Innovation Task Force continues years-long hiatus

Media Credit: File Photo by Nosratallah Tarighi | Hatchet Photographer

Paul Schiff Berman, the former co-chair of the Innovation Task Force and the former vice provost for online learning and academic innovation, said he has helped develop a new model for the task force. The group, charged with saving GW $60 million, has not met to introduce new ideas since 2014.

The Innovation Task Force – GW’s signature cost-saving and cost-cutting program – has no plans to meet or introduce new ideas, nearly two years since announcing its last new project.

Leaders of the task force, which is responsible for formulating new ways to save the University money, said they would announce new projects in the fall. And with another round of extensive budget cuts announced at the end of last year, faculty and experts said they doubt the task force continues to be a top priority.

University President Steven Knapp created the task force in 2009, setting a lofty goal to put $60 million back in GW’s budget within five years. In the group’s first two years, it found ways to save about $17 million annually, but officials had to lower their expectations for the group in the fall of 2013 after realizing many of the programs proposed that semester would be too expensive to implement and not save the amount they had hoped.

The Innovation Task Force stopped meeting for the first time in December 2014, when then-Provost Steven Lerman said officials would focus on implementing their existing ideas before creating new ones. Past ideas have included reusing furniture, creating projects for student veterans and reducing travel expenses for University officials. The ITF abandoned plans to create executive education programs and an online business degree when the programs underperformed.

Former Vice Provost for Online Learning and Academic Innovation Paul Schiff Berman will leave his role as co-chair of the task force as he takes a sabbatical before beginning his professor position in the GW Law School next semester. He said he has helped develop a new model for the group, but declined to provide details.

“The model that we proposed I think would be an extraordinarily good one for GW going forward,” Berman said. “My assumption is that our proposal will still be put forward to the University administration at some point in the future.”

Berman said he believes the group is still “crucially important” for generating new ideas.

“I don’t think the fact that they haven’t met for a long time is a great cause for concern,” Berman said. “Whether it needs to be six ideas per year in a committee done exactly that way, I think is less important.”

Meghan Chapple, the other co-chair, said last spring the group would reconvene after reevaluating the structure of the group going forward. She declined to comment for this story through a spokesman, who said there were no updates on the group.

Chapple took over leadership of the group last fall when Dave Lawlor, the former leader, left in 2014 to take a position at the University of California, Davis.

The task force had identified about $64.7 million in future savings for the University as of December 2014. In fiscal year 2015, about $27 million was reinvested back into GW’s budget.

But while administrators said the long break between ITF meetings were good for the group, faculty were skeptical that the long hiatus could be beneficial.

Donald Parsons, a professor of economics, said he first felt skeptical about the revenue potential of the task force when it was announced six years ago.

“It was viewed as sort of a joke,” Parsons, who was a member of the Faculty Senate’s finance committee at the time, said.

Parsons said that while the ITF began with “great fanfare,” the long pause in activity has made him more doubtful about the program’s ability to succeed. Because the task force has not been transparent in their reinvention plans, Parsons said he is not confident about their future accomplishments.

“I haven’t heard a thing on this reinvention,” Parsons said. “We seem to have come up with a negative innovation task force that has led us to our current state.”

A drop in graduate enrollment led to missed budget projections last fiscal year. Last year, officials cut 5 percent from all administrative divisions, which included cutting about $8 million in funding for the strategic plan. Officials have also trimmed the music and creative writing departments and the women’s studies program.

In December, Knapp announced 3 to 5 percent cuts in all administrative divisions for the next five budget years. He said the latest cuts will help address a long-term problem: GW relies on tuition for the majority of its revenue, but cannot continue to raise tuition beyond families’ abilities to pay.

Joseph Cordes, a professor of economics and chair of the Faculty Senate’s finance committee, said the ITF was effective at first, but now must be having trouble finding new projects to pursue – leading to the hiatus.

Throughout its history, the ITF has struggled to deliver ideas that would save as much or be as cost-efficient as the plans originally presented. In the spring of 2014, the ITF proposed smaller-scale programs that would only save $1.4 million, far lower than the savings in its first round.

“It’s kind of the low-hanging fruit phenomenon,” Cordes said. “Once you’ve harvested the yield of the low-hanging fruit, then it gets a little trickier, I think, to try to identify some of those savings.”

Cordes said that the group used to work with divisions to find cost-saving opportunities, but now other mechanisms, like Knapp’s initiative to cut down on bureaucracy through a council of deans and vice presidents, may have taken its place.

With the budget cuts focusing on central administration, Cordes said officials should be wary of conflict when making cuts in places that could eventually affect smaller departments.

“I think the provosts’ office is going to be sort of active in consulting with the different schools about that,” Cordes said. “[If] you reduce the cost there, a new cost or expense sort of arises at the school level.”

Noel Radomski, the director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said the extended delay is not a good sign for the future of the ITF because it indicates a lack of leadership that could be off-putting to donors.

“What is going on at George Washington University is not commonplace,” Radomski said. “If you say you have a five-year goal of 60 million, you don’t stop. You celebrate those accomplishments that lead toward that five-year goal.”

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