Advancing Excellence in Financially Challenging Times

HG: This first digital issue of the magazine is organized around the concept “advancing excellence in financially challenging times,” which sounds similar to the “doing more with less” mantra often repeated in the business press these days. Can we really do more with less in higher education?

BB: I think the short answer is no. But we can still excel in selected areas with less, and the challenge of doing that is in the strategy.

To advance excellence in a time of fewer resources, we will have to be—at times—brutally strategic in the choices we make. We will have fewer, significantly fewer, resources than we had 2 years ago (and we are not alone in that circumstance, either at the university or in the nation), but we must resist easy, seemingly obvious solutions to making necessary cuts.

Simply and straightforwardly stated, we are not going to be able to deliver as much with fewer resources. To be realistic in these financially challenging times, I picture the state of the college as essentially a line graph of the performance of the college’s various activities plotted over time. The peaks in the graph are the areas where the college does extremely well, and the valleys are where the college does less well. Now imagine a trend line that represents average performance, and you will note that it is going down over time. But that drop means only that we have been working with reduced resources; it does not mean that our peaks—our existing areas of excellence—can’t be even higher.

HG: What can we do to make that happen, and how can we do it?

Dean Bursten Talking with studentsBB: The “what” is that we are going to invest our smaller resource base strategically so as to continue to invest in and enhance those areas where we have existing excellence.

The “how” is that we will take advantage of alternative means of adding resources to the college, ways outside of our traditional budget streams. There are several means available, including seeking increased donor support and stepping up our pursuit of grants from external corporations and agencies. Any funds we can attract from such sources add to what we can do, so we are encouraging and supporting our faculty in even more aggressive pursuit of external funding.

We have a relationship with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and funds set aside by the governor to support Governor’s Chair positions. Filling the Governor’s Chairs is a good way for us to add excellent capabilities to the college at a relatively low cost to our resource pool.

Recently we have learned that our state will receive federal stimulus funds, which will provide some short-term funding for two years. But at the end of the two years, we will still face the reality of permanent cuts to our base budget. The federal stimulus funds simply give us more time for planning for the inevitable cuts. The two-year time frame affords us an opportunity to absorb some of the cuts through attrition and retirements and to find new modes of delivery for our activities and programs—essentially, the stimulus funding gives us the opportunity to plan for a “soft landing” in 2011, when the current cuts are not offset with temporary funds. But we don’t know what impact there may be in the long term, so we are not basing any plans on it just yet. Check back with Higher Ground online for the latest developments and updates related to budget news.

HG: What is your strategy for cutting the budget of the largest college in Tennessee’s flagship public research university when you must make cuts that were not factored into your original vision for Arts and Sciences?

BB: Certainly, I did not come here with the vision of “Oh boy, am I looking forward to cutting our budget!” but I will say that challenging times surely do make my job even more meaningful, and I am proud of what we can do together. In creating a plan for cutting the budget, we have to resist what has happened too often in the past: making across-the-board cuts. Sometimes when budget cuts became necessary, there were usually vacant faculty positions in many departments, and the budget was decreased by just eliminating all those vacant positions across the board.

That is as nonstrategic as budget-cutting gets, and it creates long-term damage to the college as a whole. It’s distressing to see a graph of the number of tenure-line faculty positions in the College of Arts and Sciences as function of time. We had comfortably more than 500 positions in the early 1990s; now we are just barely above 400. That 20-percent loss of tenure-line faculty is something that needs to concern us, especially as our students keep getting better and better.

As I always point out to anyone who will listen, better students require more time from the faculty, not less. They are demanding more of their professors’ attention, as they should.

HG: With reduced faculty resources, how have you managed to launch initiatives while maintaining the college’s academic integrity?

BB: It is difficult to launch new proposals in such times, but we keep looking for ways in which making a small investment can have a large impact. The best way for us to do that is to have ideas bubble up from our faculty.

Let me give you an example of this kind of investment. In the Department of Psychology we hired Greg Stuart, an absolutely outstanding researcher from Brown University. He was not an inexpensive hire, but we thought his expertise would be transformational and that his research and academic stature would contribute to raising the national profile of our exceptional psychology department. Greg hit the ground running and has shown himself to be an asset to the department and a terrific collaborative colleague. His success in attracting external funds to the department has created research opportunities for junior faculty and graduate students. He has made even more of a difference than we anticipated since coming here. A pivotal hire like this one is a way of selective investing that allows resources to have a bigger impact.

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