Money-saving plan nears next phase

The Innovation Task Force, which funnels funds toward academics by cutting operating expenses across the University, outlined Thursday its seven latest cost-cutting options through showcases on the Foggy Bottom and Virginia campuses.

In its first two years, the task force has identified $34 million in savings by 2015 – more than half of its target. The task force hopes to eventually raise $60 million per year after its first five years, the equivalent of the yearly interest gained from the University’s endowment.

Last week’s meetings also focused on ideas currently on the table for phase three of the initiative, including directives such as expanding facilities usage during the summer, housing optimization throughout the year, a campus-wide paperless strategy and leverage of internal support to limit the need for external consulting support.

University President Steven Knapp established the task force in fall 2009 with three main objectives: raising new funds from philanthropic sources, increasing the productivity of the University’s research and instructional programs and finding savings in business processes that can be reinvested in students, faculty and academic initiatives.

Under a “six-by-six” process, the task force will map out six goals over each six-month phase through discussions between students, faculty, administrators and members of the task force. Each time, the final six ideas will be presented to Knapp for approval.

Dave Lawlor, co-chair of the Innovation Task Force, said his team of investigators and idea generators tries to cater to faculty and students in both the saving and spending sides of the equation.

“We’re trying to be balanced in not only the type of ideas that we’re generating, but where the investments are being made,” he said.

After ideas are approved, University Provost Steven Lerman controls the process of dividing campus-wide funds based on ideas presented by the deans of the University and his senior staff. All spending must fit into the categories of academic excellence, programs, new research or new faculty lines. Resources saved within an individual school remain in that school and are administered under the purview of each dean.

The initiative has set aside $11.2 million to spend in fiscal year 2012 on various academic projects, including the launch of an online degree auditing tool and support for the reorganization of the Medical Center.

The majority of funding pool has been directed toward the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences because it has the largest number of students and faculty, Lawlor said. With the funds, the college has doubled its number of undergraduate advisers and has hired additional teaching assistants to lead discussion sections for larger lecture classes.

Columbian College Dean Peg Barratt praised the initiative at Thursday’s showcase, saying it allowed the college to invest in “the 21st century critical thinking skills that our students need.”

The Innovation Task Force represents an overarching trend in higher education to reassess administrative expenses and structures as budgets tighten nationwide. A survey of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted by management consultants Bain & Company in 2009 found that the school tends to waste money on redundant administrative activities and could generate at least $89 million in savings by implementing 10 options over several years.

Innovation Task Force co-chair Craig Linebaugh, who took up the role in September, said he can already see the benefits starting to accrue from his vantage point in the provost’s office.

“I’ve been around here 35 years, and I can’t think of another initiative that has brought people from all different elements,” Linebaugh said. “I think that’s absolutely critical for our success, because we’re trying to cast the widest net possible to get ideas.”

Linebaugh added that the building momentum behind the task force stands as a testament to the commitment of those involved within and across stages.

“And as the pot grows, if you will, and they make more investments, it just makes it that much more exciting,” he said.

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