GW hires administrator to remake academic budget

The University will take a big step Monday toward creating more academic opportunities for undergraduates when it announces the hire of an administrator to overhaul the budget model.

Rene Stewart O’Neal, director of planning at Michigan State University, will become GW’s first vice provost for budget and finance this June after a nearly two-year search.

She will help create a funding system that would reward schools for teaching more non-majors. The change would create options like allowing undergraduates to take courses in the graduate-only law and medical schools and engineering classes offered to business majors.

The current financial model that dishes out hundreds of millions of dollars to colleges based on enrollments, but has been criticized. Other schools do not receive tuition dollars when a student enrolls in one undergraduate college, which holds some back from offering interdisciplinary programs.

The University’s current system of allocating funds to its schools has been hit with criticism before. In a 2007 accreditation study, a group of professors pointed out that the University’s financial system rewarded schools only for bringing in as many students as possible and building new programs – not for academic quality.

O’Neal will also sit on the Innovation Task Force – a group of staff and faculty who pitch revenue-producing or cost-cutting proposals – and advise the provost on implementing the strategic plan.

“I think it’s prescient in a way that the provost saw the need for a position like this,” said O’Neal, who has also held senior administrative positions at Michigan University and Wellesley College.

The University is looking to chip away at barriers between its schools, as part of a near-final strategic plan that not only lays out $400 million worth of academic, student life and research initiatives for the next decade, but also cements GW’s mission to add more flexible options for students.

“As we move to a more integrated model of undergraduate education, how do you incentivize the schools and departments to do that? A flaw in the current budgeting system and model is it doesn’t do that,” Lerman said.

A new budget model would also allow a more simple process for the University to hire professors who teach in multiple fields. The strategic plan outlines $50 million to $100 million for new interdisciplinary hires over the next decade.
O’Neal said administrators made clear to her that the strategic plan was the “catalyst” for a revamped budgeting system, which would act as way to “change behavior and culture.”

“I don’t want to pre-judge the University, but my sense from talking to the various leaders I have at GW is that the schools and colleges operate fairly independently,” she said. “A strategic plan and new funding model will begin to unify the schools.”

She added that she would get to know deans and financial officers immediately to connect dollars to academic missions and get feedback “about what works in the current system.”

“Any change in funding makes people anxious,” she said. “Whenever there’s change, there’s fear that things will be taken away.”

Forrest Maltzman, the senior vice provost for academic affairs and planning, said O’Neal will begin work on transforming the budget model right away, but he could not pin down a timeline for completion.

It would likely need to be in place before the University alters its admissions system to enroll freshmen in the University as a whole instead of specific colleges. That change could happen by 2014, Lerman has said.

He added that GW’s new system will likely be a “hybrid” of the models administrators have studied from other universities like Syracuse.

The University began its search for a budget vice provost last year, but restarted it after a poor pool of candidates.

Lerman said that the model does have issues, but that schools’ motivations to entice students could derive from schools’ motivations to entice students.

“It creates incentives to drive enrollments. You hope that also drives quality because one of the things that attracts students is quality, but its direct effects is it incentivizes enrolling students,” Lerman said.

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