College should audit its own affairs

Columbia has examined its internal structure several times during the last year. Since President Kwang-Wu Kim took office in July 2013, various top administrators have come and gone, two large departments have been restructured and renamed, the college has launched a national advertising campaign to rebrand its image and it has hired a new provost. The latest analysis will come courtesy of two consulting firms that have been chosen to audit the college’s business and communications systems.

In a March 17 memo to faculty and staff, Kim noted that accounting and internal and external communications at the college are “fragmented, uncoordinated and duplicative.” Although the administration is right to address this problem, seeking help from consulting firms to solve the college’s issues is an unnecessary expense.

The consulting firms are investigating the business and communications systems’ by interviewing a number of students, administrators, faculty and staff. They will then make suitable recommendations. All of these are functions that could be handled internally. Implementing solutions from outside takes considerable buy-in, and bringing in consultants merely to point out problems hardly seems necessary.

These problems do need to be addressed though. The college is currently without a chief financial officer and is facing falling enrollment as well as escalating student debt, making the accounting department’s efficiency and clarity paramount. The Office of Institutional Advancement already experienced “restructuring” earlier in the semester when half the staff was dismissed, as reported March 3 by The Chronicle, which could result in an understaffed fundraising office in future semesters.

The college is also slow in responding to communications issues, both internally with regard to Columbia faculty and students and externally, as was the case in its handling of the recent controversy regarding Iymen Chehade’s “The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” course. The college did not respond until several days after the conflict arose, and Kim has yet to comment publicly about the American Association of University Professors’ investigation into Chehade’s academic freedom.

Hiring an outside firm may provide helpful feedback, but it seems like an unnecessary cost for an institution already flailing for funding. Kim said at the April 8 State of the College address that the college began the year with a $3.5 million deficit. The administration has relied on firms before—the ad campaign employed an outside marketing research firm, and both the president and provost searches employed a professional search firm, as reported Oct. 28 by The Chronicle.

Gaining a third-party evaluation of the college’s internal issues could provide valuable insight, but hiring an outside firm to handle issues that could be otherwise dealt with is wasteful. Columbia should be a community of administrators, faculty, staff and students who communicate openly and without intermediaries to prevent misunderstanding and miscommunication.