URBANA — A consultant is recommending that the University of Illinois "re-brand" its effort to attract businesses owned by women and minorities and devote five more employees to that mission.
It's also urging the UI to work toward legislative changes that would broaden the pool of businesses that count toward its diversity goals, such as disabled veterans or small businesses working in economically depressed areas.
The Bronner Group of Chicago was hired a year ago by UI trustees to improve participation in its Minority and Female Business Enterprise Program, informally known as MAFBE. The consulting firm, headed by UI graduate Gila Bronner, will be paid a maximum of $202,870 in professional fees and expenses, according to the UI.
Administrators presented the consultants' preliminary recommendations Friday to UI trustees, who appeared supportive. The board will be asked to approve an expanded mission statement for "supplier diversity" and set new goals at an upcoming meeting, possibly in January, said Mike Bass, senior associate vice president for capital programs and real estate.
"What we're trying to accomplish is to really embed a culture of diversity within the university," said Heather Haberaecker, UI executive assistant vice president for business and finance. "The goal is to increase the awareness within the campus, and to improve opportunities for MAFBE participation in our overall purchasing."
The state's Business Enterprise for Minorities, Females, and Persons with Disabilities Act, approved in 1994, is designed to encourage state agencies to buy goods and services from businesses owned by African-Americans and other minorities, women, and people with disabilities. The purchases cover everything from construction work to medical supplies, auditing, IT consultants and artistic services.
The law applies only to purchases made with state funds, and the UI already meets the 20 percent target stipulated in the statute. But administrators are proposing that the goal be applied to all eligible university purchases.
UI trustees were unhappy that the university's overall MAFBE spending was "fairly flat" and asked administrators in September 2010 to see how the program could be improved, Haberaecker said.
In fiscal 2009, for example, the UI spent $20.9 million with MAFBE-certified firms, or about 2.6 percent of all eligible purchases, according to university figures. The percentage rose slightly to 2.8 percent in fiscal 2010, or about $21 million.
A report prepared for trustees last week showed improvement, with overall MAFBE spending at $31.7 million, or 4.2 percent for fiscal 2011, which ended June 30.
Haberaecker said the numbers dipped in 2009 after the UI-Chicago completed a major expansion project on its south campus in partnership with the city of Chicago, which set specific hiring requirements for minority contractors.
About $11.1 million worth of contracts went to minority male-owned businesses in fiscal 2007, but just $4.6 million in fiscal 2009.
Haberaecker attributed the improvement in fiscal 2011 to new goals estab- lished by the board and a renewed push at the UI-Chicago, which has access to more minority subcontractors than the Urbana and Springfield campuses.
Also, a number of vendors used by the UI Chicago that had not been certified as MAFBE firms obtained certification from the state and can now be counted toward the goals, she said. Trustees last year approved higher "aspirational" goals for large state-funded construction contracts on each campus: 22 percent for Chicago and 15 percent for Urbana-Champaign, Springfield, and the Rockford and Peoria medical campuses.
The state goal is 10 percent, and the Urbana campus previously hit its goal of about 5 percent.
That means when a bid is awarded, 15 percent of the contract must go to MAFBE-certified firms, and if not contractors have to document "good-faith efforts," Bass said.
A relatively new state law allows universities to use the target as a qualification when awarding construction contracts.
"In general, the contractors have met the goals," he said Thursday.
Bronner told a UI trustee committee that the MAFBE program has "many successful elements" but lacked structure, and that the term MAFBE "really has a stigma."
The university is moving toward a broader "UIllinois Supplier Diversity" program with more active outreach to vendors, in hopes of making it nationally recognized.
"To be able to uniquely brand the program will give it some attention," Bronner said.
Consultants also recommended that the UI devote seven full-time employees and one part-time employee to the effort, compared to the two assigned to the MAFBE program now.
The expanded staff would include a central director of diversity within the UI Office of Business and Financial Services, to promote better coordination and less duplication of efforts on the three campuses, Haberaecker said.
Three new positions have been budgeted for the current fiscal year, but they haven't been filled yet, UI officials said. Haberaecker and Bass said they're awaiting more specific recommendations from Bronner about a structure for the revamped program.
Officials are still working out a proposed budget and declined to estimate the cost of the new positions.
Trustee Ed McMillan questioned the need for 7.5 employees, suggesting administrators reallocate employees first before deciding whether to add new staff.
"In the environment we're in, that's a tough thing for us to look at," he said Friday.
Haberaecker and Bronner said more work is needed if the numbers are going to improve.
Bronner proposed creating a supplier diversity advocacy council to push for improvements in state procurement laws and an incubator program for businesses, perhaps in partnership with the Chicago Urban League and other groups.
Bronner also put together a database identifying 6,000 potential businesses that could be part of the supplier diversity program, which will need to be updated, she said.
"For what we're paying, I think we're getting a tremendous amount of information," said Trustee Tim Koritz, noting that the state law was one of several unfunded state mandates.
Bass said having a central office "with gravitas" would demonstrate the UI's commitment to diversity.
The UI has to balance efficiency with "good social justice and increased diversity. It's not a zero-sum game," he said.
UI President Michael Hogan said the university is streamlining the overall procurement process, consolidating purchases among the campuses.
That's estimated to save about $20 million over the next few years, "in which case the hiring of two or three more people is easier to swallow," he said.
Existing positions eliminated by those consolidations could be reallocated to supplier diversity, Haberaecker added.
Consultants also want the UI to push for changes in state law that would allow "scoring considerations" for diverse businesses when purchasing contracts are awarded.
A committee reviewing bid proposals might give a minority-owned business extra points for being diverse "to give them a bit of a leg up," said Ashlee Piper, director of strategic services at Bronner Group and manager for the UI project.
Some consider it controversial, Piper said, but it's worked well in Pennsylvania and Minnesota "in creating opportunities for businesses that might not otherwise have been as competitive because they're not as large, but they still do excellent work at great value."
Bronner also suggested working with legislators to broaden the definition for supplier diversity to include, for example, businesses owned by disabled veterans, lesbians or gays, or small businesses in blighted areas.
That's a trend emerging at the federal level and in the private sector, she said.
The change would make it easier for the UI to fulfill its goal of creating opportunities for historically disadvantaged businesses, she said.
"Right now, if the university does business with a veteran-owned business, it doesn't count toward MAFBE goals," she said.
Bass called it an "interesting idea" and said the UI would support expanding the definition if the state moved in that direction.
Though he praised the Bronner Group's plans overall, Trustee James Montgomery was concerned about "dilution" of diversity efforts for other groups.
He also asked for a breakdown of the percentage of contracts or purchases awarded to each minority group.
Piper said the goal is not to dilute the pool of diverse businesses "but rather to make it more robust."
"At the end of the day, procurement is about competition, it's about getting the best value for the university's money, and opening itself up to a variety of other businesses is only going to be better for the university and the complexion of businesses out there," she said.