Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Academic and Financial Officers

Sometimes I think I’ve been blessed. At my college, the academic and financial sides of administration work well together. This is not a universal condition, nor has it always held throughout my career.

Based on having seen the relationships work and not work in various places, I have a few suggestions for a successful working relationship.

Obviously, the first is mutual respect. The academics need to understand, in a more-than-theoretical way, that institutions have to make payroll. Discussion of budgets cannot be out of bounds, and it cannot be taken as just another excuse to say ‘no.’ Money spend on initiative A is not available for initiative B, and saying that is no reflection on the worth of initiative B. It’s just true.

The finance folk need to understand that the college itself is not for profit, and that its point is to provide a public service. While that can’t excuse indifference to costs, it does sometimes mean accepting some money-losing elements to the operation simply because they’re important. The tutoring center, for example, is a major cost center that generates no new revenues in itself; a for-profit would kill it quickly. (Proprietary U didn’t have one.) But it’s essential to the community college mission, so we support it.

The second is a sense of the constraints under which each side operates. The finance folks have to deal with shaky state budgets, unfunded mandates, ever-shifting regulations, and the challenges of a heavily used physical plant, none of which they chose. (Yes, someone chose the physical plant, but that was generations ago. The current folks inherited it.) They get audited periodically, and have to be able to show where the money went. They have to keep some “in case of emergency” money on hand for those times when a water main breaks or the HVAC system goes kaput. Some will demagogue that as a “slush fund,” but it’s actually a sign of good management.

The academic folks have to deal with accreditation and transfer, but also with some fairly unquantifiable -- but still real -- concerns about quality. While a category as broad as that can be used to hide all manner of sins, the category itself is still quite real. An academic administration that can distinguish productive spending from vanity spending will go a long way in building bridges.

I’ve worked in settings in which the two sides regarded each other as adversaries, and it worked to the detriment of the college as a whole. At Proprietary U, for example, upper management routinely referred to Admissions as a “profit center,” and Academics as a “cost center.” That didn't do much to endear it to the faculty, who rightly wondered just what the students were being admitted to.

At some level, some basic education in each other’s realities would go a long way. At my current position, I remember being struck that many faculty didn't have any sense of the difference between a capital budget and an operating budget, for example, so they'd make angry statements along the lines of “you have money for a new building, but not for full-time faculty?” They assumed, falsely, that money available for the one was alternately available for the other, and therefore drew unflattering conclusions about the ethics and/or intellect of the folks in the budget office. Some of them still manage to believe that course releases are moneymakers for the college, which would be amazing if it were true. If you believe that, then of course the only reason to say no to a course release would be meanness. On the flip side, folks on the staff side need to learn to lay off the “summer vacation” comments. They don’t help. And we need to accept that travel is a cost of doing business, and not just reflexively cut it every time the legislature sneezes. Say “no” to someone enough times, and they just stop asking. That is not a good thing.

This isn’t an exhaustive treatment, by any means, but it’s a start. Wise and worldly readers, have you seen effective ways for the two sides of a college to work together?