US academics ‘reluctant to help universities save money’

Funding challenges need cooperative spirit among educators, finance officers say

October 4, 2019
Source: Getty
Tug of war: when departments are given their own budgets, you often get individual academics ‘wanting to improve their piece of the pie rather than make the overall pie bigger’

Too many US academics fail to appreciate the seriousness of their own university’s financial crises and battle for turf rather than working cooperatively to help, a group of chief financial officers warned.

Speaking at a New York forum hosted by Times Higher Education and HSBC, the finance chiefs said they respected faculty’s desire to protect their educational missions. But too often, they explained, scholars resisted difficult bottom-line discussions about how to cope with limited or shrinking resources.

“We can’t involve them enough,” Eileen DiBenedetto, the vice-president for finance at Barnard College, said of academic staff. She described a recent incident in which some Barnard staff representatives, shown data indicating that their benefits packages were “above market”, accepted an outline for some cost-saving revisions.

But when the plan was presented to a wider faculty assembly, staff representatives backed off in the face of heavy protests, Ms DiBenedetto said.

Ms DiBenedetto and her colleagues gathered at a time of financial stress across much of US higher education, with public institutions reeling from years of declines in state support and small private colleges such as Barnard struggling to compete for a shrinking supply of students.

Public institutions, which serve about 80 per cent of US college students, can no longer cover the costs left to them by their states by further raising tuition fees, said Michael Gower, the executive vice-president for finance and administration at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

As long as states refuse to shoulder the responsibility for developing and supporting an educated public, the only major remaining option for universities was to change their teaching models, he said.

Mr Gower cited predictions that teaching will need to change fundamentally in the next decade, regardless of cost pressures, as information becomes so widely available online that the instructor’s primary focus will have to shift to helping students find, combine and synthesise material.

“We have pockets of faculty who are really in on this,” Mr Gower said. But as a general rule, institutions were “absolutely not” tackling the challenge, he said.

“We can provide infrastructure, like a common learning management system instead of the Tower of Babel,” Mr Gower said. “But we can’t do it [force that necessary change] – we’re not on the front line of the education process. We can just support it.”

In private as well as public institutions, budgeting structures often exacerbated rather than reduced internal conflicts, said Martin Dorph, executive vice-president for finance and information technology at New York University.

One popular approach, employed at NYU and many other institutions, is known as responsibility centre management, under which schools or departments are given set budgets and the authority to manage them.

This is meant to foster accountability and shared responsibility. In practice, however, you often get individual academics “wanting to improve their piece of the pie rather than make the overall pie bigger”, Mr Dorph said. In the process, faculty tended to forget “the fundamental question of whether we can create the resources we need to continue to innovate and be a top-notch university”, he said.

Barbara Holahan, chief financial officer at the New York Institute of Technology, gave an example of NYIT administrators deciding to cut tuition fees for summer courses to the same level as for regular semesters because they realised that students were avoiding summertime studies and, thus, slowing their progress towards completion.

As a result of the change, overall student completion rates rose substantially, Ms Holahan said, but faculty protested because part of their compensation was tied to overall tuition levels.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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