Time to Regroup
It’s been a year of tough budget choices. While institution leaders evaluate costs and risks associated with every potential decision, staffing and benefits are a big part of the planning.
By Karla Hignite
Waiting out a recession seems a bit like indulging in Groundhog Day. Many want to think the worst is over, but most believe there is still another stretch of dreary days ahead. In grappling with how to reconcile recession-related budget shortfalls in the near term with preserving the future vitality of their institutions and the workforce behind their success, college and university leaders have had to balance forward-leaning optimism with a thick dose of patience.
Whether you call it a freeze, frost, or chill, the slowed pace of normal hiring patterns has been widespread within higher education during the past year, for good reason. When well more than half of an organization's budget is personnel-related, it's unlikely that people will remain unaffected during a prolonged economic downturn.
And yet, there are indications that higher education has fared better than many sectors of the economy. According to HigherEdJobs.com—a source for faculty, administrative, and executive job postings—from the first half of 2008 to the first half of 2009, industry jobs grew approximately 3.5 percent compared to a loss of 3.5 percent of total jobs across the entire U.S. economy. And while most colleges and universities waited anxiously for their fall 2009 enrollment numbers, this downturn has proven similar to others in that a tough labor market is spelling an uptick in the number of individuals seeking to update skills or obtain advanced degrees.
Other indicators are not so bright. Endowments are still down, and in many cases state funding of higher education may never return to prerecession levels—or not for a very long time. The financial strain on families and the ability for parents to continue contributing to a son's or daughter's education (or to their own) suggest that 2010 fall enrollment targets may prove a harder mark for some institutions to hit.
In response to market realities and the uncertainties that remain, colleges and universities across the country have engaged in major cost-cutting initiatives to meet budget. They've done so with extreme care, however, knowing that faculty and staff are critical to institution mission. Even in situations that have required elimination of whole programs and associated personnel, decisions have been largely collaborative and transparent, as leaders aimed for the right combination of actions with the least impact on students—and that avoid outright layoffs wherever possible. In the process, tough conversations and strategic review of priorities have given many leaders renewed energy for repositioning their institutions and rethinking how people are organized and how work gets done.
This article highlights the recession-related staffing decisions implemented at several institutions, where leaders are focusing their sights for the out years.
FSU's Bare-Bones Budget
Well before the recession settled in nationwide, Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee was preparing for significant budget cuts. What wasn't anticipated at the time was the longevity and severity of those cuts. According to John Carnaghi, FSU's senior vice president for finance and administration, the first blip on the radar appeared as early as April 2007, when state revenue projections fell short by $50 million. That began a trend of losses over the next 24 months, despite the fact that the state lowered its projections six times during that two-year period, notes Carnaghi. Under normal circumstances, the institution previously received $333 million annually in general revenue from the state. From October 2007 through July 2009, FSU instead was handed five cuts totaling $82 million—nearly one quarter of its state-funded appropriations. The biggest blow arrived in July 2009, with a cut of $44.3 million.
Mission imperatives. As of January 2008, the university's share of state funding cuts was “only” $11 million, but FSU's president, a former state legislator, saw the writing on the wall. “That month, we went to trustees with an extensive budget review and to talk about what we saw taking shape in the broader economy that would likely impact our ability to fund university programming,” says Carnaghi. In response, the board established four global priorities:
- Protect the integrity of FSU's teaching mission.
- Enhance the university's standing as a top research institution.
- Protect the financial integrity of FSU.
- Ensure the safety and security of students.
For the unprecedented planning effort that lay ahead, university leaders formed a budget crisis committee composed of students, faculty, and staff and chaired by the university's provost. The group developed a set of principles to guide decisions about budget reductions and created a Web site to solicit ideas from the full campus community. During the course of 13 committee meetings, cuts continued trickling in from the state every three to six months, widening FSU's funding gap.
Cobbled savings. In addition to options offered by committee members, more than 140 ideas generated by campus constituents were investigated for potential financial savings. With approval by student government, the university assessed a $500,000 fee to protect library services. Institution leaders also ramped up energy conservation efforts, resulting in $4 million in savings during 2009, spurred in part by dorm competitions, better education of building occupants, and a mandatory winter break providing an additional four days of leave to employees to allow FSU to power down utilities in all offices and classrooms.
Something the university never seriously considered was furloughing employees. “We believed from the start that this crisis was much deeper than any furlough could address,” says Carnaghi. “We also believed that the severity of the situation in Florida was not a dip in, dip out scenario. We started this process earlier than most, and the recession will likely have a lasting impact on our state longer than for much of the rest of the country.”
Sharing the harsh reality. By April 2009, FSU's budget crisis committee held a campus town meeting to formally release its conclusions and recommendations to the president. Prior to the meeting, the committee announced 21 academic programs it recommended for termination, along with elimination of roughly 700 positions—approximately 200 of which currently had people in them. “When you get to the point of eliminating whole programs, you have to develop a detailed methodology for how you will rank them, but even then it's not a clean formula,” says Ralph Alvarez, FSU's associate vice president for budget, planning, and financial services. Among the factors by which programs were evaluated were total number of credit hours generated, share of degrees awarded, duplication of programming elsewhere in the state, potential for students to secure jobs after graduation, and the relationship between a particular program and state tuition support and grant funding.
“When you define your goal as elimination of programs least damaging to the university and its students, that still leaves a lot of room for interpretation by those involved in the actual decision making, not to mention those directly affected,” says Carnaghi. Despite the many months of conversations among the provost, deans, faculty senate, president, and trustees to finalize the cuts, those affected understandably thought the university's leadership had lost sight of institution priorities, adds Carnaghi. “It's very painful to announce that you're losing an entire department, because there are always people behind those decisions who have skin in the game.”
Hitting home. For his own part, Carnaghi received an initial target of $3.5 million that his division had to shave in savings—a figure that crept steadily upward to $10 million. “We lost a total of 150 positions, 40 of which had people in them,” notes Carnaghi. In determining which positions to eliminate, he and his staff were guided by the priorities established by FSU's trustees. For instance, given the charge to ensure student safety, no positions were cut from campus security. “In my 19 years of working at FSU, we've always run lean and remained conscious that we cannot afford to make mistakes or backtrack on spending initiatives, but this has put added pressure to spend conservatively for the foreseeable future,” says Carnaghi.
In the meantime, federal stimulus dollars of roughly $22 million in 2009 has bought some time for FSU programs slated for termination to allow upper-level students in those programs to graduate and freshman and sophomores to transfer to other programs at FSU or elsewhere in the state. “We're hoping for another shot of stimulus funding in 2010, but that, too, will eventually go away,” notes Carnaghi.
Skidmore's Strategic RIF
In October 2008, the president of Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, began communicating regularly with the full campus about the budgetary challenges the institution would likely face ahead. He underscored the need to stay focused on the integrity of the core education experience for students, show sensitivity to families, and reduce costs wherever possible. In addition to working with his cabinet to identify ongoing general cost reductions, the president charged cabinet members with finding an additional $3.25 million in people-related cost savings by the end of FY10.
This collegewide goal was broken into specific target amounts for each cabinet member to determine how best to achieve the reductions through some combination of ongoing service and supply budget cuts and associated personnel reductions. “At that point, we instituted an across-the-board strategic hiring freeze and formed a subcommittee of the president's cabinet to review all open positions to determine which were must-fills,” says Barbara Beck, Skidmore's associate vice president for finance and administration and director of human resources.
“While we may be fewer in number going forward, we all need to become more efficient and focus on the right things.”
Barbara Beck, Skidmore College
All on the same page. Beck had been here before, overseeing a painful reduction in force (RIF) at her previous job with General Electric. She launched her own response initiatives, developing two key documents to help her Skidmore colleagues move forward in a deliberate, yet cautious, manner. The first document provided a list of employee-related costs and other cost-containment actions to consider taking ahead of any RIF. This was used by the president and cabinet in determining initial cuts and has since become a training document for supervisors.
The second document Beck drafted was a timeline and options for implementing an early retirement incentive plan ahead of a RIF to try to minimize layoffs and give employees as much choice as possible. In conjunction with the college's legal counsel, Beck conducted educational sessions for cabinet members to help them understand the importance of a sequential rollout. She emphasized the need to limit the number of employees who could leave by department so that no huge instruction or service gaps would emerge and so that the program would not overextend college resources available for the buyout. While final paperwork has yet to be signed, the college anticipates achieving its goal for voluntary retirements, notes Beck.
Meanwhile, as cabinet members are finalizing decisions about specific work and services to eliminate, supervisors will be undergoing extensive training and coaching to address employee stress and to prepare for the emotional conversations that may ensue with conveying the bad news of staff reductions, says Beck.
Future efficiencies. At this stage, Beck has advised cabinet members against thinking too far ahead about process improvements while in the midst of decisions regarding workforce reductions. One exception that has occurred in tandem with campuswide cost-cutting efforts is the reorganization of an umbrella unit administering summer events, distance learning, a master's degree program, and special academic programs. “Previously, employees of this unit operated largely autonomously, and not very efficiently,” says Beck. During the past year Beck helped the dean of this unit rewrite job descriptions and interview employees, all of whom had to reapply for their positions. Employees have since also been cross-trained to build broad competencies and chart a course for future performance measures.
“This could well become a mini-version of what we will see happen across campus to introduce greater consistency and efficiency in workflow,” says Beck. “The reality is that while we may be fewer in number going forward, we all need to become more efficient and focus on the right things. This process is pushing all of us to get to a different level.”
St. Catherine's Slightly Altered Plans
Administration and academic leaders at St. Paul, Minnesota-based St. Catherine University began hosting brown-bag sessions for employees in September 2008. The open meetings ranged in topic from the impact of stock market losses on the institution's operating revenues, to the potential impact of unemployment on students and their families' ability to pay for college, to the instability within the banking industry and its impact on college debt.
“The sessions allowed employees to ask questions not only about the health of the institution, but also about the losses to their own 403(b) plans and what to expect in the months ahead in terms of job security,” says Tammy McGee, vice president of finance and administration.
With students in place for the fall 2008 semester, university leaders were not immediately alarmed about current operations. They were concerned about the impact of the wider economy on as-yet-unknown fall 2009 enrollment numbers, says McGee. Because a salary increase was already in effect for employees for the year starting June 1, 2008, institution leaders decided they would need to pass along to employees some of the burden of double-digit health insurance premium increases that hit during open enrollment later that fall.
By December 2008, the university instituted a hiring pause, slowing the rate at which it filled open positions. “We did this in part to ensure flexibility to realign positions for any staff members who may be affected by position eliminations or job changes,” says McGee. While initial estimates projected a possible 5 percent reduction in force, university leaders were able to cut that loss by half through a combination of nonpersonnel savings and efficient management of attrition-related vacancies. “Of the 14 employees affected, we were able to offer the majority a different position or a severance package,” notes McGee.
Transition revisions. Amid external economic uncertainties, St. Catherine pressed onward with its plans to change status from a college to a university effective June 1, 2009. While this transition was under way well before the recession, economic constraints did provide an additional backdrop for decisions made about academic restructuring, says McGee. Several departments were merged, allowing a reduction of some support positions.
In concert with reorganization efforts, the institution's deans conducted a comprehensive review of the various types of additional pay that faculty receive for student advising, workshop preparation, and so forth. “Some faculty were paid extra for these activities, so the process has been valuable for uncovering inconsistencies and restoring fairness and transparency regarding faculty pay,” says McGee. Closer examination of the entire academic enterprise also indicated that class sizes could be increased by one or two on average, while also allowing the institution to review its use of adjunct professors.
Procedural tweak. One small, albeit significant, procedural change the university is enacting as a result of the recession—and which may become permanent—is to shift its annual review of salary adjustments to November rather than June. This allows institution leaders to factor in the tuition revenue impact of actual enrollment figures, notes McGee.
St. Catherine leaders did breathe a collective sigh of relief when the institution not only met fall 2009 enrollment targets but also welcomed its largest freshman class in the past 28 years. St. Catherine's College for Women and graduate college enrollments also broke records. “We still need to monitor some key indicators before we can say with certainty that the worst is behind us,” says McGee. Having replaced a defined-benefit pension plan with a defined-contribution plan two years ago, leaders are still concerned about the stability of the financial markets and their implications on donor contributions as well. “We'll be monitoring each of these factors and others as we launch forward with our new strategic plan and new academic offerings,” says McGee.
Among those other factors are student demographics. “We're still analyzing our fall 2009 enrollments,” says McGee. “Our sense is that we picked up some students who chose to stay closer to home. We're about in the middle of the cost curve in comparison to other institutions in our region, and if the economy remains weak, challenges may remain in retaining these newest recruits.”
The Real Valparaiso Story
In June 2009 a national newspaper ran a story stating that Indiana's Valparaiso University was laying off 50 employees. Not true, says Charley Gillispie, Valparaiso's vice president for administration and finance. What the article failed to address was that the reduction in force was largely achieved through early retirements and by not filling staff vacancies, resulting in a total of 10 actual terminations across an entire workforce of approximately 800 full-time and 400 part-time employees.
More frustrating to Gillispie were the missing details about the rationale for staff cuts. Yes, the economic recession had forced the university's leadership to take a hard look at its balance sheet—as was happening at every higher education institution across the country. And yes, the cuts were precipitated in part by concerns about the financial outlook within the larger economy.
But the real story was much bigger, says Gillispie. “Our decisions had much more to do with the strategic visioning process set by our new president in 2008 to identify where the university should be in 2030 and to allow us to remain nimble in pushing forward with future plans and priorities.”
Recession as catalyst. When university leaders took up the president's new charge, Valparaiso had just completed a successful capital campaign that exceeded the institution's goal. Then the recession hit. Rather than retreat in response to immediate threats, leaders used the recession as a catalyst for soliciting valuable input from faculty and staff. “We asked leaders to go back to their units and departments and discuss what they would cut or how they would reallocate resources to reduce spending,” says Gillispie. “This became a bottom-up discussion in response to the recession that paved the way for enlisting campus feedback about our strategic priorities.”
In effect, the recession has sharpened the university's visioning process, highlighting, among other issues, financial aid concerns and the need to provide additional support for students, says Gillispie. Big questions centered on how to draw students and improve educational offerings and opportunities: What new programs should we add? How can we alter or expand course delivery? Where does it make sense to collaborate with other institutions to provide cooperative programming? How can we improve articulation agreements and strengthen relationships with community colleges? What's the best way to increase our recruitment of international and graduate students?
Recession reality. The excitement of strategic planning aside, Valparaiso was still affected by the recession, and university leaders have taken a series of interim steps similar to those at many other institutions to offset losses. These include across-the-board salary freezes, a 50 percent reduction in travel, and a one-time window for staff early retirements in addition to an adjusted incentive to an existing faculty early retirement incentive program. The university did not reduce employer contributions to employee retirement plans or increase employee health-care contributions. To avoid further staff reductions, the board decided to draw from reserves.
“Our focus has been less on budget cuts than on realigning resources where they can be most productive and to put the university on a more competitive footing.”
Charley Gillispie, Valparaiso University
While fall 2009 enrollments at Valparaiso were the highest since 1983, they were also up sharply across the state, which had the net effect of lowering the university's share of state tuition aid by $1.5 million. Even so, current budget projections look strong, though it's too early at this stage to determine whether salary increases will be awarded, says Gillispie. “We don't expect economic conditions to change dramatically for the next two or three years, so we've been telling employees that the budget we have now is what we will build from for the coming year.”
Justified spending. In establishing budget guidelines, university leadership communicated three priorities for future spending: resources essential to continue operations without adversely affecting the image of the university and its ability to recruit, effectively educate, and secure a safe environment for students and all employees; resources needed to generate additional or new revenue streams; and funding for new priorities identified to carry out the institution's strategic plan.
Going forward, any new academic program or service must undergo a review of its costs so that all involved understand up front what may be required to pay for them, says Gillispie. “Right now, we're in the process of developing a doctoral program in nursing. We're asking questions about program demand and what additional faculty and facilities we would need so that the business plan we develop accounts for full costs.” This approach ushers in a new level of interaction between the finance office and academic officers, says Gillispie.
While self-sufficiency won't be the litmus test for developing academic programming, this new business plan imperative does underscore the need for every new program and service to be built upon some core financial principles. Gillispie points to the success of a recently launched program in digital media that is already operating at full capacity.
In that same spirit, operational resources must also be justified. “I don't anticipate that travel will remain as tightly restricted as it is now,” says Gillispie. “We know that face-to-face connection with colleagues at conferences is important, but we also won't simply restore prerecession levels of travel funds to everyone's budget,” adds Gillispie. “How we all operate will become increasingly scrutinized to maximize resources and streamline processes, whether that's instituting e-billing for students or posting board meeting materials online.”
Hints of change. Several newly created positions reflect institutional priorities beginning to emerge at Valparaiso. These include a vice president for enrollment, a director of international and diversity concerns, and several positions slated for admissions and marketing. “Part of Valparaiso's vision for the future is to strengthen our brand so that we can continue to recruit and retain the best students possible,” explains Gillispie.
He contends that the soured economy has only reinforced for leadership the need to move the institution in the direction it was already headed. “Throughout, our focus has been less on budget cuts than on realigning resources where they can be most productive and to put the university on a more competitive footing.”
Cornell's New Trajectory
About a decade ago, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, had charted its own plan for new building projects and needed renovations, along with a major faculty-renewal effort in anticipation of new programming and research opportunities. Transformation of the physical plant was taking shape in conjunction with the university's priority focus on providing a quality living and learning environment for students. Funding for it all was predicated on projections for ongoing healthy endowment returns and gifts.
As the national economy slipped into free fall, Cornell was left holding a significant operating budget deficit, bringing the university's full-steam-ahead momentum to a slow churn. “We essentially had to revisit all assumptions and timelines upon which our previous strategic plan was based—yet with no real time to think strategically,” says Mary George Opperman, Cornell's vice president for human resources. By October 2008, leaders had to make some fairly rapid tactical decisions about FY09, she adds. These included salary freezes, early retirement incentives, and an across-the-board mandate for a 5 percent budget reduction from every unit on campus. These actions have cut the deficit by nearly 40 percent, says Opperman.
Fast, fair action. The fact that swift actions were taken does not suggest they weren't thought through. In the case of the early retirement incentive program introduced for staff, senior administrators developed the framework based on the premise that it be open and fair. “We knew we were likely still going to face significant layoffs, so we were as open as we could be with those eligible about whether we thought we could retain their jobs in the future,” says Opperman.
Of about 1,300 eligible staff members, more than 400—approximately 33 percent—took advantage of the program. Because Cornell already had a phased retirement program in place for faculty, leaders decided against offering faculty an early retirement incentive plan, says Opperman. However, a phased retirement plan for staff has since been added, which the university plans to keep as a way for staff to ease into retirement.
“We also introduced policy changes to make it easier for full-time employees to transition to part-time status while retaining benefits and programs important to them, including participation in our tuition remission and child-care programs for those eligible,” says Opperman. While only a small percentage of staff have since transitioned to part-time status, Opperman believes this option may become more attractive once the economy rebounds.
External counsel. In addition to those taking advantage of the early retirement buyout, Cornell has had to let go of about 300 employees in little more than a year. To help with this process, the institution brought in an outplacement group to provide career and job placement support. University leaders also hired a consulting firm during the summer of 2009 to identify opportunities for greater efficiency on the administration side.
What most caught Opperman's ear were conclusions by the consultant that, over the longer term, half or more of what the university needed to save could come from nonpersonnel cuts. As hopeful as that makes Opperman feel now, she's also realistic: “We've done what we needed to do to get through this fiscal year. We still need further budget realignment and to determine the best staffing model going forward.”
Forward motion. As for re-engaging the university's strategic planning efforts, campuswide input is being solicited in conjunction with the university's “Reimagining Cornell” initiative. “Our charge is to begin to look at ourselves from our academic priorities out,” says Opperman. “When you are driven solely by the need to make immediate cuts to your budget, you can end up making mistakes. We have to remain focused on how we'll keep the best talent and attract the very best students,” says Opperman. “That said, we also have to recognize that we can't continue to do new things on top of everything else.”
While the financial flow has put controls on how quickly Cornell can move forward, momentum is once again progressing in the right direction, says Opperman. “I'm so proud of how we're moving forward and the vibrancy that is being communicated by our leadership. As I hear our deans talk about Cornell in the future, I get really excited. I believe that when we are done, we will have a product that everyone at Cornell will be proud of.”
Where Opperman's feelings remain mixed is with the employees no longer at Cornell. “It's good to be as administratively efficient as possible, but in a small town like ours, I feel the other side of this, too. Everyone who works here needs a job,” says Opperman. “It's sometimes hard to get above the reality that those whom we've had to lay off didn't do anything wrong, and they loved the students here as much as anyone else.”
Past the Losses
Carnaghi likewise admits that no one at FSU feels good about what the institution has had to endure. “When you have to let go of tenured faculty, that feels like the last rung of the ladder. I don't think any of us were truly prepared for the kind of response required by this recession.”
Currently, FSU leaders are doing their best to focus on their future growth. While Carnaghi and Alvarez don't anticipate a major overhaul to the state tax structure anytime soon (2010 is an election year, after all), both note the additional hardship resulting from the present scenario. Currently Florida has no income tax, and for the first time, more people have been leaving than moving to the Sunshine State, where home foreclosure rates are among the highest in the nation. That outbound migration, coupled with an overall nationwide downturn in construction, translates into far fewer sales taxes entering state coffers, which means stymied growth opportunities for public institutions like FSU. “University leadership is eager to expand our graduate-level offerings, but we've had to readjust expectations given our dependence on state tuition revenue to grow,” says Carnaghi.
Currently the university is working off a three-year operating plan. “We think and hope we've seen the worst of it. The past several months have shown some positive numbers for the state, but we'll likely see a significant gap in our funding until at least 2011,” says Carnaghi.
Alvarez doesn't count on state funding to get much better going forward. “This is a multiyear problem. In the end, we need to develop plans for reductions of $82 million as a new norm.”
Transparency as a New Normal?
With fall 2010 enrollments still looming, Beck believes it's too early to say definitively that Skidmore has turned the corner. What she can say with certainty is that as painful as the process of planning for a reduction in force has been, it has required everyone to ask the hard questions about how the college conducts daily business. She's also hopeful that another positive outcome of this past year will remain: a spirit of transparency and timeliness in communicating the initiatives of the institution with employees.
Opperman concurs. “Our president made a decision early on to be transparent. That was the right decision, but that's also meant having the full campus and the local community experience the process along with the leadership,” notes Opperman. “In general, I believe people appreciate having honest answers, even when that answer is, 'We don't know yet.'”
Jane Courson, a consultant with executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, has her own transparency theory. “This recession has been all-encompassing, with people across the country in virtually all sectors and industries experiencing it simultaneously. I think this has allowed higher education administrators to take some rather dramatic actions within a relatively compressed timeline—certainly more quickly than they may have accomplished these same things in the past.”
Does this foreshadow a new business model in terms of employee communication and decision making? Courson suggests it's too soon to know that for sure. “What has become evident is that administrators have worked hard to get good information to employees quickly, and people have tuned in and listened,” notes Courson. “Transparency has been tested and has proven its success in helping to mobilize entire organizations to focus on central priorities.”
KARLA HIGNITE, Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.