Monday, August 22, 2011

Sharing a President

Can two mature campuses share one President?

Apparently, in a cost-cutting move, the SUNY system is considering having three of its sitting Presidents become Presidents of two colleges each. The idea is to save the salaries of three Presidents, and to make a conspicuous public statement about moving resources out of administration and into teaching.

It's an audacious move, and I'll be interested in watching it play out. My guess is that it will be far more difficult than most other forms of administrative consolidation, such as group purchasing agreements or consortia for payroll services. The reason is the word “mature.”

Nationally, there is no shortage of multicampus systems that report to a single President or Chancellor. In some states, they're called “districts,” in the manner of K-12 public school districts. A given community college district might have several different colleges all in the purview of a single chancellor. It's also common to have a single institution with multiple campuses, or a main campus with satellites or off-campus locations.

This is different.

First, in most of those cases, the growth was organic. A college established a branch campus to meet enrollment demand, but the branch always understood itself as part of the original college. Alternately, a district was formed by fiat in the 60's when campuses either didn't exist or were brand new. In those cases, distinct identities hadn't been formed yet. Things were malleable.

In this case, though, mature institutions with distinct, separate identities are being forced to share someone at the top. That's a different challenge. That’s especially true when the institutions in question have been frenemies over time, competing for the same pool of students.

There’s also a difficult issue around fundraising and the public profile. Although it’s less true in the public sector than among the private nonprofits, it’s increasingly the case that the bulk of a President’s job is external relations. That means fundraising, first and foremost, but it also extends to public relations, relations with local businesses and community groups, relations with other colleges, and, in the case of publics, relations with the state. In many ways, the President is the public ambassador of the college.

It’s one thing to be the ambassador of a single college or institution; it’s quite another to be the ambassador of two. Yes, some fundraising events could be combined, but donors don’t usually give to consortia; they give to single places with clear identities. The folks who work in “development” -- that is, fundraising -- have as a mantra that fundraising is friendraising; it’s all about relationships.

That wouldn’t matter much, or at all, if we were talking about combining payroll services, say, or getting a group discount from a software vendor for an ERP platform. But in courting alumni and donors, any whiff of divided loyalties could cause serious issues. Donors have no shortage of causes courting them; if they aren’t comfortable with one, they can move right on to another.

“Okay,” one could say, “but fundraising at this level usually means scholarships anyway. The colleges will still realize operating budget savings.”

Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. A quick look at existing multicampus systems explains why.

Typically, in those cases, each location has a chief operating officer. Depending on size, that person might go by the name of 'dean,' 'provost,' or 'president,' but there's someone with whom the buck stops locally. In the business world, this would be the Chief Operating Officer. Running a college is not something to do off the corner of someone's desk; the complexity doesn't allow it. Given how many things are going on at each campus, someone will have to be in charge locally.

Depending on the structures they have in place now, that could mean creating a provost or a COO position at each campus, with that person reporting to the multicampus President. (Think of it as the principals of various schools reporting to the district superintendent.) Instead of paying for a president, each campus may wind up effectively paying for a president and a half.

That’s not to say the plan can’t work. If the campuses already run on the provost model, and you have excellent people in those roles who are willing to step up their responsibility dramatically for little or no extra pay, you might be able to get away with it for a while. In fact, I’ll venture a prediction. It will “work,” more or less, for a few years, but it won’t prove sustainable. Over time, each campus will clamor for attention, and the divided loyalties of the president will prove a real challenge externally.

In the meantime, though, kudos to SUNY for at least trying. I’ve been wrong before...