A Solid Front
While their respective positions still predict their leadership priorities, chief academic officers and chief business officers are finding that they get more done when they’ve forged a partnership.
By Apryl Motley
A significant moment for the chief business officer (CBO) and chief academic officer (CAO) at Midlands Technical College (MTC), Columbia, South Carolina, came about six years ago. In the face of accelerated budget cuts at the outset of the economic downturn, Ronald L. Rhames, senior vice president for business affairs, and Ronald Drayton, vice president for academic affairs, initiated a review of faculty teaching loads with the goal of reducing the number of adjuncts the college employed.
"We looked at different options for maintaining programs while still reducing our costs," Drayton says. "Increasing teaching loads was something that we could reasonably control and then undo if necessary."
While some faculty members may not have liked being required to teach an additional course each semester, notes Rhames, "the vast majority understood what was happening and appreciated the process, even if they did not like the result."
Such effective problem solving had not been the norm. "There used to be a dichotomy between divisions," says Rhames. "Now collaboration happens up front. The changing environment requires us to work together to be successful."
That changing environment has much to do with the recession and its long-lingering aftermath. Drayton acknowledges this evolution. "We now look at the finances of everything we do in academics," he says. "Previously, the financial concerns weren't as big a part of our considerations."
Such tandem leadership is now extending also to the use of institutional data as a basis for decisions that address both financial and academic activities. (For more on this shared focus for strategic planning, see "Data Point the Way.")
Personnel costs and other budget concerns have been major drivers of leadership collaboration at any number of institutions.
- An unanticipated economic nosedive. For the College of Southern Nevada (CSN)—located in a state particularly hard—hit by the tanking U.S. economy-CAO-CBO dynamics have solidified by necessity. Patricia A. Charlton, senior vice president for finance and administration, and Darren Divine, vice president of academic affairs, opted to work closely together to manage the financial challenges to their institution, now in its sixth consecutive year of continual budget reduction. In years past, Nevada's public institutions have received significant support from the state general fund, representing as much as 78 percent of CSN's operating budget. Mainly because of the economic downturn, that percentage has dropped to just over 62 percent. "To address the decrease," says Charlton, "a greater burden is placed on students, as tuition and fee levels have increased. This hit at a critical time when community college enrollments spiked—a trend traditionally seen during weak economic times." Maintaining staff employment has been chief among Charlton and Divine's concerns. "Faculty and staff really are family to us," Charlton says. Nonetheless, Nevada's shrinking appropriations for higher education led to furloughs, salary cuts, and reduced benefits. Another serious issue: All this was happening in conjunction with the college's decision to implement a 30 percent cumulative cost reduction to its general fund, the primary revenue stream for operational budgets. As these dramatic changes were taking shape, Divine, who ultimately manages the largest workforce at the college, quickly recognized the importance of developing a partnership with his counterpart in the business office. "I am not sure how I would do my job without working closely with the CFO," he says. "Almost any decision I make has financial ramifications." As is the case for many community colleges, CSN's academic programming takes many of its cues from business and industry. Economic trends can sometimes require the CAO to turn on a dime to create courses that are needed on the spur of the moment. Divine and Charlton have developed an especially effective way of quickly responding to the curriculum needs, while calculating the budget to cover the costs.
- The steps to strategic budgeting. A heightened awareness of the need for a combined role in ensuring their institution's long-term fiscal health motivated the CAO and CBO at College of Our Lady of the Elms (Elms College), Chicopee, Massachusetts, to pursue opportunities to engage with one another for the common good of the institution. Brian E. Doherty, vice president of finance and administration, and Walter C. Breau, vice president of academic affairs, have worked closely together since 2006. "We were collaborating before the economic downturn of 2008," says Breau, "and that collaborative style allowed us to respond quickly when strategic opportunities arose—and to navigate the college's budgetary challenges while identifying growth strategies." In 2007, for example, Elms began a partnership with Berkshire Health Systems to offer an RN-BS nursing completion program. Delivered 100 percent on-site at the Berkshire Medical Center, the program was designed to serve medical center staff members who had received degrees in nursing at community colleges. "We responded to an opportunity," Doherty says. "The hospital was looking for partners to deliver a bachelor's completion program to its registered nurses, so we changed our educational delivery system and responded to their needs. "Our philosophical approach to doing business is being open-minded," he continues. "We don't look for obstacles; we find ways to make things successful." "We try to work collaboratively," Breau adds. "That is reflected throughout the institution. If we work together, we can get things done."
Changes in demographics led Elm's College's Brian Doherty and Walter Breau to explore opportunities for growth through outside partnerships.
While these chief business officers and chief academic officers have come to the realization that they can be more successful working in tandem than at odds with one another, recent research shows that these two groups' perceptions of the dollars and cents at their institutions are quite different. The 2012 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Business Officers notes: "A larger proportion of CBOs than provosts reports that institutional expenditures have generally increased since fall 2008; concurrently, provosts are far more likely than CBOs to report that their institutions have 'suffered significant and continuing budget cuts in funding our core academic programs' over the past four years."
This is only one point of departure for chief business officers and their academic counterparts (provosts and chief academic officers), as captured in the 2012 CBO survey and a companion survey, The 2011–12 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Academic Officers.
These perceptual differences are defined not only by leadership role but by institution type. For example, as a group, chief business officers are most optimistic about the business models for elite institutions—selective universities with endowments of more than $1 billion, or liberal arts colleges with endowments of more than $500 million. In contrast, CBOs view the business models for non-flagship (public) universities and community colleges as clearly stressed by the current economic situation, but still workable.
One third of public college CBOs and almost half of their private sector peers assess the business model of other (less-selective, less-differentiated) private four-year colleges as troubled—models that are "unsustainable and must change."
For chief academic officers, academic rigor is an area where survey results indicate a very high level of disagreement. While CAOs report that their campus is maintaining high standards, 72 percent agree that academic rigor issues "pose real problems elsewhere in education." Provosts at private nonprofit institutions are more likely than their public sector counterparts to agree that rigor poses a major challenge elsewhere. Similarly, less than a third of the surveyed CAOs concede that grade inflation is a serious problem at their institutions, yet two thirds agree that grade inflation is a major concern across higher education.
"We resolve differences privately. We're always on the same page when we come from behind closed doors. We back one another 100 percent."
Patricia Charlton, College of Southern Nevada
For many reasons, the top issues for each side and within each leadership group rarely align (see sidebar, "Position Dictates Priorities").
All that said, there are several key areas in which CAOs and CBOs can and do agree. And, often, once they take the steps toward agreement on a common goal or initiative, the dynamic team of two becomes a solid front in moving strategic objectives forward at their institutions.
Consensus and Collaboration
Reaching agreement on key objectives serves chief business officers and chief academic officers well as they spearhead initiatives, not all of which are popular on campus.
- A look at workload. The driving force behind the decision to review teaching loads at Midlands Technical College was economic. "We were looking down the road at the long-term financial health of the college," Drayton says. "We knew we might have to go through a little discomfort to remain viable, but then we wouldn't have to look at cutting programs and/or furloughing faculty and staff." According to Rhames, "Our primary concern was how we could sustain MTC for the long term, while protecting the teaching and learning processes, as well as students and faculty." He says, "The budget cuts that the college faced accelerated during the recession, but the state had already started to reduce funding prior to that time. We made the decision to hold employment at a certain level to manage these reductions, without cutting any programs." The review of teaching loads took more than a year and involved extensive discussion with faculty and the board of trustees. As a result, faculty in general education courses, like English and math for example, went from teaching five courses each semester to teaching six, which meant MTC would use fewer adjuncts. All full-time faculty were required to teach one additional class each semester (fall and spring). In the end, says Drayton, the college achieved its ultimate objective of saving approximately $1 million. "We had to make choices. Do you eliminate people or programs?" Rhames asks. "Our primary metric was cost reduction. We have met our objective for dollars saved, and the overall number of adjuncts MTC uses has declined." Moving forward, teaching loads will be reviewed during the college's annual budget process, which starts in the fall.
- The budget and beyond. "It really is lonely at the top; it's good to have a colleague who will give you an honest opinion," says Charlton of her relationship with Divine. The two first started working more closely together seven years ago, when Divine chaired the faculty senate, which was convened to address faculty workloads and compensation. "I hadn't worked with her [Charlton] all that closely, but we had to start reviewing department chair compensation and the reconstruction of schools/departments, which were actions our new president wanted," Divine says. Had they not developed such a close working relationship, Divine believes it would have been that much more difficult to address the concerns that faculty voiced about budget cuts. "One of the issues that still come up weekly at the deans' meeting concerns additional faculty members and support staff. It's usually, 'If we only had X dollars, we could do X, Y, and Z,'" he explains. "However, the financial outlook comes from the business office. Because Patricia and I have a close relationship, we can craft some meaningful answers about the budget and its future. And, for now, the budget still isn't there for faculty or staff expansion."
As the college entered its sixth year of continual budget reduction last year, Charlton says she and Divine worked together to "make sure the campus community had the right story." Explains Divine: "Since employees often learned directly from the media the news about the budget and other potential reductions—such as campus closures and pay cuts—a top priority for us was to keep staff informed as to the actual reductions under discussion and provide them with an opportunity to assist in identifying some of the areas for reduced resources."
Both are hopeful that despite budget shortfalls due to decreased enrollment, this will be the year they can gain some positive ground for improving salaries.
- Ripe for partnering relationships. Changes in demographics led Elms College's Breau and Doherty to explore opportunities for growth through outside partnerships. "Fewer seniors are graduating from high school, and we're operating in a highly competitive market in our region," Breau explains. In fact, he says, the 2008 and 2012 Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education demographics reports project decreases in high school graduate numbers from 2012 to 2028 of 12 percent in Massachusetts and 18 percent in Connecticut-the college's primary recruiting areas.
The same trend is true in Elms College-area high schools. With that in mind, says Breau, "we started looking at the adult and transfer markets." Renewed focus on establishing partnerships to attract nontraditional students and meet the college's mission of serving the community positioned Elms to establish its hallmark program of nursing, the registered nurse (RN) to bachelor of science (BS) in nursing completion program held on-site at Berkshire Medical Center.
Doherty stresses the importance of "putting together business models before we launch opportunities. We look at incremental revenue and costs and what kind of surplus an off-campus program can generate for the college." Ultimately, the college's leaders hope to reduce the institution's dependency on revenue from traditional undergraduate student tuition.
As an example, Doherty and Breau explain, "We built the business model for the RN to BS in nursing program by working as a team with the nursing division and meeting with Berkshire Medical Center management to understand their professional development goals for the program. Based upon established enrollment targets, we worked with the faculty to determine the resources needed to deliver and support this high-quality program."
The relationship was formalized with a collaborative services agreement. Since its inception in January 2008, there have been annual cohorts of approximately 15 students participating in the 20-month program, who have graduated on schedule.
Elms has also partnered with two community colleges located about 20 minutes away from its main campus to offer bachelor's degree continuation programs. The first program launched at Holyoke Community College, Holyoke, Massachusetts, during the fall 2010 semester. "Taking our programs there allowed us to reach a market that we wouldn't otherwise have been able to serve," Breau notes.
The most popular programs include not only the RN-BS nursing completion, but also courses in social work, psychology, business management, and accounting. Enrollments have continued to increase at all locations since the launch. Between 2011 and 2012, says Breau, "we experienced a 52 percent increase in students enrolled in the off-site programs, with a total of 126 enrolled in fall 2012."
Full-time faculty from the program disciplines oversee the off-site programs and do some teaching, along with qualified adjunct professors who have taught at Elms for some time, explains Breau. "The 20-month programs," he says, "are broken into 10 eight-week sessions; students take two courses each session on Saturdays." Another advantage of the arrangement is that the financial aid office bundles together two eight-week sessions, allowing students to take sufficient credits to be considered full time, and therefore the students are eligible for federal and state financial aid. "This makes these programs very affordable, especially for high-financial-need students," explains Breau. "And, the net contribution of the programs helps build the financial strength of the college."
Plans are under way to launch similar programs in collaboration with three more community colleges. "On many levels, these programs provide great value for the students, the community colleges, and the Elms," Doherty observes. "From a competitive standpoint, we think we have a good model that is in the best interest of the college."
Overall, Doherty says the environment at Elms is conducive to outside collaboration because "we have a desire to get things done. It's very easy for ideas to get bogged down in the planning process and be overanalyzed. We look at what the problems are, and we bring faculty and program leaders into the conversation to resolve the barriers. That has a lot to do with our success."
As these examples illustrate, current circumstances require that chief business officers and chief academic officers move beyond previous perceptions of one another to develop productive working relationships. In many instances, all eyes are on them as they do so.
"Both internally and externally, there is more focus on accountability for working in tandem to continually improve the product and allocate resources appropriately: internally to governing boards or boards of trustees and externally to legislatures and boards of accreditation," says Richard Helldobler, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
Helldobler, who has served as a facilitator at NACUBO and ACE's CBO-CAO workshops for the past two years, says that "the old style of higher education was definitely silo driven, and up to this point, there hasn't been as much emphasis on this notion of collaboration. But now, accreditation boards are looking for evidence of partnerships and more holistic approaches to driving institutions forward."
During the three days that CBO-CAO pairs spend at the workshop, they have the opportunity to address issues from a multitude of perspectives, and they leave with a clear plan for next steps to take once they return to their institutions.
"We intentionally designed the workshop [see sidebar,"CAOs and CBOs: It's Time to Talk Shop"] so that participants must leave with an action agenda. To help strengthen the determination to accomplish the identified priorities, they publicly commit to working together with their leadership counterpart," says Jayne Comstock, director of the executive leadership group, at the American Council on Education.
Whether they attend a workshop or not, CBOs and CAOs can take some key steps to ease their transition. Peter Eckel, the workshop's founder and currently vice president of governance and leadership programs, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), refers to the shift as the move from "a coordinated agenda" to "a shared agenda" that both the CBO and CAO own.
- Carve out time to build the relationship. "No one is going to give you time; you have to take it," Helldobler says. When he was in a previous position, Helldobler and his CBO would have lunch together once a week after the executive staff meeting on campus and discuss goals and challenges. As one example, the pair discussed salary savings and concluded that while such expense reductions were effective in improving the bottom line, the approach wasn't moving any of their institution's strategic objectives forward. "We agreed that I could keep the savings," Helldobler recalls. "Then one year the technology department came up short of the $100,000 allocated for technology enhancement. I used that year's salary savings to improve classrooms, and we both met our goals while furthering one of the university's overall strategic objectives."
- Suspend stereotypes that you have about each other. "Find ways to walk in the other's shoes to understand opportunities and roadblocks," Eckel suggests. "In general, the partnership between CBO and CAO works when all the pieces are in place," Breau offers. "It's up to them to collaborate and respect each other's strengths." "It's about mutual respect," Rhames says. "Dr. Drayton understands the academic side of the institution. He has earned the faculty's respect as a credible leader. I appreciate the flexibility of working with him to consider the entire picture of the college." Drayton concurs: "You get a better view of the whole picture when you respect each other's areas and the value you each bring to the table." "It's hard for CBOs to venture outside their own world," Rhames acknowledges, "but we must develop a fundamental understanding of academics and their priorities. To do that, we have to come out of our shells and get to know the people on the academic side of the institution."
- Understand each person's point of view on key issues and act accordingly. "Knowing where the other person is coming from is critical," Divine says. "If I don't know what my CFO values or what perspective she has on a particular decision or issue, that's troublesome. Fortunately, I know that her No. 1 goal is taking care of the people affected by our financial decisions. If I didn't know that, I would present her with solutions that go against what she values. "If you don't know where the other is coming from and why, you've got to find out," Divine stresses. "Consider four or five decisions and have each person explain his or her thought process. Help him or her understand what you were thinking and why and vice versa. That's invaluable." From Drayton's perspective as CAO, "make sure that you understand the financial workings and processes of your institution," he suggests. "Sit down with your CBO and review the needs from his or her side. Then consider similar issues from the academic side. When you have those conversations, you both gain a greater appreciation for each area."
- Develop the ability and processes to do things quickly. "We work well together with a sense of urgency to get things done," Elms College's Doherty says. For instance, when Elms first pursued partnerships with local community colleges, "we were able to immediately team up with faculty because a collaborative spirit had been established at the institution under the leadership of our president." According to Divine, he and Charlton's excellent working relationship extends beyond them to their respective staffs. "I have full authority to talk with her staff at any time, and she does the same," he says. "It has to be that way in a really good relationship. There are so many people who work in my area. If everything had to go through me, we would be paralyzed." At Midlands, people in the academic and business offices know how to disagree and still work through the solutions to problems. Notes Drayton, "We both emphasize the need for those sometimes-difficult discussions, and that's a major advantage of how we work together. Our teams can solve their own problems reasonably." Says Rhames, "We have empowered our people, which allows for us to focus on the strategic issues of the institution."
- Agree to disagree, but do so privately. While he can't recall having any serious disagreements with Doherty in the almost six years they've worked together, Breau says, "We won't fight around the table. We'll sit down just the two of us or with the president." "We resolve differences privately," College of Southern Nevada's Charlton says. "We're always on the same page when we come from behind closed doors. We back one another 100 percent." For example, although it was Charlton's academic counterpart Divine who formally made the recommendation to voluntarily suspend accreditation for a program with low student enrollment and for which it was difficult to hire faculty, "We all supported him in making his recommendation to the board of regents and rallied around his decision," says Charlton.
Presenting a united front definitely was important when presenting the results of the teaching load review to Midlands Tech faculty. "When the dust settled, most people could see the value of what we put in place to save students and programs," Drayton says. "We stood before the faculty together to deliver that message," Rhames adds.
Pitfalls to Progress
Even with their best efforts to stand together, CBOs and CAOs sometimes disagree on how best to accomplish specific tasks or objectives. Despite these differences, their working relationships can remain positive if they are careful to avoid some common pitfalls to their progress.
- Failing to put the institution first. "We are mutually supportive," Doherty says. "We try to come up with the most practical, reasonable decisions for the institution."
- Making assumptions about the professional position and transferring them onto the person. "Each should get to know the position and the person," Helldobler says. "When they don't know either one, that's usually when there's trouble."
- Taking each other for granted. "Once a positive working relationship is developed," notes ACE's Comstock, "it is important to remember that each person must live up to the expectations of his or her role. It is much easier to support each other publicly if working agendas and supportive information are shared privately so that the natural differences can be worked through in the comfort of the collaborative relationship, rather than in front of an audience." In addition, she says, "Friends know they can count on each other, but they also don't blindside each other."
In the end, it's all about mutual trust. "When Ron tells me something, I can take it to the bank," Drayton says. "If we don't trust each other, that suspicion spreads to everyone else. You have to earn trust and never damage it. If you don't have that trust factor, people are holding back and never showing all their cards."
APRYL MOTLEY, Columbia, Maryland, writes on higher education issues for Business Officer.