Budgeting to invest in transformational ideas

Greetings again from French Administration. As unbelievable as it may seem, the semester is rapidly drawing to a close and commencement is barely a month away. I hope that each of you had the opportunity to recharge for a few days during spring break in preparation for the busiest 6 weeks of the academic year!

I want to publicly welcome 3 individuals who recently joined our senior leadership team in Pullman following the completion of nationwide searches: Mary Jo Gonzales, vice president for student affairs; Stacy Pearson, vice president for finance and administration; and Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications. These talented colleagues bring vast experience in public higher education to WSU. In order to provide you with an opportunity to meet our new Cougs, we will host a campus reception April 10 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the CUB Junior Ballroom. Please come by and introduce yourself and welcome Mary Jo, Stacy, and Phil to WSU and the Pullman community.

When I started as president, I pledged to keep communication open and to communicate often about the University budget. Last May, I shared my initial impressions about several important issues, including the need to:

  • Reinstitute a formal university budget development process
  • Create a comprehensive funding plan for each new building in advance of its construction
  • Develop a robust financial analysis to accompany all proposals presented to our Board of Regents
  • Implement a plan to reduce our athletics budget deficit

In a more recent update last November, I discussed some additional issues that required attention, including the need to:

  • Rebuild and maintain adequate reserve funds
  • Invest in systemwide infrastructure
  • Balance unit budgets
  • Increase revenues

So, where are we now? In late January and early February, we held formal budget hearings with each college and unit to follow up on initial discussions that took place last September. We found that the overall financial picture in most units improved significantly between the fall and early 2017. The progress is attributable to the in-depth analyses of revenues and expenditures colleges and units completed during this time period, as well as the immediate resource management efforts that were instituted following the September hearings. If a college or support unit reported an annual deficit, it proposed a debt repayment plan that took into account projected revenue enhancements and identified possible spending decreases over a multiyear period.

As a reminder, for many of our colleges and units, the authorization to overspend had been provided centrally in order to make needed strategic investments in faculty hiring, research start-up packages, employee salary programs, and building/laboratory renovations. As the repayment plans are implemented, the overall financial picture of the University will continue to improve—and place us in a position in the future to invest in new ideas and initiatives.

At the university level, we are also doing a more thorough job of considering both cost-cutting measures and revenue enhancements. We now are building out 5-year budget models that also take into account much needed university-wide infrastructure enhancements, addressing such needs as instructional technology, library resources, shared research equipment acquisition and upkeep, faculty startup, and a new financial enterprise system.

Additionally, we are striving to ensure that as we enroll more students we maintain an appropriate number of faculty members, as well as support staff and associated services needed to provide an exceptional student experience. The bottom line is that we are progressing in our effort to strategically invest in the University. As we continue to discuss finances, it is important to remember that we are all working together to advance WSU and create a great place to learn, work, and play.

Although open communication about the budget is important to all of us, the time and effort devoted to this endeavor university-wide oftentimes creates a regrettable side effect: reduced morale not only among faculty and staff, but also among university leadership at the department chair and dean levels.

In my experience, faculty members take on academic leadership positions because they are program builders and want to help academic entities grow and thrive. Department chairs, deans, vice presidents—and even presidents—are at heart people who want to help others succeed. They have not accepted leadership positions to cut programs, trim budgets, and handle inevitable human resource problems. Thus, when we find ourselves talking about budgets and money as an institution it can become very discouraging to all of us. Almost everyone can identify areas within the University that are worthy of additional funds—but why dream about making investments if we seem so focused on reducing budgets and deinvesting? Why aspire to be a top 25 public research university by 2030?

We dream and aspire because we require aspirations to drive priorities and revenues. Budget difficulties are solvable. My goal for the entire budgeting exercise is to put the University in a better financial position. That way, when our faculty, staff, and students suggest great ideas, as we plan strategically, we will have available pools of funds to immediately invest in these transformational ideas. For me, the job of university administration is to provide needed resources to ensure that we are delivering an exceptional educational experience to all of our students and driving our research and outreach programs forward. So if you begin to feel discouraged about these ongoing discussions regarding the budget, please remember that we are putting our fiscal house in order to enhance our ability to invest in your ideas and aspirations. Together, we will build an even better Washington State University.

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback at any time. Good luck as you finish out this semester.

Go Cougs!