Innovation Task Force delayed as officials reconfigure program

Media Credit: Anna McGarrigle | Senior Designer

Officials will spend the next five months re-envisioning the University’s signature cost-cutting program – a delay that comes as the task force hasn’t unveiled a single new project in a year.

The Innovation Task Force, a group dedicated to cutting costs and generating revenue for the University, will hold off meeting for the second semester in a row, one of its leaders confirmed this week. The program aims to secure $60 million in savings or new revenue streams by the end of this calendar year, a commitment that could be challenging as GW has reinvested less than half that amount into its budget.

The ITF also delayed unveiling a new round of cost-saving ideas last semester to focus on previous projects already introduced, including reusing furniture and cutting costs associated with food and traveling.

Meghan Chapple, one of the group’s leaders, said the ITF won’t announce new ideas until next fall, though in December, she had said the program would reconvene this spring. She said the task force will use the extra time to re-envision its structure and develop a new future for the program.

She added that not meeting this semester does not mean the task force is at a standstill, but rather that no new projects will be introduced until GW works through its current ones.

“We have spent the past few months meeting with members of the Innovation Task Force and reviewing current ITF projects with an eye toward reconceptualizing how the goal of fostering innovation University-wide can best be accomplished going forward,” said Chapple, who is also the director of the Office of Sustainability.

The group’s former leader, Dave Lawlor, left GW this fall and was replaced by Chapple and Vice Provost for Online Education and Academic Innovation Paul Schiff Berman. Chapple and Berman declined to sit for interviews.

The delay will force the program to fall behind the schedule it has kept since its inception in 2009. Officials used to introduce typically seven ideas for money-saving or cost-cutting programs each semester.

As of December, $64.7 million in savings had been identified for the University. A portion of that – $27 million – was reinvested into this fiscal year’s budget. University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt declined to say how much has been saved or created since then.

With each ITF program came a projected dollar amount that GW could then incorporate in its budget, but those weren’t always reliable: The task force overestimated its projections by about $25 million in fall 2013, the second-most recent meeting. That misstep forced officials to scale back projections for the initiative.

At the most recent round last spring, the task force proposed plans to save the University just $1.4 million with small-scale programs like reusing furniture, decreasing spending on food and reducing travel expenditures. In the group’s first two years of meetings, it found about $17 million in savings – nearly 30 percent of the total it wanted to find – with big-picture ideas like improving buildings’ efficiency on campus.

The University recently announced 5 percent budget cuts across departments for next year, a move which has forced divisions to slash their budgets. GW also fired 46 staff members last week, shrinking the University’s salary budget, a routinely highest expense, according to financial reports.

Joseph Cordes, an economics professor and the chair of the Faculty Senate’s finance committee, said the University put the responsibility of restricting budgets on each individual school rather than directly on the ITF, which used to be the group’s goal.

“It might be a good idea to just step back a bit and kind of reconvene at the beginning of next year with there being more clarity with what’s involved,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to have the ITF look at these things and administrations trying to identify efficiencies.”

Chapple added that the task force “will continue to generate substantial financial benefits to the University that both help support strategic University initiatives and help to maintain core activities in times of budget constraints.”

Chapple and Berman also declined through a spokesperson to comment on what the specific changes to the program would look like, what the ITF has already set to change in the future or how often the task force plans to meet in the future.

They also declined to say whether the group plans to scale back its goals for cutting costs and generating revenue, why the ITF had planned to meet this semester but now will not, what the program’s role is in light of University-wide budget cuts, as well as statistics regarding how much has been saved or produced through the ITF to date.

University President Steven Knapp created the task force five years ago to help fund an increase in how much officials could allot to operational, or day-to-day, costs. Reaching the $60 million ITF goal would essentially double the University’s endowment payout. The University is allowed to use about 5 percent from its endowment each year to cover operating expenses, an amount that has increased 30 percent since 2009 to about $78 million.

Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said the task force is still working through the transition period with new leaders and ideas.

“ITF remains a priority for the Division of Student Affairs and we look forward to working with the new co-chairs as they review current projects and determine the best steps forward,” Konwerski said.

Experts say task forces are effective in limiting spending in obvious areas like travel, but once those costs are minimized, there’s not much else they can do. That makes it more difficult to introduce new ideas often over time.

Arthur Criscillis, a managing partner at fundraising firm Alexander-Haas, said universities tend to cut spending in areas that most campus community members will not notice.

“When you first examine a large organization like a university, the likelihood of finding what amounts to some low-hanging fruit that you can pare back on without really doing damage is much higher,” Criscillis said.

Criscillis also said that as time goes on, there will be fewer places within a university to make significant reductions.

Noel Radomski, the director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education and a higher education finance expert, said a university doesn’t always have to make cuts if it can instead revamp pre-existing programs.

“Do we really need to make cuts if we are more strategic? Maybe we don’t,” he said.

But Michael Heagy, a chemistry professor and a member of a similar task force at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, said his university’s dip in revenue led the task force to recommend making tuition higher for students.

New Mexico Tech’s estimated cost of attendance is less than a quarter of GW’s, giving it the ability to raise their tuition rates more drastically without having a drop off in enrollment.

“What we’re trying to do is what we can capitalize on that we have elasticity on,” Heagy said.

Ellie Smith and Vaidehi Patel contributed reporting.

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