UA’s $14-million gamble: Consultant gave pricey advice to devise strategic plan

University of Arizona President Robert Robbins addresses those attending a banquet announcing the 360 Initiative in the University of Arizona Student Union’s North Ballroom, on Nov. 1, 2019. /Josh Galemore / Arizona Daily Star

By Carol Ann Alaimo and Justin Sayers | Arizona Daily 

The University of Arizona paid more than $14 million to a global consulting firm for planning advice in what could be the largest contract of its kind in school history.

McKinsey & Company, a behemoth that has catered for decades to Fortune 500 companies but has relatively little experience consulting for American universities, charged the UA up to $185,000 a week for each three-person team, and dispatched at least 16 consultants to campus on-and-off over a 10-month period, records obtained by the Arizona Daily Star show.

UA President Robert C. Robbins, who took over as president in mid-2017, hired McKinsey six months later on a no-bid contract to help create two new strategic plans, one that covers the entire university and another directed for the school’s medical enterprise.

In an interview, Robbins acknowledged the expense was risky, but he believes it was money well spent.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the main plan’s public unveiling. Robbins is slated to give a progress report to his bosses, the Arizona Board of Regents, when they meet at the UA later this month.

“It’s true they are very expensive,” Robbins said of McKinsey, but added he’s “very very proud” of the end result. “I would say it’s transforming the university in terms of giving us a roadmap to where the university will go in the next 10 to 15 years.”

Details of McKinsey’s work are elusive because the firm demands secrecy from its clients on the grounds that its methods and strategies are trade secrets. When the Star made a public records request for McKinsey’s contract, the UA allowed the firm to black out entire pages of information the company considers proprietary.

The redactions, allowable under state public records law, make it virtually impossible for an outsider to tell precisely what the firm did to earn its fees.


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November 2019