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UCLA Extension interim leadership makes promising progress in mending previous faults

UCLA Extension administrators engaged in questionable practices and employees resigned en masse. The interim leadership has steadied the ship, but UCLA needs a permanent solution.(Daanish Bhatti/Daily Bruin)

By Chris Busco

Feb. 5, 2019 10:59 p.m.

With the departure of three deans and the voluntary exodus of 23 percent of its staff, UCLA Extension was careening toward a cliff with no one at the wheel.

And without a solid game plan, it might just be over the edge in half a year.

UCLA Extension is an invaluable arm of UCLA, providing accessible educational and professional certification options to the public at large. The institution is able to offer educational opportunities to the wider Los Angeles community, a crucial component in fulfilling the university’s duty as a public university.

But even as it offers these critical services, UCLA Extension has been dogged with administrative scandals that threaten to sink the crucial institution.

The quick work of an interim leadership team managed to stop the bleeding. However, the administration still has a lot of work to do if it wishes to avoid another near-cliff experience.

The destructive course of UCLA Extension’s administration began last year with staff grumblings over then-Dean Wayne Smutz’s allegedly unethical hiring practices. Some Extension employees purported Smutz would preferentially hire candidates he had previously worked with at Pennsylvania State University.

Extension also reported a projected $10 million loss in revenue for the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Some employees felt this projected loss was the result of Smutz’s financial mismanagement, including his decision to raise class prices. Things were so bad that Scott Waugh, executive vice chancellor, turned to an external group to audit UCLA Extension’s management and organizational structure.

“I had to take out a small loan to pay for these courses,” said Meredith Bleveans, a community member currently taking UCLA Extension courses. “For people who are raising a family and working, it’s really hard to budget this. A lot of my classmates took out loans to cover this.”

By late 2018, it was exceedingly clear UCLA Extension was a sinking ship in need of a lifeline. Waugh announced Smutz’s retirement, which some employees allege was requested, would take place by Oct. 31. At the same time, the two former UCLA Extension associate deans quit to pursue other professional opportunities.

UCLA has since brought in its A-team to turn the school around. Waugh appointed Tom Oser, a visiting professor in technology management at the Anderson School of Management and a former CEO; Sonia Luna, executive director of the California NanoSystems Institute; and Carla Hayn, a senior associate dean at the School of Management, as UCLA Extension’s interim leadership team Aug. 1. The team was brought in with the express purpose of implementing audit recommendations for UCLA Extension and stabilizing the school.

Luna, UCLA Extension’s interim chief financial officer and interim chief operating officer, said the interim team has made a few key hires aimed at addressing immediate staffing needs, including a new director of human resources. Hayn, interim senior associate dean of academic affairs, said the team also flattened out UCLA Extension’s management structure with a renewed focus on transparency.

“We have immediate projects that we have approval to hire for,” Oser, UCLA Extension’s interim vice provost, said. “We have a very specific growth plan that is currently active so we can do it sustainably.”

The interim leadership has also turned the corner on UCLA Extension’s previously poor fiscal situation. The leadership team has been proactive about cutting redundant software programs and extraneous consultants, Luna said.

The team also went back to the drawing board with every multiyear contract the school was engaged in and renegotiated with vendors if it felt there was a better deal. Oser added UCLA Extension is diversifying its marketing channels in a more productive way than previous leadership had. Luna suggested this may cause the school to see an increase in revenue this fiscal year, and Oser added the school is not planning to increase class prices.

These are promising changes. There’s just one problem: The interim team is just that – interim.

At the end of the day, the changes the interim team implements are only successful if they are continued by the subsequent permanent UCLA Extension leadership.

If the university wishes to avoid repeating its past mistakes, it must handle the hiring of UCLA Extension’s permanent dean and other top administrators with special care. The new leadership should be composed of tried and true administrators who have already cut their teeth in various other UCLA departments. This will ensure not only that they are up to the task of taking on such a difficult project, but also that they have familiarity with UCLA Extension’s particular relationship with the university proper.

That’s crucial, given UCLA has already seen how damaging it is to install inept leadership in its flagship off-campus school. Whether it be involving the interim team in the hiring process to ensure permanent leadership shares its management philosophy, or implementing a rigorous transition process to ensure managerial continuity, administrators’ work isn’t done until UCLA Extension has a sustainable, productive long-term plan.

Despite its dramatic, demoralizing administrative problems, UCLA Extension can have its house in order and not share the fate of the Titanic.

All it needs is an experienced captain.

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Chris Busco | Opinion columnist
Busco is an Opinion columnist and a staff representative on the Daily Bruin Editorial Board.
Busco is an Opinion columnist and a staff representative on the Daily Bruin Editorial Board.
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