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28 July 2012

Becoming lean during tough budget cycles

by Steven B. Combs, Ph.D.
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Recently, the only thing being discussed on our campus on a daily basis is our budget, or lack thereof. In our case we have to balance a budget where our deficit includes too many zeros. The reason for our budget reduction – lack of enrollment. I won’t even begin to formulate a guess on the reasons for this occurrence as there are entirely too many variables to nail it down to a single one. I even joke with fellow administrators that I “picked the wrong time to move from the faculty to become a full-time administrator.” I’m half joking.

What I have found is that there truly is a negative and optimistic way to look at our situation (my wife will tell you that I am too optimistic). Let’s look at the negatives first and end with a few positives (I think my wife is correct).

All too often a review of the budget will panic the masses. Will this review result in the lose of equipment/personnel/programs? The rumor mill begins and spins out of control. In our case, the administration is as transparent as we can be (we still have too many unknowns); however, the faculty and staff learn about “budget” meetings and the rumors begin. And as we all know, most rumors and panic attacks come from the unknown; however, I’ve come to realize that no matter how transparent you are, the human nature of some personality types will always conjure up and disseminate the worst rumors possible. It’s a Catch 22 situation. There is no way to fix this. “It is, what it is,” as a recent colleague so eloquently stated.

From the “glass half full” division, I have found the budget exercises very beneficial since I am new to this campus and a new academic officer as well. The level of detail when discussing personnel/faculty/programs would have never occurred without this “crisis.” The talk amongst the administrative team is enlightening. Early in my new career I’ve had the opportunity to hear the historical reasons about how positions and programs were created, the good and the bad.

I’ve also observed how our leadership team works under a crisis. I was happy to find that they are a tight knit group. Even when they have disagreements, they are extremely professional and collegial. What strikes me as even more encouraging is that several of us on the team are new to the campus and have been welcomed with open arms. Some are even new to higher education. It is not that often that you find this type of administrative environment, let alone when working through such a difficult time. I’m proud of the group.

As we get into the specifics of the budget we have discovered some inefficiencies in some processes; especially within my area of academic affairs. While these findings won’t initially save us a few of those zeros, in the end, these inefficient holes will be plugged. This should reduce the workload of some of our faculty and staff. I often hear that we overwork our folks. I tend to agree with them and it is my hope that we will free up some of their precious time for other more important student focused tasks.

In the end, we will probably come out of this budget year more lean, efficient, frugal, and with an enhanced fiduciary responsibility to our state tax payers. When we find these savings, we do something our college is proud of; we keep the cost and tuition of higher education lower than any other institution in the state. This alone makes this process worth the sweat and time.

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