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Business Officer Magazine
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Vantage Point

Spotlight on an institution in one of the constituent groups: small institutions, community colleges, comprehensive/doctoral institutions, or research universities

By Richard Carter

COMPREHENSIVE AND DOCTORAL INSTITUTIONS
Academics and Finance Processes: An Unbroken Circle

The budgetary impact of academic program assessment often goes unnoticed until after the fact, when financial resources needed to improve an academic program are found to be unbudgeted. Such shortfalls multiply in significance at large institutions with several campuses, such as ours. National University, La Jolla, California, for example, is organized into five schools and one college, with faculty and staff spread among 28 learning centers in California and Nevada.

To better align programs and resources, National University leadership undertook a detailed process to improve program assessment.

Incentive for Introspection

Following the university's regional accreditation Capacity and Preparatory Review in 2008, our administration understood that to move forward to the Educational Effectiveness Review, we needed to focus more on student learning assessment, including redesigning our program assessment process, and then ensuring that we budgeted for the required program improvements.

Academic and finance staff each played a role in this evaluation.

Academic staff. The faculty worked with the provost's office to:

  • Develop a long-term university assessment plan that guides the organizational change process.
  • Create an assessment system that requires analysis of student learning outcome data.
  • Choose a collaborative software platform in which everyone could easily review all improvement efforts by program and department.
  • Provide faculty with resources needed to improve academic programs.

Finance staff. The business office's significant contribution was to help realign the academic program review calendar such that deadlines could be met for program improvement results, strategic and annual planning, and budgeting and resource allocation.

The calendar now coordinates the assessment process with the university's existing budgeting cycle, allowing deans to assess data obtained from both the program annual review and the five-year review processes and budget accordingly. That means no budget surprises!

Investments, Outcomes

To further support program assessment improvement, the university provided funding resources for (1) faculty training, (2) faculty mentors, (3) a new software system, and (4) expansion of the office of institutional research and assessment.

Changes made to our degree programs resulting from the review processes can affect any area, such as revisions to curriculum or addition of faculty positions in long-term growth areas. The calendar synchronization allowed us to make these kinds of changes as much as one academic year sooner than we'd previously done.

National University offers more than 100 academic programs in classroom and online environments, in 28 learning centers in California and Nevada.
National University offers more than 100 academic programs in classroom and online environments, in 28 learning centers in California and Nevada.

Ongoing Monitoring

Our budget cycle now provides clear guidelines and deadlines for both financial and human resource request processes. These include the following:

  • In February, budget managers use a zero-based budgeting model to begin submitting operational, capital, and strategic planning requests. A Web-based budget tool allows us to update data in real time.
  • The CFO meets with the faculty senate officers, who bring their requests. These meetings enhance communication between faculty and administration.  
  • Following two cycles of internal budget reviews, in May the finance office presents for approval the upcoming fiscal year budget to the university's board of trustees.
  • In early October, the CFO begins focusing on cost containment, carefully reviewing first-quarter spending. Discussions highlight items that may be reduced or eliminated. We review progress on a monthly basis, and share year-end results with the president and the board of trustees' resources committee.
  • At the conclusion of each year's cycle, the office of institutional research and assessment provides each dean with the approved budget items requested in the program annual reports and the five-year reviews; the provost ensures that these items are included in the following February's preliminary budget.

We're in our fifth year of this review process and still going strong. Not only has it strengthened our academic programs overall and improved our budgeting processes, but the university received a commendation in the visiting accreditation team's report for our improved practices.

RICHARD E. CARTER is vice chancellor, business operations, and EILEEN D. HEVERON is provost, National University, La Jolla, California.