Promoting an efficient university administration

When I talk with alums and with state legislators about impending budget cuts at UW-Madison, I’m often told that there is a lot of fat that can be trimmed out. I take my responsibility to constantly look for ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of this university seriously. But I also want people to understand the limits to this argument.

Folks often believe that we must be inefficient because we’re big. UW­–Madison is a $3 billion-plus enterprise with 43,000 students and roughly 21,000 full-time employees, plus an additional 13,000 undergraduate students working part-time. We’re big because we have a large mission focused on education, research and outreach. But big doesn’t need to mean inefficient.

I have been impressed with how lean of an operation we run. UW–Madison’s central administration costs are among the lowest in the American Association of Universities, an association of 62 leading public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada.

According to 2013 data, we are 6th leanest among the 32 largest public research universities for the amount spent on day-to-day administrative support as a percentage of total operating expenses. And the public universities are far leaner than the private universities.

One argument I’ve heard is that we have far too many staff, even relative to our large number of students. But let’s be clear that many of those staff are not involved in our teaching enterprise, but in our research enterprise. We spend over $1 billion on research every year. It takes a lot of well-trained staff members to do that research, maintain labs, track dollars and administer grants.

At UW-Madison, 21 percent of faculty positions are paid through non-state funds such as research dollars from the federal government, foundations or private industry partnerships. For other staff — those other than faculty — 60 percent are paid from non-state funds. Much of the funding outside of Fund 101 is associated with federal research grants.

It’s also important to realize that we’ve taken significant budget cuts in every one of the last three biennia. Often when outsiders contemplate the current budget cut they suggest administrative cuts … but we’ve been doing that steadily for a number of years. We can only go so far in cutting administrative support before we start running risks on the operational side.

So comparatively, we run a tight ship, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to search for ways to reduce inefficiency. For several years there has been an internal program, Administrative Process Redesign, examining administrative practices. The goal has been to look for places to cut costs and improve services at the same time.

One such example is the savings we’ve found through strategic purchasing. Since March 2013 we’ve saved $670,000 by purchasing remanufactured toner rather than brand new cartridges. We’ve also saved more than $1 million since Shop@UW launched in computer purchasing by making Dell our preferred product.

The campus is in the midst of migrating to a single email and calendar system, Office 365. When we appointed a team to look at making our email and calendar functions more efficient, they found at least 35 different self-hosted email systems were being used across campus. This was causing a lot of inefficiency with calendaring and scheduling in particular because the different systems weren’t able to interface with each other.

So far about 60 percent of our 90,000 email accounts have been migrated. All of our students will be converted to Office 365 by April 1. We won’t have a clear picture on how much we will gain in efficiency until all the migration is done, which is expected to be by the end of this calendar year, but departments that have already migrated are already seeing the benefits.

We’re also working to make the tuition and fee paying experience for students and parents more efficient. Currently, parents and students have to surf from page to page to pay for tuition, housing, meal plans and other services. By next year we hope to have a portal that’s a one-stop shop for bill paying, and will also link to WisCard accounts.

These efforts at improving efficiency and cutting costs are never easy. Occasionally positions are threatened through consolidation, and it’s always hard to motivate and train people to change the work practices with which they are familiar. But if an organization needs to cut costs, as we do in the face of reduced state support, we have to look for ways to make operations more effective at the same time that we try to make them more efficient.

There’s one major area in which we’ve added a lot of staff over the past decade, and for which I won’t apologize: The federal government has significantly increased its regulatory requirements on universities. For instance, the requirements on how we handle and track foreign students have mushroomed since 9/11; the requirements on the information we need to report in tracking faculty effort and grant dollars in federal grants continue to grow; the staff we need to handle and report on on-campus crime has more than doubled; and the requirements on how to report and protect student-related data have expanded greatly.

These changes are motivated by good intentions, but they have greatly increased the staff needed to collect and report to the federal government on regulatory issues across campus. There is currently an effort on the part of several higher education associations to try and reduce some of these requirements, but meanwhile, the cost of doing business has increased at all colleges and universities. If we don’t respond fully and accurately to these requirements, we are at risk of large federal fines.

It is my responsibility and the responsibility of senior leaders across campus to make sure that UW-Madison is run effectively. We’re a large place and any big bureaucracy has inefficiencies. While I think we’ve done a good job of utilizing our resources effectively, we need to keep looking for ways to work even leaner.