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July 10, 2012

Our usually tranquil summer in tree-lined Gambier has been rocked by storms and power-outs, and by a major controversy over outsourcing at Kenyon College. The crisis came when a maintenance workers’ union contract ended and the College announced that a subset of workers including “skilled trades” and supervisors would be transferred to employment by a “French multinational firm.” The response included a petition and a faculty letter leading to suspension of the plan. A college more accustomed to New York Times op-eds about Ivy-quality teaching and competitiveness found its employment practices subject to commentary by HuffPost.

The reasons put forth for this “outsourcing” are interesting. Of course cost-cutting is everywhere; and then, our new high-tech buildings need so much more high-tech maintenance than they used to. Meanwhile, the College recruits from global pools for faculty, students, and IT workers, so why not maintenance? Why not custodians from India? As one administrator observed, the faculty are fond of their iPads made in China. This last argument was met with scorn but no good answer.

But the notion of outsourcing goes far deeper. The human body, we learn, outsources much of its genomic potential to the human microbiome. Instead of encoding genes to digest the complex fibers of wheat, broccoli, apples, and so forth, we rely on our intestinal microbes to do the heavy lifting, letting our intestines absorb the simple sugars that come out. Much of our skin defense, too, relies on skin microbes producing antimicrobial fermentation products. The rare bad guys such as MRSA (drug-resistant staph) are not so much foreign invaders as home-grown Timothy McVeighs.

How far can this go before we dissolve into bacteria? Do we care?

My next Frontera book features outsourcing of all outlandish sorts–brains outsourced to computers, votes outsourced to pollsters, energy outsourced to (still working on that). And of course the Frontera faculty get outsourced to an unmentionable Lunar establishment.

  1. heteromeles permalink
    July 11, 2012 12:25 am

    Pfui. The Kenyon Administrators seem to be going for union-busting, rather than cost cutting. The reason you don’t want janitors from India is that janitors from Ohio don’t have greedy bosses pushing to maximize their profits on the Indian janitors’ backs.

    Here’s what happened in San Diego. A very republican mayor decided to cut costs by outsourcing functions previously handled by unionized city departments as a cost-cutting measure. Fortunately, he wasn’t entirely stupid–he let the departments bid on the tasks along with the non-unionized outside companies. As a result, the departments won back most of their functions because (surprise, surprise) they were cheaper than the companies, which had to show a profit.

    They should do the same at Kenyon. The unionized departments should bid on the functions Kenyon wants to outsource, right along with the companies that want the contracts. I’m willing to bet that, because the unionized departments don’t have to show a profit, they’ll be able to come in substantially cheaper AND keep their unions.

    Universities can handle research that commercial firms won’t touch, because universities shift a lot of the labor onto poorly paid students, grad students, and post-docs. If you had to bill $100/hr for a lab tech (of which the tech only took home <$20/hr after taxes), you couldn't get most of your research financed. I know this, because I went from the university to the private sector, and my research priorities changed radically, and not for the better.

    There are certainly microbial analogs to this situation, but I think I've said enough.

  2. JonathanC permalink
    July 11, 2012 12:58 am

    Is the University Educationally Sovereign? It accepts dollars for tuition and pays dollars for services but it could issue ‘educational credits’ for services on a one-for-one basis with dollars , when used for tuition. If the hourly rate were high enough, perhaps talented people would move there to accumulate credits for themselves, or others. I have read that it only costs an airline 10 dollars to put each of the last few people on a plane cross country. How much would it cost to put the last few students in a course room? By using a national currency exclusively for all transactions, the university has sort of outsourced an aspect of its critical functions. Careful creation of its own scrip could yield prospects for growth.

  3. Equack permalink
    July 11, 2012 1:18 am


    Money was a great invention, and the fewer currencies the better. Markets are not perfect but they are much more efficient than the barter system. I can imagine other mediums of exchange, but college credit? A university course might cost $2000 or more, but an AP exam or a CLEP credit only costs $100 and confers the same number of credits at most schools. Not a good choice for a currency.

  4. paws4thot permalink
    July 11, 2012 6:04 am

    I take it you don’t have similar laws to the UK’s “Transfer of Undertakings: Protection of Employment” laws (TUPE)? I won’t bore everyone with details, but basically they state that, if your job is transferred to a new employer, they must:-
    1) Employ you for 2 years.
    2) Continue (and enhance according to their pay negotiation procedures) your existing remuneration package for 2 years.
    3) Offer you a pension equivalent to any you already have.

  5. July 11, 2012 4:12 pm

    Thanks for all these interesting ideas. I don’t know what USA laws are on job transfer, but your summary does sound reasonable.

    So when tech innovation is needed, how should the institution proceed? What if current employees lack new expertise?

    Part of the problem with maintenance is that every new piece of equipment comes in ten times more complicated than the one it replaced.

    • paws4thot permalink
      July 12, 2012 4:14 am

      Para 1 – My post from yesterday should give a union rep (may be called a “shop steward”) sufficient info to say if the USA has similar laws to TUPE.

      Para 2 – This is largely dependant on how the contract is written. At which point I duck out because any advice I could give is commercially priviledged I’m afraid.

    • heteromeles permalink
      July 12, 2012 9:31 am

      Hi Joan, I’m not sure that the US has something like the TUPE.

      As for new skills, there are two takes on this. If there is a genuine new need for maintenance (such as maintaining the IT structure), then the (some) employees do need to learn the new skills or become rendered obsolete. If this is about getting fancy new tools, then the real question is what does the job. The university’s primary need is to be properly maintained in a cheap and timely fashion. How that happens should be up to the maintenance department, not the whim of the administration. Note that other jobs (such as cleaning floors or picking up trash) has been done pretty well for the last few decades, if not centuries.

      The point here is to get the maintenance department to think more like a contractor. Outsourcing can look cool at first, but the general problem with it is that you have to pay for the outsourcer’s administrative costs and profits as well. A nimble department can slide in under this cost differential, because they are already in place.

  6. SFreader permalink
    July 12, 2012 5:05 pm

    I`m in another industry but am familiar with this type of outsourcing through family. Basically, the new foreign contractor will still hire staff locally, so key tradespeople will stay on but change employers. Also since many trades set their own trade hourly rates, the labor costs won`t change much — nor will the workers`take home pay. However, anyone in an unskilled job will likely lose seniority and pay with this scheme. This practice is becoming pretty commonplace in airports and hospitals too.

    If this new contract includes outsourcing IT support — you have my sympathy! I`ve been through such technology upgrades and each time lost a lot of important data either because the data was accidentally deleted when being moved, wasn`t compatible with the new `platform` therefore became inaccessible or unusable, or the tech didn`t bother looking through all of the additional drives on the old system before it was dismantled, etc. Anyways, I imagine that a university because it houses so many different departments would need a relatively complex IT set-up. If your new contractor specializes in university IT solutions, you have some hope — otherwise, consider moving and saving all of your old data yourself.

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