Weathering the Budgetary

July 1, 2003 | CUNY Matters Columns

“Uncertainty,” wrote psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm, “is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” Recent world events, the current economic downturn, and budgetary shortfalls at the state and local levels have forced those of us in public universities to operate in a climate of uncertainty. The combination of intense needs, scarce resources, and high expectations presents significant challenges to fulfilling the educational mission of our institutions. But public institutions of higher education can convert daunting budgetary challenges into exciting opportunities for change and innovation. Indeed, these realities should underscore a resolve to establish priorities and redirect policies, efforts, and resources to maintain–and perhaps even enhance–our most precious academic assets.

Given the current economic picture, we see the future strength of our university in its reconceptualization as an integrated whole, which maintains the historic identities and loyalties of its individual colleges while taking advantage of a compact geography that enabled faculty and students to view the entire university as their campus. As an integrated university, we are making administrative and fiscal economies that will allow us to redirect resources and create new revenue streams.

Thinking of CUNY as an integrated university has led us to develop and implement a fundamentally different way of envisioning, managing, and administering our institution. This new mind-set protects our core business of teaching and learning, enables us to build and support our faculty, and ensures a safety net for our most disadvantaged students. The following guidelines, extracted from our experience, may help other institutions confront the daunting economic challenges ahead.

1. Engage in an academic strategic planning effort that builds excellence and prominence in selected fields across the entire institution, instead of allocating new resources unit by unit. We have created a “flagship environment” which, among other things, has allowed us to pursue faculty hiring in a way that steadily increases our full- time/part-time ratio–important because for many years we relied disproportionately on part-time instructors–but which also allows individual units to contribute to the intellectual breadth and depth of the entire institution.

This has enabled us to attract higher quality faculty and build bridges across our colleges that facilitate the collaborative work of colleagues in different departments and programs, and that helps increase grants from external sources. Strengthening our academic reputation in this way also has enabled our enrollment to grow, further shored up our economic base, and secured a significant amount of private money for CUNY.

2. Develop academic and enrollment management policies that overcome obstacles for transfer students–an important source of revenue for most public institutions. A more forceful policy on articulation and transfer (approved by CUNY’s board in 1999), and the creation of CUNY’s Transfer Information and Program Planning System (our online course equivalency guide), have helped ensure a smoother transition for transfer students and achieved dramatic success in moving our students seamlessly from community colleges to senior colleges. This strategy, so important to our students, is of course also critical to our economic base. Retention of students ensures a more stable enrollment and a more predictable source of revenue.

3. Develop centralized and coordinated administrative and managerial systems that relieve individual units of the necessity of replicating functions. We are accelerating our efforts to centralize and coordinate appropriate administrative operations. Given the trend of diminishing state support, there is no defensible rationale for each academic unit to replicate similar administrative functions–purchasing, human resource administration, contracting, and the like–that could be performed centrally or regionally with greater efficiency….We are building technology platforms and shared data systems that relieve individual campuses from the necessity of replicating these functions. This will generate savings we can redirect to academic enhancements.

4.Plan facilities and programs that capitalize on strengths across the institution, rather than just individual units. We are planning and building a number of integrated facilities and programs: a science research and training facility in Manhattan that will be shared among logical clusters of institutions; a new university-wide School of Professional Studies that will provide training for private companies, unions, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations with specific workforce training needs; and a new university-wide School of Journalism that will capitalize on our broad strength in urban studies.

The reality of uncertain government support–now and in the future–makes it even more crucial for those of us in leadership positions to ensure that our universities and colleges are vital and productive….As an integrated university, we have found that we can achieve savings and protect our core academic functions immediately, as well as in the future, by managing more effectively and investing savings and newly created revenues in the vibrancy of academic life.