Nebraska’s fiscal challenges have had a significant impact on the University of Nebraska. In 2016-2018, the University faced a $46 million recurring budget shortfall, the result of state funding cuts during the last legislative session combined with our rising costs.
We can’t really tell when the state’s fortunes will improve – meaning we must change the way we do business if we want to continue to fulfill our mission to serve our students and the state effectively, even during periods of limited resources.
To that end, we’ve taken a proactive approach to managing the difficult fiscal environment. In November 2016, President Hank Bounds and the chancellors appointed nearly 100 subject-matter experts from across the campuses and outside the University to serve on “Budget Response Teams” tasked with identifying meaningful savings in a range of operational areas. These included: facilities and energy, finance, human resources, information technology, travel, printing, communication and procurement.
The colleagues who served on the Budget Response Teams spent months doing the difficult, diligent work of developing cost-savings strategies that would help us meet our budget challenge while protecting, to the greatest extent possible, our highest priorities of affordability and academic excellence. We know it is difficult to pursue these goals in light of our financial constraints – but the good work of the Budget Response Teams means we’re in a much better position to preserve our momentum going forward.
The recommendations of the Budget Response Teams were submitted to a University-wide Steering Committee for consideration before moving to the president and chancellors for final vetting. About 70 cost-reduction strategies were approved for implementation. They are listed here in their original form – as of today, many have been revised.
Taken together, we plan to use these strategies to reduce the University’s spending by approximately $22 million from the BRTR strategies so far – savings that will simultaneously transform our operations while also allowing us to continue to deliver on our mission of educating students, generating new knowledge and applying that knowledge in our state and around the world.
Cuts will not come without pain. Jobs and people will be impacted, through attrition wherever possible. As a University community, we won’t be able to make all the investments we’d like to. All staff and faculty across our four campuses will be impacted by the changes ahead. And, the University’s leadership has been clear that further cuts in state funding will have an even more direct and significant impact on tuition and academic programs.
Yet as we manage this challenge, we’re also focused on the important role the state’s only public university plays in growing our economy and quality of life. In the near term, we’re going to have to learn to do more with less, to accommodate changes that are in some cases difficult and complex, and to deal with disruption. In the long term, we’re going to keep working to become the kind of University Nebraskans expect and deserve: one that provides quality and accessible education, improves the lives of the people we serve, and grows communities and the state for the future.
Announcing the BRT strategies is merely one step in making them a reality. Each one, once rolled out publicly, must be carried through five phases of program development and evaluation. The phases work together to ensure that our key goals are met: accurate installation, genuine cost savings, engagement with relevant campus stakeholders, adequate measurement of impact, and sustainability over time.
The phases are represented in the figure below. Each BRT strategy will go through all five stages in order, but not necessarily in a lock-step fashion. In other words, each strategy will evolve in concert with the needs of the campuses and individual action plans developed by BRT members and campus stakeholders.
From November 2016 through August 1, 2017, the Budget Response Teams described so far completed Phase 1: Program Definition and Design. During this phase, team members identified potential strategies they believed would lead to significant efficiencies and cost savings. That work concluded when the chancellors and president reviewed and then adopted about 70 BRT recommendations. The first of these were announced on August 2, 2017, signaling that the University of Nebraska was forging ahead with sweeping operational reforms. These reforms included the consolidation of NU’s communication, facilities and energy, finance, human resources, information technology, printing, procurement, and travel.
From August 2017 to September 2018, the BRTs were engaged in the Program Installation Phase for program development and evaluation. Although the “what” related to how University operations will function was decided in Phase 1, in Phase 2 we worked through the "how" and "when" across NU’s four campuses. This was an important period of proposal development and employee feedback. Formal surveys, listening sessions, individual and group meetings with employees, as well as a steady flow of written feedback and suggestions provided input to the draft proposals put forward by the BRTs. During this time, proposals changed and took shaped incorporating feedback from faculty, staff, administrators and students. The final strategies approved by the President and the Chancellors addressed a range of changes. Some of them impacted individual’s jobs – how people did their work and how the work was organized. During this time we lowered our staffing by more than 100 positions – through attrition, retirement, or not filling open lines where possible. Our goal was to minimize disruption to peoples’ lives as much as possible, but some permanent reductions in force did occur. These were announced as they become known, and only after we communicated with affected employees.
Of the 70 proposals put forward by the BRT groups, 66 were developed further and are in various stages of enactment. (1 proposal was dropped and 3 were combined with duplicative ones). Most teams have achieved a significant portion of their monetary goals and have appropriate structures and policies in place, enabling the work to be carried on within newly organized or newly framed functional teams. Consequently, the BRT groups will transition to Stage 3 (Interim Products) in September 2018. That is, the work will shift from BRT oversight to functional team supervision. During this phase, as BRT strategies and efficiencies are carried out within their functional teams we will compare intended processes and outcomes with actual processes and outcomes, refining both over time. During Phase 3, groups will also develop intended performance standards and measurements, which they will use to guide progress during their first year in operation within Phase 3.
Marjorie Kostelnik, former dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences, was appointed senior associate to President Hank Bounds and will be leading implementation of the budget response team recommendations throughout the University of Nebraska system. She will focus on helping the budget response teams drive cost savings – while protecting the university's missions in teaching, research and engagement/service.
Changing the way we do business will take time – and will have a broad impact across the University. For example, new processes in how we contract with vendors will save money in the long term, but may interrupt (or slow down) purchasing within colleges or departments as we adjust. We’re moving with a sense of urgency because we need to capture savings as soon as possible, but we also want to get this right. Our goal is engage a broad range of stakeholders in the process of making changes that stick – so that the University of Nebraska is positioned for long-term success.