System grants greater autonomy to campuses

Story by Carolyn Tiry

Families and businesses create budgets all the time. These financial plans are rarely perfect, but people still have the ability to move money around to cover any holes that may appear.

The universities of the UW System, however, didn’t have that option until two weeks ago.

On Sept. 8, the Board of Regents unanimously approved broad organizational changes within the System. The changes would give the chancellors of each of the 14 universities and colleges larger leadership roles and more flexibility, especially with concern to financial management, budgeting and other operational procedures, according to a System press release.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich said the increase in flexibility will benefit productivity in the long run, especially with the recent cut in state funding.

“Outcomes are what’s important,” he said, “We’re more in control of our own destiny. That’s really what it comes down to.”

Under the old system, each university was given a specific amount of money for each purpose, such as utilities or instruction. If the university came in over budget in one area, no funds could be transferred, and if one area came in under budget, the extra funds would be returned to the state.

Under the new guidelines, however, each university will receive funding in one large block grant to allocate as they feel will best benefit the students, faculty and staff. So if Eau Claire had a surplus in its utilities fund one year, administrators could move that extra money into an area that had a deficit, such as technology.

Another major change involves the creation of new degree programs. Levin-Stankevich said that research and approval process could take up to a year to finish, whereas the new guidelines will help to expedite that process.

David Giroux, executive director of communications and external relations for the UW System, said the idea to reform the System goes back decades, but the big push came after the Wisconsin state legislature passed the biennial budget, which cut $125 million from education funding and $5.08 million from UW-Eau Claire specifically.

“The old system was driving up operating costs and driving down productivity,” he said.

Giroux added that while many of the changes to the budgeting process won’t affect students for a semester or two, he thinks it will be beneficial for students in the long run as the system will gain “the insight and expertise of 14 very experienced chancellors.”

“As (UW System) President (Kevin) Reilly likes to say, ‘A time of crisis is a terrible thing to waste,’” Giroux said. “We had to find ways to maintain a quality education in the face of these cuts, and we thought these changes would be the way to do that.”

Levin-Stankevich said the push for sustainability is one example of something that will benefit from the new system.

“There’s been no real financial incentive up until now for us to invest in sustainability,” he said. “If we spent the money on utilities, we spent it. If we didn’t, we didn’t get to use it for something else, it just went back to the state.”

Now, he said, any savings the university gains from taking sustainable actions will stay within the university. The savings could be reinvested in more sustainable practices or put in a fund for other ongoing or future projects, for example.

Student Body President Phil Rynish said that though the decisions regarding funding will be made by administrators rather than Student Senate, he would still like to see student representation on committees.

“Senate wants to have some say,” he said, “and we want the students to have a voice.”

Rynish added that though students may not know the specifics about the changes that affect funding, they may still see the benefits of the increased efficiency through structural improvements.

“Their tuition keeps getting raised,” he said, “and now they will be able to see the benefits of that.”