North Central Self Study
Chapter 6: Criterion Four
The institution can continue to accomplish its purposes and strengthen
its educational effectiveness
UNK's decision-making processes, under the leadership of two Chancellors since 1994, have enabled us both to move forward on strategic objectives and to adapt to changing (including unexpectedly adverse) circumstances. Institutionally, in that regard, we judge that the University of Nebraska at Kearney is well positioned to plan for further advances and to deal with unforeseen challenges.
Strategic Planning has taken two parallel tracks:
- An Administrative retreat in August that involved Administrative Council, Faculty Senate and Staff Senate Executive Committees, and Student Senate leaders. Each retreat focused on 4 or more strategic themes that were reviewed by the Administrative Council throughout the academic year.
- Regular meetings of the Strategic Planning Council during the academic year were led by the SVCAA, with membership including some of the individuals who attended the August retreat (all VCs, one dean, Faculty Senate, Staff, student representatives). Progress towards strategic themes was discussed, and input sought.
A concern of some campus members is that the Strategic Planning Council has not met since Spring 2002, and there was no August 2002 retreat. The focus of the August 2003 Administrative Retreat, jointly set by Faculty Senate leaders and the Interim SVCAA, emphasized a broad range of academic considerations.
However, resources have been allocated to support strategic themes over the past decade. Evidence of this is found in examining unit reports on progress towards goals in the 1995-2005 UNK Strategic Plan. Progress has been made in each of the units and budget reallocations have not deterred movement toward goals. This pattern, coupled with the open decision making process used during the recent round of budget cuts, indicates that UNK is positioned to strengthen academic and student programs to meet the needs of students, faculty, and the Greater Nebraska community that UNK serves.
Challenges we chose:
UNK's achievements over the past decade reveal our ability to make our vision "real" through policy, program, and operational and budget decisions. In case after case, the coordinated efforts of the UNK community adhered to the following strategic procedure:
- We developed an understanding of our situation.
- We decided collaboratively on mission-related directions.
- We defined pertinent operating challenges.
- We created and guided particular programs.
- We mobilized people and resources on- and off-campus.
- We completed projects that realize our collective design.
This is evident, for instance, in the following ways:
- We recognized that a deficient physical infrastructure limited UNK's teaching and learning capabilities. In a concerted effort, despite long-standing resource limitations and an extremely competitive budgeting environment, we have reduced that impediment. In several of those advances, UNK has acquired showcase capabilities that thoroughly modernize core educational programs. These include the West Center, housing UNK's business programs, and the College of Education Building. In 1995 these projects were unfunded ideas in UNK's strategic plan and non-prioritized projects on the University of Nebraska's internal capital improvement plan. By 2002 both facilities were fully operational.
- Similarly, our 1995 strategic plan committed UNK to incorporate modern technologies throughout the learning environment. At that time, a good networking foundation had been laid for wider use of computers on campus, but equipment and facilities were limited. Moreover, we had not developed a philosophy to guide future developmental choices. Today, our situation is exemplary. Computers and computer laboratories are readily available on campus:
- Academic buildings are outfitted with many "smart" classrooms.
- The residence halls are fully wired for internet access.
- Information technologies have significantly expanded web-based instruction.
- Technical assistance is available both centrally (in the Office of Information Technology Services) and in the colleges.
- Recognizing the importance of the "residential" component of our mission, we have renovated facilities at the center of UNK's campus and student life. This has occurred even as we focused efforts to improve our academic infrastructure. Among major advances have been:
- an expanded and renovated Nebraskan Student Union, which has fundamentally changed the way students, staff, faculty and community members associate with one another on campus;
- annual investments that significantly improved the safety and living environment in the residence halls;
- a refashioning of the outdoor landscape to enhance circulation, social/recreational activities, and aesthetics at the heart of campus.
- We have planned, tested and deployed successful programs to assist students in the transition to college, including several freshman learning communities and a first-year course. These projects, requiring extended planning and operational cooperation, address a serious institutional concern about student retention that arose among planners in the Kearney State era and continued during the 1990's.
- Our strategic plan committed UNK to achieve focus and excellence in our academic programs. Campus-wide, and within colleges, academic priorities have been identified and funded.
In each of these areas, our ability to advance required the sustained cooperation, through established advisory and decision-making systems, of administrators, faculty, staff, and students. Frequently, the support and participation of community members was also key. This record augurs well for our capability, deliberately and collaboratively, to shape our environment in the future.
Dealing with the Unforeseen
The budget reduction process undertaken since 2001 provides the best example of UNK's institutional resilience and adaptability. This challenge required concerted, campus-wide planning on potentially divisive matters during a period of major transition in top administration (including a change in Chancellors and Senior Vice Chancellors). UNK has emerged from that process with its organizational cohesion - and core missions - intact and indeed reinforced.
UNK's fiscal circumstances have never been enviable. That reality has long been a prominent feature on the UNK planning landscape, and the 1994 NCA Team report noted it as well. While it clearly limits some strategic options, it has also produced a decision-making culture that values good stewardship, accountability to served publics, and teamwork. These strengths served us well in the decision-making trials undertaken in the last several years, in the context of Nebraska's growing economic woes.
In the late 1990's, University leaders were able to persuade state legislators and the governor to reverse a long-standing decline in the share of state budget resources allocated to the University. That achievement, however, was short-lived. Starting in FY 2001, it became clear to state government officials that the economic forecasts upon which appropriations and budgets had been based were too optimistic. State revenue collections fell abruptly and steeply. The Governor cautioned all state agencies to prepare to tighten their belts, and specifically to live with no more money than they had been allocated in the current year.
At UNK, anticipating possible legislative action to cut state spending, the Chancellor, in the summer of 2001 began to discuss reduction scenarios with her cabinet and Administrative Council. In August, she directed major unit leaders to hold back (plan to save) 1% of their budgets in the current year. She further noted that, while we would impose that preparatory step uniformly, we would administer any actual cuts selectively, in light of strategic priorities.
Within a month the state's fiscal circumstances -- and the legislative outlook -- had worsened significantly. On September 19, 2001 the Chancellor and the Administrative Council decided to prepare to hold back 3% of their budgets, as a hedge against more severe Unicameral action. The Chancellor's cabinet was charged to develop a plan for reductions, based on Administrative Council discussions, for further review by that group. At the next Administrative Council meeting members discussed and revised a draft guidance document that expressed a consensus about principles, objectives, and process. The Chancellor issued that guidance on October 25, 2001, after meeting with the leaders of the faculty, staff, and student senates to brief them about the developing budget situation. Since the Unicameral had not yet acted, and no specific target was thus available, campus planning was to describe three potential reduction scenarios - for cuts of 3%, 4%, and 5% in state aid.
According to the agreed process, the Administrative Council members would consult within their units to develop and examine reduction options. The results of that appraisal were provided to the Senior Vice Chancellor, who then led discussions within the Chancellor's cabinet to assemble a proposed reduction package. In November 2001, the Senior Vice Chancellor had presented the Chancellor a proposal identifying up to 5% in state-aided budget reductions. Meanwhile, planners in Varner Hall assigned UNK a reduction target of $288,246 in FY 2002 (the current year) and $592,603 in FY 2003. In the first week of December, accordingly, the cabinet revised the reduction package to meet those targets, and campus constituencies were briefed on the result. On December 12, the Chancellor announced that she had accepted the proposals for the current year and would continue over coming weeks to review options for reductions to be applied in the next year.
The state's fiscal situation continued to decline. The Chancellor and her cabinet studied and adjusted the recommended reductions. She met with the Administrative Council on January 22, 2002, to review the situation and a legislative outlook that indicated further reductions were almost certain in the coming fiscal year (FY 2003). She asked the Council to begin planning for additional reductions, to accommodate future Unicameral action, of 2.5%. She also held a series of campus forums to explain the situation and the major reduction options that were being considered.
By February 2002, another complication arose: more cuts would be required to make monies available to fund major University of Nebraska obligations (e.g., escalating payments under the health benefits program) that were expected to exceed planned budgets. In early February the Chancellor learned that UNK's share of this unanticipated shortfall would amount to an additional $300,000 in reductions to the FY03 budget. She developed new planning guidance in consultation with the cabinet and Administrative Council. This guidance reiterated fundamental principles adopted at the outset of the Fall 2001 deliberations and commissioned planners to return to the bottom-up consultation process to identify potential courses of action. By the end of the month additional options had been identified, analyzed, and discussed with the Administrative Council, and were also explained in discussions with campus constituencies and in open forums. Through April and May Chancellor Johnston continued to examine courses of action with her cabinet, and their conclusions were discussed with newly-appointed Chancellor Douglas Kristensen as he prepared to take office on July 1, 2002.
As UNK's leadership changed hands, then, the institution was completing a yearlong collective analytical and decision-making process that identified $1.4 million in state-aided budget reductions. A substantial part of that reduction was implemented in the year in which the budget was being executed. The rest was to be implemented by July 1, 2003. As they worked through this challenge, leaders and all participants coped successfully with changing (and always escalating) reduction targets, legislative uncertainties, and controversies that inevitably arise in such difficult times.
But there were even more challenges on the horizon: the state's revenue collections continued to fall well below forecasts, and the Unicameral prepared to meet in early August 2002 to decide further reductions. Prior to her departure, and looking ahead to the likelihood that Chancellor Kristensen would be required to find added cuts, in June 2002 Chancellor Johnston directed Administrative Council members to prepare until further notice to hold back 15% of their FY 03 budgets.
Upon taking office Chancellor Kristensen began conferring with Central Administration and with his campus cabinet about reductions decided in the past year and about planning parameters and targets for the coming year. Two mid-month meetings of the UNK Administrative Council reviewed the prospects, settled generally on decision-making principles and procedures that mirrored those governing the last year's reductions, and outlined preliminarily how units might reduce their budgets by 5% and 10%. At the conclusion of the special legislative session, with specific appropriation cuts in hand, Central Administration determined that the planning target for new UNK reductions would be $1.2 million in added cuts to be implemented in FY 2003 (i.e., in the budget being executed).
Chancellor Kristensen issued new planning guidance for the campus in August 2002 that explained the situation, our objectives, and a timetable for consultation and decision. In general, the aim once again was to rely on the administrative chain to identify, evaluate, and bring forward proposals affecting units and divisions. Those proposals were then examined in the Administrative Council and Chancellor's cabinet, refined into a proposal package appropriate to distribute for campus commentary, announced to the campus on September 10, 2002, and discussed thoroughly by all constituencies who then had extended opportunity to inform the Chancellor and other leaders of their views prior to decision. Chancellor Kristensen then announced new cuts totaling $1.2 million on September 30, 2002. His decision included several adjustments that accommodated commentary provided to him by the campus community.
The belt-tightening process, however, was still not completed. On January 15, 2003, Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns' State of the State Address reviewed the gloomy economic outlook and announced that his proposed budget for the 2003-05 biennium would require further budget reductions - and would not include any revenue enhancements to lighten the reductions load. Varner Hall calculations indicated that, in the worst case, the Governor's proposal would reduce state-aid to UNK by about 10% -- or approximately $3.3 million. These cuts would come, of course, on top of those already decided.
Planning for the new round of reductions began immediately on the campus and at Varner Hall even though that situation would likely not clarify prior to June 2003. University-wide guidance adopted the $3.3 million worst-case reduction scenario as the best (most prudent) planning objective. UNK leaders and planners once again utilized the consultation and decision-making procedures -- including campus-wide forums to explain the circumstances and gather perspectives -- that had governed prior deliberations. Under the timetable established by Central Administration, all campuses were required to identify several illustrative major reductions by early March, so that legislators could be informed of the general nature of the actions that were being contemplated.
University President L. Dennis Smith announced those reductions in testimony before the Unicameral, and Chancellor Kristensen simultaneously released UNK's cuts (totaling about $400,000) to the campus. As those were announced, additional UNK reductions were being identified and assembled into a reductions package of $1.3 million. On April 17, 2003, Chancellor Kristensen announced that package to the campus community. He noted that, although the final reduction target had not been determined, it was likely that $1.3 million was the minimum that would be required, and he was accordingly inviting commentary on a package totaling that amount. Over the next several weeks he convened faculty, student, and staff representatives in a series of public forums to hear commentary about the proposals. As a result of the commentary, he eliminated a major feature (departmental consolidations) pending further study.
Overall, then, in a two-year period spanning major leadership change at UNK, collaborative governance and advisory mechanisms enabled the campus to decide upon, implement, and absorb severe budget cuts. To accomplish such substantial reengineering of an already limited resource base, while maintaining organizational equilibrium and cohesion - and even strengthening a sense of institutional momentum and resolve, will likely be regarded in the future as one of the major achievements of UNK's early years in the University of Nebraska.
A further point is noteworthy in that regard. In significant measure UNK's ability to navigate difficult seas in the last two years derives from the dedication, flexibility, work ethic, and good humor of the people who populate the decision-making process and make it work. This is an extraordinary asset for UNK leaders - a notable historical strength that remains a pillar of institutional confidence and capability as we proceed into the future.