Universal Mentors Association

Shared governance and budgets in conflict


An occasional correspondent writes,

I work for an R1 private 4-year institution at our Computer Science department as an academic administrator. I have a master’s degree in higher education & student affairs, if that’s helpful context. I’m writing to see if you or the readers have discussed how academic units make or should make strategic planning decisions that blur the line between academics and business.

Our department, a few years ago, launched an OPM-supported online graduate professional program that has drawn a different audience than expected. I’m currently helping moderate conversations between provost-level administrators, the graduate school, our dean, and the department as they decide how to boost enrollment, improve the student experience, and see if major changes need to be made to our online program portfolio. What is curious is that I’m quickly learning that few of these stakeholders are equipped with an extensive financial/business background. While I’m grateful that most of their focus is on the quality of the program, how to structure things to support students, etc., I’m stuck wondering if this is normal? What are the best practices surrounding making larger-scale decisions, such as whether graduate programs need to be maintained, modified, reformatted, or cut? I read about larger schools like WVU (though I hear that’s also impacted by demographic changes and state disinvestment) and am eager to learn how to frame these large-scale decisions. 

Honestly, I’m heartened to hear that the senior leadership is as focused on quality as you say. That’s encouraging, and not universal.

I’ll start by acknowledging that my management experience has been at undergraduate institutions, rather than research universities. I’m hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers will be able to chime in with relevant context.

The theory of shared governance is that various constituencies have different realms of expertise, so having each relevant group bring its perspective to the table is supposed to work as a form of quality control. It can also help generate support for the final outcome in a couple of ways: it offers a shared sense of ownership in the outcome, and it offers exposure to the context for the decision. Sometimes a given option is the least bad one available, but if you don’t know what else was available, it’s easy to attack as being, well, bad. Involving more people in the discussions early can help get past the tendency to postulate the perfect solution that presumes a different universe.

In practice, shared governance isn’t perfect. At one level, in the paragraph above, you can sometimes substitute “interest” for “perspective” and quickly see the issue. At another, sometimes everyone involved in a given discussion is missing key information or perspective, as in the case above.

One helpful approach is to set out decision rules that stand apart from any given case. For example, in any given year we’d get more requests for new faculty positions than the budget could support. That meant saying yes to some and no to others, which can be a fraught enterprise. To make the process fairer, we came up with several criteria that we’d use to rank requests against each other, and then tried to stick to them: overall program enrollment, direction of enrollment (climbing or falling), availability of adjuncts and programmatic accreditation requirements. They’re necessarily imperfect, but they offer a rational basis for choosing one request over another.

In the case above, though, the budgetary parameters were given; our job was to maximize the usefulness of what we had. Your case is more complicated.

My first recommendation would be to recruit someone from the financial side of the institution to join the discussion. OPM agreements have been known to go off the rails; if nothing else, it would be helpful to have their sense of the finances.

To the larger point, no, it’s not unusual for higher-level academic leaders to be relatively untrained in finance. There’s typically a separate side of the organization that specializes in that. Having worked at a for-profit many years ago, I can say that you don’t want finance folks making every academic decision, and I’ll just leave it at that.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there a reasonably elegant way to get some folks with financial acumen to weigh in without causing undue conflict?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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