaving the University entirely. While there were many factors at play here and while the struggle against AST is not over by any means, these results make clear that student and worker organization and direct action are effective methods of fighting the administration’s undemocratic top-down, decision-making and the increasing financialization of the University, two things that will require much fighting in the coming years if students, faculty and staff wish to make the University an institution that instructs, not destructs, society.

The Michigan Difference: This University Does Not Care About You

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Recent struggles against Administrative Services Transformation (AST), also known as Shared Services, have unveiled the true relationship between the upper administration and everyone else at the University of Michigan.

AST is, according to the administration, a miraculous process of reforming the finance and human resources departments (these are the areas they plan to start out with; others will inevitably follow) in order to make it more efficient and less costly. It is, in reality, a nonsensical attempt at efficiency that is equivalent to chopping off an arm to lose weight.

The information released by the university about AST is not only incomplete but also dubious to say the least. Initially claiming that AST would save the university some $17 million a year, the administration quickly changed its tune to about $5 million a year., while completely leaving out of these calculations the millions in consultation fees and rent for the new offices. The timeline for implementation also changed. After students and workers began to protest, the administration decided to push back the roll-out of AST until the end of the academic year, when everyone will have left campus and removed the threat of serious resistance.

Initial outcries and protests were greeted by silence from President Coleman and the administration until, alas, finally, she published a press release addressing the issues of AST in a civilized and thorough manner and assured a rethinking of its implementation.

Just kidding.

In response to massive backlash, Coleman stated definitively that “The Administrative Services Transformation (AST)—our efforts to accomplish routine business functions in a more efficient way—must and will continue.” To those of you worried about the state of faculty, staff, and the general finances of the university being used for a process that has failed other universities, don’t worry! Mary Sue stated that she would take faculty input into consideration, saying that the process would now be “inclusive and consultative.”

Sarcasm aside, Coleman’s response is plainly offensive because she has chosen to ignore the fact that the faculty has already given their input. Repeatedly. Not only did they and their student and worker allies march against AST but the Faculty Senate voted against it as well. Coleman is taking the paradoxical stance of promising to respect faculty and staff voices while at the same time completely ignoring them. What she and the administration truly want to convey is that your wishes matter—as long as they align with the administration’s. And they will keep taking “faculty opinion into consideration” until faculty opinion, inevitably, hangs its head in submission.

This aloofness towards public opinion is not unique to the anti-AST movement but is the overarching attitude the administration has towards anything that could threaten its personal agenda. During the recent #BBUM campaign, the administration’s entire response was a tweet stating “We’re listening.” That was it. There was no acknowledgement of the hostile environment that it had created for students of color or promise to better the situation. After a minimal and condescending nod, the administration turned its head away to focus on what it saw as more important matters (such as yet another unnecessary renovation of an undergraduate dorm that no one needs or wants). Likewise, following the Coalition for Tuition Equality’s victory last year in the decision that undocumented students would be eligible for in-state tuition, the administration sought to appropriate the change as a sign of its own “progressive” character. In fact, it was the administration that CTE had had to fight against for so long. Only after their repeated protests and direct action threatened to damage the reputation and image of the university did the administration budge on the issue.

All these cases come down to one thing: this university does not care about you. It is a parasitic bureaucracy, whose primary purpose is to perpetuate itself on the backs of the students and workers (and student-workers) it exploits. On paper, it is a nonprofit; in reality, it is a tool with which banks, administrators, even the federal government all generate massive profits from student tuition and debt. The claims of diversity in the pamphlets it hands out to potential students is just that: empty words in a brochure that is quickly thrown into the trash and forgotten. The speeches with hollow phrases such as “Leaders and the Best” and “the Michigan Difference” are just that: self-congratulatory pomp that inflates our ego to perpetuate the illusion that we are significant, that we matter, and to cover up the reality that the university does not care about us.

But that can change. And the question is not whether we are significant enough to change that fact but when we will realize our significance. The university exists, after all, for the purpose of education. It exists for us, not them. We cannot allow an administration motivated more by corporate ideals like “revenue diversification” and “cost containment” than education and the well-being of the workers who make it possible, to transform it into an empty shell. This university is ours—we only need to take it.

(Photo via the Michigan Daily)