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Full disclosure: UA's $14 million PR plan requires transparency

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What the Devil won't tell you

Full disclosure: UA's $14 million PR plan requires transparency

  • UA President Robert Robbins
    University of ArizonaUA President Robert Robbins

Upfront, I have to admit the University of Arizona paying out $14 million to a global corporate consulting firm makes sense if you are fluent in Middle-Aged White Guy.

The Arizona Daily Star reported that the University of Arizona paid New York consulting giant McKinsey & Co. some $14 million to help the school concoct a strategic plan. 

Middle-Aged White Guy is the dominant state of being at the Arizona Legislature, and the philosophy that governs its executive functions. The Legislature harrumphed satisfaction during the Great Recession over the need to cut higher education funding in this state more than any other in the country. If the UA is going to ask for that money to be restored, it helps greatly to say: “Hey, we’re not asking for the money. We are just following the plan of  arguably the best C-Suite corporate consulting firm in the world.”

In other words: “This is how you run a business.”

UA President Robert Robbins should hope the Legislature decides to even entertain the advice of a company where Chelsea Clinton once worked. Arizona Republicans hear that, and they are likely to wig out into a Fake-News-A-Thon. 

Kudos to Star reporters Justin Sayers and the venerable Carol Ann Alaimo for finding the eight-figure price tag.

Normally, I’m dubious about sticker-shock stories. Stuff costs money, world; get over it. But $14 million for a strategic plan … wow. I’m pretty sure I remember Flagstaff re-imagining its entire future (20 years ago) for less than a million.

My problem with the deal are two-fold: One, holy crackers that’s a lot of money, and deciding whether a public institution spent that money wisely is impossible because McKinsey insists it operates beyond the purpose and intent of the public records law.

The reporters haven’t been able to get a hold of the report given to the campus. I’ve gotten my hands on outside audits, investigations, reports and, yes, plans of all types. I've never heard of this sort of exemption.

I admit, though, I’ve dealt with the likes of Battelle Laboratories and Harvey Rose Associates but I ain’t never dealt with the behemoth known as McKinsey.

McKinsey’s entire business model is based on confidentiality. So challenging/threatening that model with a lawsuit would mean going up against every living attorney on the East Coast and a few of the dead ones. I’m not necessarily saying they are the corporate version of Keyser Soze but I’m pretty sure they are the collective embodiment of Ned Beatty at the end of "Network." Not wanting to be Peter Finch, I’ll leave it at that because I'm not in the mood to atone.

The public has a right to see a document governing how the UA governs itself during the next however many years. The exceptions to public records are privacy, best interest of the state and confidentiality prescribed by state law in the form of statute, agency rule or court order.

Student information is an example of privacy and so are health records. The rule involving best interest of the state puts the burden of proof on secret keepers. Confidentiality under the law has traditionally included exceptions like legal advice, personnel issues and real estate negotiations.

Everything else is public. 

If McKinsey is going to get into the game of mapping the future of public institutions, it’s going to have to get used to the public learning about its advice.

The company says its methods are proprietary, and disclosing its advice reveals its methods. I get the first part even if I don’t like it. Makers of voting machines, for instance, keep their operating systems secret from the government and that is a weakness in our democracy because we don’t know how the machine properly tabulates election results. But voters still get to see the vote totals. There’s gotta be a way for McKinsey to show the public what we pay for and protect their secrecy of their handshakes. 

And this is the problem an outfit like McKinsey will run into when it ventures into the public sector and charges top-dollar prices. The campus community lost its shit when the dean of the UA medical school flew first class. People didn't get in the 1980s when the university paid a design company five figures to redesign the "A." A $14 million dollar consultant contract isn't going to go down well if done above board. If it seems to be done on the sly, there's going to be trouble.

Unless of course, the strategic plan McKinsey helped design turns out to be some sort of Rosetta Stone, cracking the code on how the UA should proceed.

The UA (and yes, we're sticking with that abbreviation; Sentinel editor Dylan Smith took all of 37 seconds to hand out an edict to not print the school's new "SEO-inspired" internal abbrevation) unveiled its plan last November right during the midterm elections so I was otherwise occupied. Allow me to revisit it now. And boy … it’s something.

It’s not that it’s a bad “plan.” It’s not. All the ideas in it are good. They are good ideas like "if you need a quarterback, find a Tom Brady" is good advice.

The plan is akin to McKinsey consulting with the Arizona Cardinals and offering the following advice: Run the ball with power and speed to complement an unstoppable passing game, while fielding a defense that is impenetrable. Oh, and find the best quarterback in football then score more points than the other team.

It's brilliant!

Think I'm exaggerating? Check it out, right here under the Fourth Strategic Pillar:

"4.2B Global “Skills Provider:” The UA will lead the world in providing timely and relevant skills training. By 2025, we will train 200,000 individuals around the globe.

Just … y’know … be the best skills provider in the world. Is that all? Boy, yeah, UA should get in the game of … “teaching.” 

Only cost $14 million to find out that was part of the university’s mission. If they’d only known that in 1885, think of where the school would be today? And while you are at it, if you want a quarterback go find one of those Tom Brady types. He’s pretty good.

Now I’m no McKinsey genius and my SAT score can’t compare to any of their junior executives but shouldn’t “providing skills” maybe be under the First Strategic Pillar?

The Brain Trust over at McKinsey — no doubt the smartest guys in the room — can see around corners to glimpse a future hidden to everyone else, except maybe every other sentient being on the planet. The Second Strategic Pillar has discovered the microprocessor.

2.5A College of Data, Computing, and Network Science: Launch a distinctive, world-leader that integrates network science with data and computing science, including artificial intelligence and machine learning. The college will support other Pillar 2 research grand challenges such as the future workforce, climate change, and precision healthcare for all. 

Climate change, you say? When did that become a thing?

Actually, making that a college is a good idea. So is eating more vegetables. I can get that advice from Tucson Medical Center. I don’t need the Mayo Clinic.

There are some good points in the UA’s year-old strategic plan that McKinsey did the heavy lift on (or they better have for eight figures). Under The Third Pillar of Galactic Truth, the plan details the need for a signature annual event to highlight campus arts and humanities. Think of it like an academic Spring Fling or a Pueblo-based South By Southwest. The plan doesn’t say what kind. For that, the UA would have to pay another $14 million. Still, it’s a good initiative to tackle.

It’s just that for every pearl there’s gobbledygook shot though a magic rainbow.

3.3A Collaboration Redefined: UA will champion an integrated fabric for private and public sector partnerships that promotes an unprecedented, symbiotic two-way flow of intellectual creativity and human capital. Embarking on collaborative research and projects with UA will be a seamless, enriching experience that makes UA the preferred higher education partner.

At least try not to be the complete corporate cliché.  Applause, applause. The plan doesn't use catch phrases like "intellectual infrastructure" or "a real win-win." No, they use  "integrated fabric " and "symbiotic flow." 

You get the point. Two Arizona Daily Wildcat staffers could have sat down for lunch and written this plan, and not missed a minute of happy hour. That means UA President Robert Robbins could have jotted it down in the morning while brushing his teeth.

I kid because I love. There’s an essentialness to the joke in this drama: Everyone but the Arizona Legislature knows what’s required of public universities in the 21st century. 

It seriously does not take the most expensive consultants in the world to tell campus leadersthat  higher learning will require focus on data, networking, AI, climate and tech-driven health care. So it shouldn’t cost $14 million to understand the need for collaborative learning, public-private partnerships and a continued commitment to humanities because our humanity may be our only edge over the machines. A public university must reach out to all populations because economic and philosophical survival requires changing with the morphing demographics. It just takes money.

Robbins paid for the McKinsey name and with it, the lofty goals carry an imprimatur of private-sector correctness. That it was a no-bid contract tells me the university eyed McKinsey all along. If it works, the UA could leverage far more than $14 million out of lawmakers, assuming they can get past the whole notion that Democrats work at the consulting firm, including a dreaded Clinton.

And there may be a lot more to the $14 million plan but all the public has is the goal-filled plan without much in the way of getting to the academic paradise the plan envisions. We won't know how and why McKinsey was necessary.

Robbins, who is no dummy, is also practicing a bit of bureaucratic brilliance here because when he leaves the plan stands an good chance of living after him. That's a trick. The next UA president will no doubt want come up with his or her own plan for the university, as so many have before. Fine but whatever comes next had better be worth scuttling a $14 million endeavor.

Robbins put down a hell of a marker. 

Still, the public has a right to see what is driving the school’s policy making during the next few years.

We have years to wait to figure out whether the plan is worth the extravagance of the McKinsey brand.  For all it's secreted success, these are also the consultants who said cell phones had a limited future but Enron's was wide open.

Duff McDonald, who wrote about McKinsey in his book  “The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business,” called McKinsey a vanity purchase for corporate America during a 2013 interview with MarketWatch.

“McKinsey’s fees are so high, they are spiritually related,” McDonald said. “What customer who pays those fees will ever admit that it wasn’t worth it? Do you get up the next day and go, ‘Wow, that was a waste of a million’?”

The question has been asked for decades if McKinsey is worth their deified status.

John Huey, a former editor-in-chief of Time, Inc., took a more nuanced approach when he wrote about McKinsey for Fortune back in 1993.

"These men from McKinsey -- and they are mostly men, and mostly white -- are indeed bright. Even so, several more prosaic questions still bear asking: Do they have a lick of sense? Are they any better than the competition? Can you trust them? Can they really help your company? And finally, are they worth what they charge? Like most questions about such institutions, the answers lie somewhere between McKinsey's self-image and what its detractors want to believe. McKinsey, though damned good at what it does, is not as good as it thinks. (Could any collection of mortals be?) Brain for brain, its consultants aren't any brighter than those at some close rivals, and much of the work it performs can be done quite competently by a number of less pricey, less haughty consulting firms. At the same time, McKinsey's explosive growth -- it has doubled in the past five years to become a firm with $1.2 billion in annual revenue and 58 offices worldwide -- hasn't eroded its formidable culture nearly as much as competitors fantasize. 

For the UA’s sake, it better be better than advertised — $14 million better because those Wildcat staffers could have used the money.

For the rest of us, we should see what McKinsey hath wrought for the UA's future.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly credited the Star news story reported by Justin Sayers and Carol Ann Alaimo.

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