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Business Officer Magazine

Business Intel

A roundup of short news articles and useful resources for business officers

Breaking the Communication Barrier

When I first joined the University of Houston (UH) Staff Council in January 2011, goals were being accomplished and the council was productive, but many of these advancements were not well publicized. Therefore, intended audiences were not always aware of programs and activities in which they might become involved.

A similar situation had existed for the university itself; for some time it had been a great-but quiet-institution. Despite budget pressures that faced President Renu Khator when she arrived in 2008, she was determined to lift UH to the Tier One stage. Through improved communication, she started fostering renewed community interest, realized that Houston wanted its university to expand into a nationally competitive research institution, and began working to that end. In January 2011, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching designated UH among the research universities in the Tier One category.

Staff Council wanted to follow her lead.

The University of Houston's E. Cullen Administration Building

Let Everyone Be Heard

The council was established by charter in 1986 to "serve as an advisory body to the administration to promote a positive and meaningful interchange among staff, faculty, and students and ... promote recognition of the staff contribution on the mission of the campus." It's a shared governance model to achieve a common vision of excellence. With nearly 40,000 students and around 5,900 faculty and staff, that's a tall order.

In discussions about ways to expand the effectiveness and success of the council, the consensus was that our main barrier was communication, in several areas.

  • Inadequate representation. The process for division-elected representatives left certain areas underrepresented and, consequently, without sufficient communication about council activities. With input from the council's Staff Affairs committee, I proposed a districting plan to the full council body in summer 2011. Staff would elect representatives by "districts" comprising approximately 100 constituents, allowing for better communication within each district. Our representation was already based on a 100:1 ratio, so the plan would not increase the council's size. The idea got council members talking, and the process of change began. Although the district elections turned out not to be feasible, Staff Council did split each division into districts, and assigned one division representative to each district for communication purposes.
  • Logistics challenges. Internal communication was hindered by location. Council members were spread across our large campus and fielded a variety of duties with different time constraints. We did not have easy access to one another for quick questions or collaboration. An effective approach to keep task force members up to speed on a given project has been to schedule more frequent meetings leading up to program implementations.
  • Insufficient details. We've created more complete action plans and distributed them as early as possible to give council members time to prepare. The plans specify not only the task description, but the responsible party, specific deadlines, and, if applicable, the contact information for the person to receive the deliverables. Everyone is now aware of his or her role in-and contribution to-the success of the project.

Effectiveness Fuels Enthusiasm

Other ideas have surfaced as well. As the council's various committees planned and completed some of their goals, the communications committee was determined to migrate the Web site to a content management system platform to allow for faster and easier updates. Once the word got out that we'd made this upgrade, every committee gained momentum, with renewed enthusiasm to complete projects and post accomplishments on the site.

Here are some examples of the council's recent work.

  • Expanding Cougar First Impressions. For 15 years, Staff Council has hosted a Cougar First Impressions (CFI) each fall semester. (In honor of our athletic team, everyone formally associated with UH is considered a "Cougar.") Our volunteers assist new and returning students with wayfinding, hand out complimentary gifts, and answer questions. Since approximately one third of our new student population arrives each spring, we decided to consider the possibility of hosting a Spring CFI. The decision to move forward was made one month prior to the start of the spring semester. Nevertheless, our CFI crew worked with a team of administration and finance division staff to offer a smaller, but quite effective, version of CFI. We've now been granted approval to continue both orientation events.
  • Cougar Cudos. As the university faced budget constraints, staff were invited to provide suggestions on free or low-cost ways to increase morale. Many suggested a simple thank-you or some kind of recognition program. The solution: Cougar Cudos, a Web-based program allowing the university community to freely send kudos to anyone else on campus as recognition for their efforts. As long as the messages were positive, they would be sent to employees, with the option to approve forwarding of the message to a supervisor. The program had no relationship to compensation nor did it involve anything requiring additional review that might delay implementation. The program was approved, and the team developed and launched Cougar Cudos in March 2012.

On Our Way

We've had the occasional bump in the road. Quick changes that we sought bred some protocol concerns. And when we used small task forces to move things along more quickly, we risked overstepping the council bylaws, which specified that certain decisions were to be made at the executive board level or by vote of the full council.

Gradually through teamwork, we have made public many accomplishments that had taken place behind the scenes-and consequently generated greater interest in activities that had been overlooked by many on campus. In late 2011, a staff morale survey received a 33 percent rate of participation, indicating that our new communication focus has been attracting participation in activities and events that generate positive responses.

We plan to continue to improve communications by gathering ideas, addressing concerns, and promoting our successes. Much like the University of Houston, we believe we are well on our way to Tier One.

PAM MUSCARELLO is business administrator, department of mathematics, cochair of staff affairs, and Staff Council representative at the University of Houston.

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NACUBO's 50 Years: From Fledgling to Fast Track


Reciprocity Agreement to Ease Online Learning Obstacles

The Council of State Governments (CSG) and the Presidents' Forum have released a draft State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement aimed at reducing barriers to distance learning by making it more efficient for colleges and universities to offer classes across state lines. A drafting team comprising state regulators and key stakeholders, along with CSG and the Presidents' Forum, developed the model agreement with financial support provided by the Lumina Foundation for Education.

The initiative will allow states to enter into reciprocal agreements, enabling institutions to provide distance education to students in all agreeing states without having to go through the expensive process of receiving authorization in each state—an original provision of the program integrity regulations developed by the Department of Education.

To provide feedback, send your comments to the Council of State Governments, as indicated in the draft agreement.

Customized Course Content

The National Association of College Stores Media Solutions group recently launched its Go Custom initiative. Smart custom publishing focuses on collecting information, specifically linking it to learning objectives, and working with publishers to create and price the product. Projected savings accrue when faculty can work with a publisher, for example, to eliminate book chapters not used in their courses and/or to add specialized material-resulting in students getting only the material they need at a much better price.

To be effective, the particular course material must be agreed upon by all parties. "The will comes from the folks in the business office," says George Masforroll, associate vice president, auxiliary services, Broward College Bookstore, Davie, Florida, "as well as the bookstore, faculty members, and academic affairs. And you have to have publishers who are willing to aggregate content."

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EPA Awards Grants for Off-Grid Solutions

A process that uses spinach to capture and convert the sun's energy to electricity? A partnership involving a landfill that combines waste heat and drainage to grow algae for biodiesel production? These are samples of the kinds of innovative ideas that were awarded $1 million in grants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The annual People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) Award program seeks research and design solutions to foster progress toward sustainability by achieving the goals of economic prosperity, protection of the planet, and improved quality of life for its people.

Winning projects were selected from more than 300 college and university entries, almost all designed to facilitate off-grid living and use natural resources more efficiently. Following an initial peer review process, the EPA selected 45 teams for two days of judging by a panel of national experts. After the thorough review, the panel convened to provide recommended awardees to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Fifteen finalists made the cut.

Fast Fact

The University of California Rossier School of Education is taking its education doctorate abroad this summer with a new curriculum adapted for top executives and policy makers around the world. "As education leaders, we confront a combination of problems, some of which are enduring while others are new, and they exist in settings that are integrally tied to one another by forces that transcend any given location or setting," says Melora Sundt, vice dean of academic programs at Rossier. "The more we can learn from what is happening around the world, the more likely we are to find solutions."

From Fuel Cells to Solar Power

Public and private institutions of various types and sizes were represented in the competition. Here are a few of the ideas recognized with awards:

  • Santa Clara University, California, for developing a fuel cell capable of continuous sustainable energy supply to meet energy demands in communities lacking reliable energy grids.
  • The University of Connecticut, Storrs, for investigating ways to use local industrial byproducts such as steel slag and lime kiln dust to control erosion and stabilize roads.
  • Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, for developing an artificial wetland suitable for recycling of gray water from small businesses for immediate reuse.
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Florida, for designing a foldable solar power water purification system that can fit into a backpack for easy transport, for use after a disaster affecting drinking water supplies.

Only the Beginning

In addition to the program's P3 goals, "the competition and expo ... are also about supporting the next generation of this country's innovators and entrepreneurs who are entering the environmental and public health field with passion to make a difference—and many brilliant ideas," says Lek Kadeli, acting assistant administrator for the EPA's office of research and development.

Each award-winning team receives up to $90,000 to help further develop their designs, apply them to real-world applications, or move them to the marketplace. "The P3 program," says Kadeli, "gives these students the opportunity to bring those ideas to realization and many have the potential to make significant impacts on our nation's sustainable future and development of environmental technologies."

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Attitude Check

Since signing the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), the University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, has been hard at work implementing a score of low-cost, high-yield projects to reduce its energy consumption—everything from replacing variable frequency drives and boilers to campuswide lighting retrofits, notes Haley McMinn, sustainability manager at
the university.

Currently, leaders are engaged in a transportation network project to enhance the flow of pedestrian traffic and reduce heat islands across campus. The financial savings and the related reductions in emissions year over year of such projects will only continue to snowball, believes McMinn.

As key as the focus on the more tangible and measurable outcomes are the educational and behavior modification components, she adds. "It's important to make sure what you are doing also takes into account how many people you are impacting to create a cognitive shift that will last," notes McMinn. The university now conducts an annual campus "attitudes and beliefs" survey to measure knowledge of sustainability and to see the evolution of what the overall campus population believes about sustainability, including identifying the issues most important to them.

Create a Message That Sticks

In her role, McMinn strives to make the issues relevant to others on a personal basis: "Even if someone doesn't believe in the science underlying the changes the university is making, they might understand the economic rationale." That includes students, many of whom are looking to pinch pennies, attests McMinn.

When asked to speak in residence halls, she often shares her recipe for homemade laundry detergent, which is both planet- and pocket-friendly. "When you make the message relevant to your audience, it has a much greater chance of sticking," she argues. "Ultimately, the most important thing is to collectively keep heading in the right direction. Do that, and more will follow—for whatever reasons make sense to them."

KARLA HIGNITE, Middletown, Rhode Island, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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