• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Title

Everybody out of the tub!

While I was learning about the workings of colleges and universities, I ran into Harvard's management model, which was described with the phrase "each tub on its own bottom". What was explained to me is a system in which, within limits, each school or college is treated as a business unit and is responsible for its own financial well-being. The university, thus, operates almost as a holding company or loose-knit conglomerate.

April 1, 2009
 
 

While I was learning about the workings of colleges and universities, I ran into Harvard's management model, which was described with the phrase "each tub on its own bottom". What was explained to me is a system in which, within limits, each school or college is treated as a business unit and is responsible for its own financial well-being. The university, thus, operates almost as a holding company or loose-knit conglomerate.

Greenback U has recently instituted a similar management model, although we label it differently. And many of us call it by names other than the official one. A couple of those less formal names are even printable.

You see, while budgeting and accounting are somewhat simplified by the business-unit/holding company model, that same approach actively discourages schools/colleges/departments from acting in concert. Not that it can't happen (Harvard, itself, seems to have solved this problem), just that financing becomes one more institutional hurdle to get over. Moreover, the way costs get budgeted and savings attributed, no one is incented to act in the interests of the university as a whole.

Simple example: Let's say that there's an academic space -- a graduate student workroom which is "owned by" a particular academic department. It's a large room, broken up into small work areas by use of partitions of some sort. At least one cubicle/carrel is usually occupied, but rarely all. The lighting is at the ceiling, and there's a single switch (by the door) which controls lights for the whole room. Grad students don't particularly pay attention to whether someone else is working or not, and no one likes to be working in their cube when someone else turns the lights out upon exiting. Natural result: no one turns the lights out, pretty much ever. The place stays fully lit, all day and all night. Looked at from an energy standpoint, it's some combination of "most of the lighting energy is being wasted" and "all of the lighting energy is being wasted."

Is there a workable solution? From a technical standpoint, of course there is. Hook some minimal ceiling lighting (just enough to allow someone safely to walk over to their cubicle) up to a motion sensor, so that if someone enters the room or stands up to exit, it will switch on. Then, equip each carrel with appropriate task lighting, locally switched. Nothing easier.

But look at it from a decentralized budgeting/cost allocation perspective. Solving the problem would require modification of the physical room, and that room is "owned by" the academic department. By the rules, then, the academic department would have to agree to pay for the modifications out of its own budget before any work gets done.

Still, you say, the electrical savings which result should pay for that work (and the newly purchased task lighting) in fairly short order, given the degree of current energy (pun intended) wastage.

But the energy savings don't accrue to the academic department -- they are realized by the physical plant department (which pays the electric bill).

Net outcome: the lighting remains unchanged, the lights stay on 24/7, the energy gets wasted, Greenback pays money to no good end, and our Scope 2 (purchased electricity) greenhouse gas emission numbers go up.

But it all looks so good on (ledger) paper!

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