The 9-month, $710K consulting contract that could alter how KU operates

photo by: Associated Press

In this Oct. 24, 2019, file photo, students walk in front of Fraser Hall on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner, File)

The University of Kansas in June entered into a nine-month contract with a Maryland-based higher education consulting firm tasked with examining virtually every aspect of KU’s operations, from academics to administrative offices.

The bill — footed by KU Endowment, the university’s separate fundraising arm — totals $710,000. And through March 2021, the firm, rpk GROUP, will review and make recommendations regarding the efficiency and productivity of KU’s academic programs, KU’s relatively new budget model, and the university’s existing financial processes and structures, among other charges.

The Journal-World this week obtained the contract between KU Endowment and rpk GROUP through a public records request, which revealed for the first time the scope and cost of the consulting work. KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said rpk GROUP was selected as a sole source contract — also known as a no-bid contract — because the firm is a leader in higher education finance analysis.

Since KU Endowment, a private and nonprofit entity, is paying for the services on behalf of the university, Barcomb-Peterson said a formal request for proposal to solicit bids from other consultants was not needed, and that rpk GROUP was qualified to carry out the desired analysis.

KU Chancellor Douglas Girod requested that KU Endowment bear the costs associated with the nine-month project, Barcomb-Peterson confirmed.

“… These consulting fees were not built into the FY21 budget when it was set, and therefore were outside of planned operational expenses, so adding them would have put a strain on the university budget during these challenging financial times,” she said in an email.

What’s in the contract

According to the contract, the cost and time breakdown of rpk GROUP’s work is as follows:

• Academic portfolio and efficiency/productivity analysis — $325,000

• Market scan and analysis — $50,000

• Finance and budget review — $160,000

• Administrative services review — $175,000

The academic portfolio review, the largest investment within the $710,000 contract, tasks rpk GROUP with “uncovering (KU’s) economic engines” and creating “a framework for moving KU toward the use of a return on investment lens.” The firm says it will examine the demand, student success, outcomes and net revenue of each academic program in undergraduate, graduate and professional units.

The market scan and analysis will provide KU with a current analysis of the current and prospective student market, as well as recommendations about where to target future efforts.

KU implemented a new budget model in 2018 under former interim provost Carl Lejuez, the effects of which began to come to fruition in the 2019-20 academic year. That was before COVID-19 threw the university’s finances into chaos (KU currently estimates a $120 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, or 26% of its general operating budget).

Now, rpk GROUP will analyze the still-new resource allocation model to see if it is still the best option for Kansas’ flagship university. At the request of KU administrators, the contract also says the firm will examine the university’s current budget reporting procedures and recommend ways to expedite individual units’ reporting methods to get a more complete picture of university finances.

Finally, the administrative services will consist of a “deep dive” into how KU can maintain “current levels of service at lower cost” including looking at the administrative structure to see where there is “duplication of effort.”

KU faculty raise concerns

Though the firm’s work has been ongoing for several months now, KU employees have been kept mostly out of the loop regarding the firm’s findings and the ultimate purpose for its work, two top faculty leaders told the Journal-World.

Lua Yuille, the president of KU’s Faculty Senate and a university law professor, and Sanjay Mishra, the president of KU’s University Senate and a business professor, have mentioned the fact that rpk GROUP was commissioned for consulting work in various meetings of their governance organizations over the past weeks and months. However, a simultaneous theme of those meetings was that no one knew anything specific about the firm’s work.

The newspaper gave Yuille and Mishra access to the contract prior to an interview for this article so they could speak with more authority on its contents.

Mishra said that he and Yuille have asked repeatedly through their roles as governance leaders for university-wide communications to be disseminated to better clue in KU employees on rpk GROUP’s purpose. Those requests appeared to have fallen on deaf ears, he said, as no such communications were ever released — which has prompted rumors to begin swirling among faculty members about the firm’s ultimate purpose and KU’s true goals for commissioning the work.

“It’s not that we haven’t asked,” he said. “We have asked and we have suggested, put something out in the open (that says) ‘This is what’s happening; this is what we know.'”

Both Mishra and Yuille said that among their colleagues, the primary fear is that rpk GROUP’s analysis and recommendations will result in academic programs being cut from departments, or that programs will be combined and siloed within units. “Siloing” is a term used within higher education to reflect when a department is isolated from others within the university, which leads to a lack of cohesive curriculum across the institution.

After reviewing the contract, Yuille said that while its specifics indicate that such fears are within the realm of possibility, the fact remains that few people ultimately know how rpk GROUP’s findings and recommendations will be used.

“The university community doesn’t know. And it makes it hard to hold the administration accountable,” she said. “It makes it hard for the faculty participants, and to the extent there are staff and other constituent participation in this work, it makes it hard to understand and know what they’re actually doing.”

Barcomb-Peterson said the COVID-19 pandemic has forced KU into a number of rapid operational changes, and having an independent consultant examine the university’s current procedures makes sense given everything that has changed just in the last several months.

“In addition to dealing with the financial challenges of the pandemic, the University of Kansas has and is undergoing key transitions, including implementing a new productivity-centered budget model, bringing in a new Provost, and transitioning the Chief Financial Officer,” she said. “It is simply good administrative practice at such times of transition to have review by external and objective sources and to benchmark university systems and processes against best practices.”

When asked if the firm’s findings and recommendations would be made public, Barcomb-Peterson said some information has already had been disseminated to relevant parties at the university.

“rpk GROUP’s findings and recommendations have already been and will continue to be shared with university administrators, academic leaders and faculty who have responsibilities in the various areas that are being reviewed,” she said.

Mishra and Yuille said they had not been made aware — through their roles as faculty members or as university governance leaders — of any specific analysis or recommendations related to rpk GROUP’s work.

“It’s not public. It’s pick and choose who I want to share it with,” Mishra said. “That’s not public.”

The firm’s work is scheduled to be completed by March.


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