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Business Officer Magazine
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Open Invitations for Feedback

Members of the campus community can contribute helpful suggestions and guidance, whether decision making involves budget cuts or other initiatives.

By Sandra R. Sabo

In January 2009, facing a 7 percent budget cut imposed by the state, the University of Massachusetts Lowell made a commitment to transparency. Rather than announcing staff and program cuts and fee increases as a fait accompli, the university's leadership outlined its thinking in a series of meetings with everyone who would be affected. From union reps and faculty to staff members and students, the campus community heard why, what, when, and how the institution planned to respond to its financial crunch. They were also encouraged to provide suggestions.

“Nothing makes people more upset than finding out about budget cuts through the back door,” says Jack Giarusso, executive director of human resources at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Our community appreciated knowing about the approaching cuts and being asked what to do. By getting them in the loop, we cut down on some of the inevitable moaning and groaning about budget cuts.”

To encourage feedback, the university's public affairs department established a special Web site that essentially served as an electronic suggestion box. Anyone in the university community could post a budget-related comment or suggestion. One person, for example, noted, “When I went past this building at 10 p.m., all the lights were on even though no one was inside. Can we do something about this?” Another observed, “We've never shut down between Christmas and New Year's before, but could we try it to save energy?”

“These suggestions didn't go into a black hole,” Giarusso emphasizes. “The public affairs office dispersed each one to the appropriate department for serious consideration and a response.” He's convinced the transparent process helped the university maintain cordial relationships with its constituents—especially the unions, which offered numerous recommendations for budget reductions.

At Baylor University, where she serves as vice president for informational technology and dean of university libraries, Pattie Orr relies on the campus community for feedback even when budget cuts aren't imminent. Early in her tenure at Baylor, Orr established the Library/ITS Advisory Council, a nine-member group with representatives from the university's faculty, staff, students, and administration, augmented by four IT/library staff members. She also set up a separate student advisory council that has about a dozen members, ranging from freshmen to grad students.

“These groups talk about what the IT department might want to look into, invest in, or phase out. They also provide advice on how we can improve our communication to specific groups, such as science faculty members or business graduate students,” explains Orr. “It's one way to share governance, so IT isn't just making decisions and dropping them on the community.”

Consequently, when Orr needs to make budget decisions, she already has constituents well-versed on the issues to provide guidance. She also relies on their feedback before making major purchases, which has saved her department money on several occasions.

To enhance the student experience, for instance, Baylor wanted to improve the 24/7 study space offered in its libraries. After presenting its ideas for group study rooms to the student advisory council and several focus groups, the university received a resounding “No!” in response.

“It turned out we were going in completely the wrong direction on some things,” Orr says. Rather than numerous walls to define quiet study spaces and heavy furniture, the students welcomed more open and noisier space where they had the room to easily reconfigure furniture in different ways. Rather than fixed desks, the students asked for whiteboards on wheels and large monitors so they could easily work in small groups instead of huddling around a single laptop.

Orr considers the pizza or sandwiches she buys the students two or three times a semester an investment with a high ROI. “The study space we had in mind did not have what students really needed. If we hadn't had the students' feedback, we would have made some bad, and expensive, tactical decisions,” she concludes.

SANDRA R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minnesota, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.