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Business Officer Magazine
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On the Progress Path

The University of Cincinnati's business staff is key in implementing an ambitious academic master plan and tracking achievements.

By James Tucker and Peg Allensworth

The plan—UC|21: Defining the New Urban Research University—outlined six bold goals that build on the university’s capacity to serve and lead (see sidebar, “Reinventing the University”). What lay ahead called for a different set of efforts and expertise to support academic and institutional decision making.

Reinventing the University

At first an independent institution, then later a municipal university, and today a comprehensive research university within Ohio’s state system, the University of Cincinnati is no stranger to transformation and innovation. A century ago UC pioneered an ambitious cooperative education program that today places students in professional experiences within 43 countries and that ranks in the top 10 nationally for such programs, according to the 2005 U.S. News & World Report annual guide to colleges.

The institution’s latest change initiative is detailed in its strategic academic plan, UC|21: Defining the New Urban Research University. The thrust behind UC|21 is to prepare the   academy for the challenges of the 21st century—an era marked by rapid transformation; increased competition for students from traditional campuses, the for-profit sector, and online learning options; an increasingly diverse cohort of learners; an escalating need to bring intellectual capital to bear on societal issues; and a rising call to serve as the economic engine in a knowledge-based environment.

UC’s commitment to serve this rapidly changing world and its local Cincinnati community is underscored by six core values that serve as the guiding principles of UC|21. These include scholarship, citizenship, stewardship, leadership, partnership, and cultural competence.

The six strategic goals of UC|21 are:

  • Goal 1: Place students at the center. Become a university of choice, a destination campus, by keeping students at our core.
  • Goal 2: Grow our research excellence. Build on UC’s greatness as a major research university to benefit society, have meaningful economic impact, and enhance the quality of life for all.
  • Goal 3: Achieve academic excellence. Encourage an environment of high-quality learning and world-renowned scholarship.
  • Goal 4: Forge key relationships and partnerships. Establish and nurture relationships and partnerships with our colleagues within the university and with local and global communities.
  • Goal 5: Establish a sense of “place.” Develop an environment where members of the campus community and the community at large want to spend time learning, living, playing, and staying.
  • Goal 6: Create opportunity. Develop potential, not only in our students, but also in our local and global communities.

Each of these six goals includes a series of steps and specific actions and strategies toward accomplishing the goal. For additional information about UC|21 values and goals, go to www.uc.edu/uc21.

As faculty and academic program leaders toiled to develop breakthrough actions to advance our institution’s research, scholarship, teaching, and academic excellence, the university still needed a partner to bring strategy development, business acumen, and assessment tools to the implementation phase. UC’s leadership looked no further than its Administrative and Business Services division.

What made us the right partner to implement UC’s academic  plan? For starters, our division uses a data-driven approach to decision making and problem solving. We operate from a philosophy of continuous quality improvement of services through internal and external partnerships that focus on customer needs and future expectations. We engage in annual planning, regularly review performance toward goals, and have years of experience developing performance measures and indicators such as surveys and benchmarks. With our business and operations know-how, we were confident that we could quickly assess and fashion the needed infrastructure and mechanisms required for UC|21 implementation and ongoing processes.

To guide execution of the new academic plan, our president established a UC|21 strategic planning council chaired by the senior provosts. Reporting to this council was a central committee charged with developing implementation plans associated with the six goals. Two other “wing” committees included a resource support committee to increase revenues through strategic enrollment and entrepreneurial growth, and a support and accountability committee to assist others with developing clear and measurable benchmarks and indicators. The latter included faculty knowledgeable in quality management and statistical research and analysis and Administrative and Business Services staff with management and communication expertise.

With the structure in place, the members of our division on the support and accountability committee quickly assessed what others would need to carry out their work efficiently and effectively. Wide representation on the council and committees meant that team members’ offices were located across UC’s campuses and in some cases outside the university. Furthermore, to this point in its decision-making history, UC committees had usually met under what might kindly be described as 20th-century conditions: a room with some tables and chairs and someone serving as scribe. Often, if a group realized it needed additional data to further evaluate a proposal or to make a decision, it would have to postpone discussion until the next meeting when someone could retrieve the data from the appropriate office or database. UC’s bold new academic plan clearly deserved more efficient workspaces and processes to facilitate meetings and accelerate decision making.

Decision-Making Deliverables

In response, our division developed two strategy centers, one each on our Uptown East and Uptown West campuses. In concept, these centers resemble situation or war rooms, without the expected price tag. Using a blend of high- and low-tech tools, we transformed traditional meeting spaces, outfitting each strategy center with Internet access, wireless keyboards, plasma screens, media players, and standard and interactive whiteboards.

The centers allowed for easy data retrieval and display and access to university information systems and the Web. Teams could not only cut and paste data into a variety of software applications using the interactive whiteboard, they could also pull up critical data for decision making on screen within seconds, swiftly generate or modify spreadsheets, and rework reports on the spot and immediately send them electronically to others for review or input. A godsend to the UC|21 committees, these retrofitted strategy centers cost less than $20,000 each and are now used widely by other university groups and committees seeking to improve their meetings and deliverables.

The UC|21 strategic planning council and the various committees and teams also needed a way to share information, schedule meetings, and vet ideas and proposals in a safe and secure 24/7 environment. Our division agreed to establish and manage a site on the university’s learning management system. During phase one of UC|21 implementation, teams shared or viewed hundreds of reports and documents on the secure site. Although not every team or member used the intranet tool, some faculty and staff members who had no experience with UC’s learning management system prior to this process have now adopted it for their classes or university committee work.

Even as the first phase of the implementation process moved forward, the provosts asked all units to prepare reports showing how each division or college was aligning its efforts to UC|21 goals. Once again, our division was tapped to help. Working closely with the provost’s office, we reviewed and assessed alignment documents for progress and buy-in. Happily, we discovered that units and colleges across the institution had adopted UC|21 and were beginning to embrace some kind of assessment or accountability approach. In some instances, the documents demonstrated strong alignment or processes for rethinking unit goals to better align with the new academic master plan. Following the review, and to lay the groundwork for an institutional accountability report, we contacted units for specific data that demonstrated their alignment progress or plans and how that data could be presented graphically. In some cases, units had data or an idea about how they could collect and present it. In other instances, we worked with UC’s office of institutional research to provide units with relevant data.

Community Report Card

From the beginning of the academic planning process and at each step along the way, our president demanded transparency and accountability. At a universitywide event last May to celebrate achievements made toward UC|21 and to forecast what was coming in 2006, she vowed to issue an annual report card to the community. The first one, presented to UC’s board of trustees in June 2005, launched the university’s commitment to provide progress indicators to the wider public.

As with the implementation of other elements of UC|21, our division managed the creation and execution of the report card in collaboration with the president’s office and the office of institutional research. We built the Web-based report card using the alignment documents, reports from various implementation teams, and other key data (see sidebar, “Making Our Progress Public”). In print form, this document would have run at least 145 pages. A Web-based report card allows us to continually update our progress and enhance the report with supporting data and documentation.

One difficulty in creating this dynamic report card was that many strategies were still in development or too new at the initial release of the report card to provide much more than planning details. Furthermore, the complexity and interrelatedness of several of the UC|21 goals and action steps did not allow immediate results. For instance, early on UC’s academic leaders had discussions about reaffirming liberal education as preparation for lifelong learning and about the university’s desire to leverage its cooperative education expertise and reputation to even higher levels of excellence. It became clear during this debate that the two action strategies should be melded into an integrated core learning model for all students. Realizing such a model requires understanding all course offerings and “reality” learning experiences and more collaboration among programs and colleges, the journey toward this strategy has only begun, making measurement and assessment premature.

Several other action strategies, however, are well under way and already bearing fruit. Among them are strategies developed and applied by the Administrative and Business Services division.

Safer Streets

Making Our Progress Public

The University of Cincinnati’s Web-based report card to the community (www.uc.edu/reportcard) makes public the institution’s progress on the six goals of its UC|21 master academic plan. Clicking on any of the goals leads to a section with selected actions or strategies for that goal. Each action or strategy is marked “completed,” “significant progress,” or “emerging” and is briefly explained and supported by a range of assessment data or other documentation.

For example, under Goal 1: Place students at the center, the report card provides data showing increased use of the learning management system, one of UC’s strategies to improve service to students. Another example, Goal 3: Achieve academic excellence, lists as one key strategy the creation of UC’s Center for Access and Transition. This center offers academic advising, tutoring, and targeted coursework in mathematics, writing, and reading to help students transfer to one of UC’s colleges to earn a degree. The report card includes a pie chart to illustrate the center’s transfer success rate of 38 percent for first-year students entering UC with learning deficits—a huge improvement. Previously less than 1 in 10 underprepared students received an associate’s degree within nine years, owing in part to insufficient advising.

Our division has put much of its muscle behind UC|21 Goal 1: Place students at the center. Through our department of public safety, we’ve focused on specific strategies to improve safety on and around campus. Data from national surveys along with anecdotal input from students and families left no doubt that safety is a central factor in the student experience and was a concern for UC students. Thanks to a vigilant campus police force, on-campus safety was not the issue for UC students. Off-campus safety was another story, however.

Our uptown campuses have all the characteristics of a large urban campus, located in an older section of the city and adjacent to lower-income neighborhoods that are often subject to higher crime rates. Although many upperclassmen want the safety and security of on-campus living, they prefer the independence of living off campus, yet they fear walking home alone or even in small groups after dark—and with good reason. In a growing number of incidents, students’ cars were being stolen or vandalized and their apartments burglarized.

Our division’s response to this growing safety issue was to collaborate and conquer. First, our police department partnered with city police to present one united front in responding to rising crime and safety issues in the neighborhoods surrounding our uptown campuses. City police agreed to share information on crime reports, descriptions of alleged assailants, and other intelligence. UC police increased their patrol in targeted perimeter areas and added patrol shifts on weekends when most crimes against students occurred. The expanded agreement also gave our police the authority to take action in the surrounding communities without first seeking permission from city police. In addition, UC and city police together attended neighborhood and community council meetings to update residents and business and property owners about safety issues and to listen to their concerns. The community, and the criminals, quickly learned that the two forces had collaborated to combat crime.

UC at a Glance
  • Type: Public, Research 1
  • Campuses: Uptown West, Uptown East, and two branch campuses
  • Enrollment: 35,244, including 19,619 full-time undergraduate and 5,002 full-time graduate and professional
  • Faculty: 2,799 full-time and 2,088 part-time
  • Annual budget: $931.4 million
  • Endowment: $332 million
  • Grants and contracts: $320 million

*Statistics reflect 2005-06 academic year.

Our police department also partnered with UC students to reduce crime. As students headed home for the winter holidays or to the beach during spring break, they often forgot about safety and crime prevention. They failed to secure property, leaving doors unlocked, windows open, and valuables in plain sight. Hoping to make an early start, students often packed suitcases in their cars the night before, only to find them empty in the morning. To reduce crime stemming from such carelessness, UC police and students, along with community members, passed out door-hangers with crime prevention tips at 4,500 residences in the communities surrounding our uptown campuses. According to a study by UC’s department of criminal justice, the door-hanger campaign produced a 74 percent drop in neighborhood crimes for nine weeks immediately following distribution of the crime-prevention tips. The research also suggested that the effort did not result in pushing crime further out to other neighborhoods.

Currently UC police are working with local bar owners to reduce underage drinking that puts students at grave risk as they venture home late at night. With matching grant funds, our police department has also partnered with community groups to install lighting to improve safety in surrounding neighborhoods. And we created a “safe zone” parking program that allows UC students to park for $1 in select garages rather than on city streets when they want to visit libraries and labs or attend study groups on campus after hours.

As for the results of all these collaborative efforts, crime is way down, falling 23.9 percent on our Uptown West campus and 32.5 percent on our Uptown East campus. Likewise, crime in the areas surrounding our uptown campuses is down by almost 9 percent from the previous year.

Volunteer Tally

Our division’s collaborative approach was put to use again with our strategy to support UC|21 Goal 4: Forge key relationships and partnerships. At the heart of this goal is UC’s commitment to community engagement. While much of the university’s civic-minded efforts happen through programs and initiatives within academic units, significant community involvement occurs at the personal, individual level. Anecdotally UC knew that many of its faculty and staff volunteer in the community by serving on nonprofit boards, coaching little league teams, running errands for the elderly and infirm, and performing a host of other volunteer activities. But the university had never gathered this information consistently or recognized employees for serving the community in such fundamental ways.

That changed once our division began working in conjunction with UC’s office of governmental relations and university communications to collect volunteer data through a central database to quantify UC’s individual volunteer efforts. Once developed, the database indicated that 314 faculty and staff were involved in 790 activities collectively contributing more than 7,300 volunteer hours per month to the community. To recognize those commitments, all employees who entered their volunteer activities in the database were included in the university’s volunteer honor roll. Our division also developed a gallery of volunteer profiles, which we later posted to the UC Web site, to further highlight the work of certain individuals. Employee volunteerism is now also recognized at an annual event.

Rankings Research
By James Tucker

Faced with ever-changing market and consumer expectations, public and private entities alike have looked for ways to channel their efforts into measurable improvement. Business and industry—and to a lesser degree, higher education—have turned to benchmarking to gauge performance standards. In the higher education marketplace, college rankings have become the preferred shortcut for many customers faced with myriad choices and seeking ways to compare institutions—evident in part by the millions of copies of college rankings and guides sold annually.

Despite their perceived value in various quarters, college rankings have plenty of naysayers in higher education. But as the University of Cincinnati (UC) sought to redefine itself for the 21st century, we knew we could not ignore the influence of national rankings and efforts to improve our own standing in these rankings.

Improvement strategies. For the past two years, my doctoral research has included in-depth analysis of nine years of U.S. News & World Report’s guide to colleges to discover which national universities in particular improved most in the rankings competition. I identified 24 “most improved” institutions, both independent and public, from across the country. I then studied these institutions to determine what strategies they employed and visited numerous campuses to meet university administrators to get their insights for improving their institutions and overall rank in the U.S. News and other college guides.

In part what I discovered was that improvement strategies tended to correlate strongly with research findings presented by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (HarperCollins, 2001). For instance, a transformational leader with the ability to create a vision and strategic plan and engage a wide spectrum of stakeholders was a key factor in improving an institution’s rankings. This was the case for most of the 24 institutions studied. (Meanwhile, many third- and fourth-tier national universities still lack strategic plans.) Leaders of improved institutions also made sure they had the right people in the right positions to make the institution’s transformation possible and sustainable—a point noted by Collins. Furthermore, leaders of these improved universities understood and valued the role of communication, both internal and external, to build commitment to the university’s strategic plan and to raise awareness beyond the campus that their respective university was on the move and one worth choosing and supporting.

Research findings. Less surprising, my research confirmed that institutions where strategies focused on the U.S. News categories gained ground in the rankings competition more quickly than others. For example, institutions that rose in rankings during the time period studied tended to be more selective. In many cases, rankings improved as an institution raised admission standards and sought ways to recruit students in the top of their high school graduating classes and with higher ACT or SAT scores. Over time, higher admission standards also positively influenced graduation and retention rates, another U.S. News category. Quality faculty and processes were also essential strategies, as was an enhanced student experience, which potentially affects both student retention and alumni support.

Getting to great. All this was good news for UC. With a new transformation-minded president at the helm and with UC’s newly drafted academic plan—a process involving input from thousands of university and community stakeholders—the institution was on its way toward boosting its ranking as a premier national university. Certain goals within the academic plan and among 10 additional “stretch” goals offered by UC’s president as a challenge to the institution focused squarely on U.S. News  rankings categories. These include doubling the number of National Merit Scholars in the freshmen class and increasing the number of UC freshmen graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, improving graduation and retention rates to at least 75 percent, tripling the number of faculty distinctions in five years, and creating a 24/7 campus for students and neighbors.

Another “stretch” goal includes breaking into the U.S. News top public and independent universities. UC has in fact made significant progress toward this goal, moving up 27 positions during the past four years and up 15 spots in 2005 alone. As for U.S. News specific program rankings, UC now has 10 programs ranked in the top 10—two more than in 2004. UC’s focused attention on academic excellence and timely research are indeed paying off in boosting the national presence of our institution.

James Tucker is vice president of administrative and business services, University of Cincinnati.

Where Things Happen

Our division has been active in supporting UC|21 Goal 5: Establish a sense of place. This goal focuses on developing an environment where members of the university and the community at large want to spend time. It’s about providing a dynamic place to learn, live, play, and stay; breaking down real or perceived barriers that tend to separate the broader community from the university; and creating a 24/7 campus with programs and offerings that appeal to students and the larger community.

We quickly provided traction on this goal through our operation of Tangeman University Center, UC’s renovated student union, which is at the heart of UC’s central “MainStreet” pathway. Our division has developed or funded more than 207 MainStreet programs and events, from dances and blues and jazz concerts to wine tastings to special academic, historic, or art exhibits. We’ve even partnered with the Cincinnati Film Society to present screenings of alternative films and videos that otherwise might never be shown in Cincinnati. All these events make MainStreet an exciting place to be.

The latest attraction scheduled to arrive on MainStreet is the university’s new campus recreation center. Our division will operate the center, which will provide a full range of fitness services and programs and offer memberships to community members as well as to students, faculty, staff, and university affiliates.

Notwithstanding the expanded MainStreet programming, UC|21 still needed additional strategies to break down the barriers separating town and gown. How could we get more attendance at campus-based events and more business for campus-based and uptown retail and entertainment options? How could we better market UC and the uptown area as a destination point for social and cultural activities and get people who had not been on campus in years to return? Foremost, we realized we had to make it worth their trip.

In response, our division created Explore UC, a discount incentive program. Partnering with campus and community businesses, we developed a variety of discounts good for activities and purchases on campus and in the uptown area. We created a brochure that included discount coupons, a calendar of campus events, and a user-friendly campus map. We also established a Web site that offers additional information and discounts at nearby eateries, banks, grocery stores, hair salons, and retail shops. Launched last September, the Explore UC program is only now beginning to yield data that will help us determine its effectiveness and appeal.

Stronger Leaders

Finally, the Administrative and Business Services division tapped deeper into its well of expertise in support of UC|21 Goal 6: Create opportunity. The thrust of this goal is to further develop UC’s capacity and capability. Through our human resources department and organizational performance office, our division launched a leadership development series for faculty and staff leaders. Our plan was to bring to UC well-known experts to speak about and discuss with campus leaders the university’s guiding principles of scholarship, citizenship, stewardship, leadership, partnership, and cultural competence. In spring 2005, we offered three sessions on leadership in higher education that were each attended by about 200 faculty and staff members. This past fall, we offered a thought-provoking session that challenged participants to rethink their views on the responsibilities of citizenship. The series will continue this year as UC leadership further explores the guiding principles and core values that we believe are essential for the new urban research university in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
  
As the university enters the next phase of UC|21 implementation, our division will certainly continue its role as partner, delivering the needed tools and services to support the academic master plan and to facilitate decision making. We are already gearing up for the next update of the UC|21 report card to the community and are working with colleagues within the UC|21 planning structure to refine or create new assessment tools to better track progress. We will evolve the Explore UC program to bring more people to campus and will continue to expand programming along MainStreet—including and beyond the buzz generated by our new recreation center. We also will implement several new strategies to help the university climb even further in its national rankings (see sidebar, “Rankings Research”). And we will keep testing new ideas to gain momentum and results in support of UC|21. In short, we’ll provide excellent service and business expertise to help keep our university on the progress path. That’s our mission.

JAMES TUCKER is vice president, and PEG ALLENSWORTH is executive director of communication for the University of Cincinnati’s Administrative and Business Services division.