From the President: Collaborative Budgeting

By Cary Nelson with Donna Potts

The AAUP has long been on the record about the importance of the faculty’s participation in budgetary decisions. The organization gave specific emphasis to the issue in its 1972 statement The Role of the Faculty in Budgetary and Salary Matters. Yet it is no secret that the recession has led a number of administrations to undermine this principle, either imposing actions without sufficient consultation or denying faculty members access to the financial information they need to make well-informed recommendations.

I would like to tell two stories, one old and one new, from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign (where I teach) and Kansas State University (where Donna Potts teaches). They are both about experiments in collaborative budgeting.

It was over a decade ago that Larry Faulkner, then dean of Illinois’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, decided to test the familiar claim that faculty members shouldn’t play a major role in academic budgeting because they couldn’t make the “tough decisions” necessary to make the best use of resources. He appointed three ad hoc committees of accomplished senior faculty members, one committee each for all humanities, sciences, and social science departments. I served on the humanities committee. Our only task was to recommend reallocations within our assigned disciplinary groups. We were given large files for each department, including complete faculty vitae, fully detailed budgets and salary data, and elaborate reports and statistics from department heads about every aspect of their programs. The large amount of information we received made relative strengths and weaknesses clear and revealed some surprising inequities. We made detailed recommendations, many of which the college implemented, though the dean used good judgment in modifying some. Faulkner then moved to Texas. The system, which would have required a mix of appointed and elected members had it been adopted permanently, was never used again, presumably because it had worked so well.

The Kansas story dates from 2009 and 2010. Facing reduced state funding upon his arrival in 2009, Kansas State University president Kirk Schulz soon initiated a broad campus dialogue about ways to adjust the budget and enhance revenue. Rather than impose budget decisions from above, he wanted a collaborative process based on transparency and shared governance.

Schulz had his staff set up a website where faculty and staff members as well as students could make anonymous suggestions about possible budget cuts. That let people offer their ideas without any fear of retaliation or public disapproval. Some fifteen hundred suggestions were submitted. They, in turn, were collected and then analyzed by a series of eight key groups, including the faculty senate’s Committee on University Planning, the faculty senate’s Leadership Council, and the student senate. The list was pared down to a thousand suggestions and organized into three categories— short-term cuts, long-term cuts, and reductions not recommended for consideration. The three lists were then placed online and distributed across the campus for comment at open meetings and other events.

Eventually a degree of consensus was reached. The final budget changes went online as well. Both administration and athletics took significant reductions. Maintaining the budgets of academic programs remained a priority. The president made it clear that the results were not cause for celebration; damage would be done. New funding would have to be pursued. But at least the campus had made the decisions collectively.

Because the process at both Illinois and Kansas involved significant faculty input, the administrators in question avoided much of the resentment that would have followed the unilateral imposition of reallocations or cuts. President Schulz faced a particular challenge, because his arrival was preceded by an audit that showed the university had not been exercising sufficient oversight over its budget or its outlays. He thus had ground to make up in winning back faculty and staff confidence.

Despite their many differences, both of these stories demonstrate that shared governance is the best route to harmonious and thoughtful budget decisions, whether to promote program quality or to deal with a funding crisis. They also demonstrate that good leadership can make a difference on a campus.