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Celebrating Frugality

September 30, 2011

While the job of college or university president requires constant cost-cutting, several new presidents have decided that the obligation to be frugal comes even before they've officially been given their titles.

During the past few years, a number of newly appointed higher education leaders have decided to forgo large inauguration festivities -- an academic tradition on many campuses -- in favor of pared-down or nonexistent events, citing a need to make the best use of university money in a tight economy. Without the traditional platform to outline their visions and win support from the university community, these presidents are considering new methods of outreach to get constituent groups excited about their plans.

Ann Duffield, the founding principal at Ann Duffield & Colleagues, a consulting firm for presidents and boards, said she has noticed a trend toward fewer and less extensive inaugural celebrations. "People are much more aware of the fiscal implications of this type of activity," she said. "They don't want to come across as spending needed resources on a big party."

Historically, most higher education institutions have spent big on celebrations to honor new presidents. These celebrations tend to include a week of academic seminars with outside speakers, an investiture ceremony where the president speaks and is given the regalia that comes with the position, black-tie galas for faculty and alumni, and (at religious institutions) religious services. At some institutions, these weeklong celebrations have ended up costing several hundred thousand dollars.

The events often give new presidents an opportunity to interact with multiple constituent groups at once and lay out new visions or plans for the university in front of diverse audiences.

But several presidents have noted that such celebrations are no way to win friends at a time when their first acts in office may include budget cuts, layoffs, furloughs, and pay freezes. They have also recognized that cutting costs from inauguration ceremonies, or even the ceremonies altogether, can help win them support.

Matthew D. Shank, the new president of Marymount University in Virginia, is one of the presidents who decided to forgo the traditional celebration. While the university's finances haven't been hit too hard by the economic downturn, he said having a large celebration still might send the wrong message. "When we're asking everyone at the university to really consider how they're spending money, it seemed hypocritical to have a huge celebration that results in money just becoming vapor," he said.

When Marymount inaugurated Shank's predecessor, James E. Bundschuh, the college's first lay president, the institution had a more traditional inauguration, including an investiture ceremony with local dignitaries and representatives from various colleges, universities, and learned societies; a luncheon for about 70 people; a reception for about 250 people; a small dinner party; and a mass the next day.

Shank will be inaugurated on Oct. 7 as part of a Friday-evening mass, for which he does not expect a huge turnout. The mass will be followed by an annual dinner with university donors that would have taken place anyway.

Shank said some of the money that would have been earmarked for inaugural festivities will instead be put into a scholarship fund. About $30,000 will go into the fund, but Shank predicted that the institution probably would have spent between $60,000 and $75,000 on a traditional ceremony.

Without the traditional platform, Shank, who has been in office since July 1, said he's been working to develop better methods of communicating his vision to campus. "We, just like a lot of other universities, have a lot of work to do on communications in general," he said.

Shank said he plans to meet with the Faculty Council regularly, as well as use digital communication tools better, to inform the campus community about his plans. He said smaller forms of communication might actually be more effective. "Sometimes the event itself can overwhelm the message."

Marymount isn't unique in paring down its inauguration. The University of Connecticut, which inaugurated its new president, Susan Herbst, on Sept. 16, spent about $13,600 on the festivities, which included a lunch, a ceremony, and a reception. When the university inaugurated her predecessor, Michael Hogan, in 2007, the three-day event included a black-tie gala and fireworks, and cost the university about $175,000. The university's board of trustees recently approved a budget 2.2 percent lower than last year's. “Even in good economic times we wouldn’t be interested in having an elaborate inauguration,” said Michael Kirk, a spokesman for the university.

When Hogan assumed leadership of the University of Illinois system after leaving Connecticut, the system did not hold any kind of ceremony. The system rarely conducts inaugural ceremonies for its president, and inaugural festivities for chancellors of the three campuses tend to be minimal.

While many institutions minimized festivities, several colleges decided to merge inaugurations with campus events that were going to take place anyway, such as homecoming or parents' weekend, to ensure that there was still a lot happening on campus without significant additional funding.

Franklin and Marshall College, a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, is one such institution. Administrators were already planning to hold parents' weekend and homecoming simultaneously, said Deborah M. Martin, director of special events. When the university announced in November that Daniel Porterfield would be the next president, planners decide to incorporate the inauguration as well. The weekend took place Sept. 22-25.

In addition to such traditional inauguration events as an investiture ceremony and academic colloquiums, the weekend included events for students, such as a concert, because of homecoming. Martin said the structure of the weekend gave Porterfield a chance to interact with several groups of people who might not have attended a traditional inauguration weekend and engage a wider audience in service activities that made up the heart of his inauguration.

For several institutions, it was still important to have some sort of celebration. “At these places that have been struggling financially, cutting can be tiring and sometimes depressing work,” Duffield said. “You need a celebration every now and then to get the people in the community inspired again. An inauguration can do that if it’s done within the context of present as well as the future.”

Catholic University still decided to hold a week of festivities when it inaugurated John Garvey in January, though the university tried to cut costs where possible, said Frank Persico, vice president for university relations and chief of staff. In the past, the university’s inaugural ceremony lasted a full day, with a mass in the morning, a lunch break, an inauguration ceremony in the afternoon, and then a dinner. This year the institution combined the mass and the ceremony, with individuals who would normally represent the campus in the investiture ceremony instead filling roles in the mass.

Richard V. Hurley, the new president of the University of Mary Washington, a public university in Virginia, whose inauguration is today, wanted to make an event out of his celebration. After several years of bad news, he said, the campus deserved some excitement. “We wanted to create some sense of stability,” he said. “We wanted to give the campus something that would be fun for people."

Unlike many of the institutions mentioned above, Mary Washington will host a ball to accompany the inauguration, which also includes an investiture ceremony and several service projects. Hurley said 800 individuals, including students, alumni, community members, and faculty, have signed up for the event. Hurley said he didn't want money for the ball coming out of tuition revenue or state appropriations, so the campus paid for it through fund-raising. In total, the university raised $80,000 for the event, some of which will go to funding the ball. The rest will be placed in a discretionary fund that will support various initiatives on campus.

Hurley, who has been at Mary Washington as executive vice president and chief financial officer since 2000 and has been serving as president since July 2010, said the fact that he has already been running the university for a year makes his situation slightly different from that of many other presidents who are being inaugurated this fall. He outlined his vision for the institution in speeches last fall, so that's not the central argument for having an inauguration.

Shank said that sometimes too much focus on the future and a president’s potential can distract from actually getting things done. “Five years from now if we’ve achieved the goals that I’ve set out, then it’s time for a big celebration,” he said. “I’ve always been somewhat wary of celebrating a new president who has done nothing to that point.”

 

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