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Business Officer Magazine
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The Calm Before the New Norm

What does a British World War II poster have to do with the work of chief business officers? NACUBO President and CEO John Walda suggests that the document’s no-nonsense message—designed to be posted on public transport systems should Germany invade Britain—serves as a model for cool and deliberate handling of today’s higher education financial challenges.

By John Walda

*You may be familiar with the “Keep Calm and Carry On” propaganda poster that was produced—but never used—by the British government in 1939, at the beginning of World War II. It resurfaced 10 years ago and has made its way into popular culture, appearing on posters, T-shirts, mugs, cards, and even throw pillows. Despite its earlier context, I believe this wartime directive nicely sums up the way business officers and their staffs have been handling these financially tumultuous times: keeping calm and carrying on.

By now, the issues are all too clear: continued state budget shortfalls, diminishing state allocations for public colleges and universities, endowment losses, and the impending end to federal stimulus funds. Essentially, tight—and in many cases diminishing—resources are further strained by unprecedented student demand. As higher education institutions deal with repeated budget cuts, some state legislatures are considering fundamental changes in the ways their colleges and universities operate. While conditions in individual states vary widely, most business offices remain under financial attack. Their responses have been composed and steady.

Cool Heads

Keep Calm and Carry OnNot unlike the British military, higher education leaders have embraced an attitude that doesn’t leave room for defeat. In researching our recession series, “Catalyst for Change: The Economic Downturn Reshapes Higher Education,” Business Officer explored the impact of the global economy on higher education. We’ve discovered that institutions have quietly gone about responding to student needs, often managing to cut costs in the process. For example, Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, devised the Advantage Program, aimed at students who live at home—reducing attendance costs by 60 percent. Students can earn an associate degree in liberal arts in two years and then decide if they want to continue toward a bachelor’s degree.

Other institutions offer three-year undergraduate degrees or guarantee four-year graduation. And more and more institutions—such as Tidewater Community College, Norfolk, Virginia—are seeing success in adding online courses that meet demands for learning on students’ preferred schedules.

Beyond Carrying On

Higher education institutions have been exploring new financial and educational delivery models at an unprecedented pace.

These outcomes show that “carrying on” hasn’t meant continuing with business as usual. Rather, higher education institutions have been exploring new financial and educational delivery models at an unprecedented pace. In the common struggle against the recession, it’s truly inspirational to see how quickly and innovatively higher education institutions have responded.

One of the final pieces in the recession series, “Down, But Not Out,” on page 44 of this issue, further underscores the power of deliberate and sustained action. As did the British, who prevailed in World War II through creativity, fortitude, and strategic alliances, public institutions are creating their own victories. For example, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, took early and aggressive steps to permanently reduce costs. “In September 2008, even as the financial crisis was evolving,” says Brett Dalton, chief financial officer, “we established a budget strategies task force and started cutting rather than watching and waiting. We wanted to have a solid financial foundation in place by 2010 so we could plan in a methodical, thoughtful, and rational manner instead of being reactive.” Keep calm and carry on, indeed.

JOHN WALDA is president and CEO of NACUBO.