Georgia's Next Stab at Efficiency

As consolidation efforts continue, the public university system sets its sights on assessing campus and systemwide administrative costs and performance.

April 19, 2017
 
University System of Georgia
Steve Wrigley, chancellor of the University System of Georgia

After gaining recognition for repeatedly pulling off mergers between its colleges and universities in recent years, the University System of Georgia is turning its scrutiny toward the administrative setup at its campuses and system office.

System Chancellor Steve Wrigley announced a new comprehensive administrative review process Tuesday that will have the 28-institution, 321,551-student system searching for efficiencies and improved processes. The move marks a major initiative for a new chancellor who took over in January for the retiring Hank Huckaby, who drew widespread attention for consolidating 14 of Georgia’s colleges and universities into seven since 2011.

Georgia is far from the only state to seek administrative efficiencies. But given how aggressive the system has been in consolidating campuses, its efforts are likely to be closely watched to see how the latest effort fits with its still-unfolding consolidations. The system is currently pursuing another pair of mergers approved at the beginning of this year that will fold four institutions into two.

The administrative review does not mean that Georgia will avoid consolidations in the future, Wrigley said. Rather, it complements the system’s consolidation push.

“It is the next step beyond the consolidation efforts,” Wrigley said. “It fits nicely, because we have had an emphasis on trying to keep administrative costs as low as possible and trying to realize savings on the administrative side.”

The review is set to examine administrative functions in all departments across the university system and its campuses. It will not include core faculty activities like teaching and research.

Goals are to find savings opportunities in more efficient processes, realigned positions and restructuring and centralizing some operations. Savings could then be put toward student support services and academics, keeping up with the latest practices.

"Higher ed has changed a lot in the last 10 to 12 years," Wrigley said. "Students have changed. How it is organized has changed. How students learn, off-line offerings -- so many things have changed."

A 16-member Comprehensive Administrative Review Committee will lead the effort. Two phases are planned. The first will scrutinize the university system office and four to six other colleges and universities to be announced at a later date. Remaining institutions in the system will be examined in the second phase, expected to start in the fall of 2018.

Each phase is planned to take between eight and 16 months. The second phase could be split into additional phases.

System leaders don’t yet know how much money they expect to save. They acknowledge job cuts and position eliminations are possible. Since the review process is expected to stretch over multiple years, leaders hope many positions will be able to be eliminated by not filling vacant jobs that open up when an employee leaves. But they are not yet prepared to rule out layoffs.

The review comes after Georgia’s state auditor recently reviewed college costs in the state. The cost of attending a public college or university in the state rose 77 percent in a decade as per-student state appropriations dropped amid an increase in enrollment, Georgia’s HOPE scholarship made smaller average awards and colleges and universities increased fees, it found.

The system’s budget is approximately $8.4 billion in the current fiscal year. It receives approximately $2.2 billion in state appropriations.

Georgia’s public institutions face some financial pressures, as do all public colleges and universities, Wrigley said. But he said the auditor’s review and financial pressures were not the sole reasons for pursuing an administrative review.

“I don’t really think about it as fiscal pressures leading to other decisions,” Wrigley said. “I think we need to think about it from a different standpoint, and look at the cost side in every possible way.”

Wrigley also pointed out that he has been a part of University System of Georgia leadership since 2011 -- former Chancellor Huckaby hired him that July as executive vice chancellor, and he was at the University of Georgia before that. As a result he has a familiarity with presidents and other administrators in the system who might otherwise balk at the review effort from a new chancellor.

“I don’t know that it would be the same as somebody coming in from outside and launching something like this,” he said. “We’ve talked about it off and on, and we’ve talked with our presidents about it. There was an awareness that we’d be going down this path and that it is the next step beyond the consolidation efforts.”

Taking a hard look at system and institutional administrations makes sense for an organization that has gone through as much change as the Georgia system, said Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“It looks like they’re pursuing a multipronged strategy,” Harnisch said. “Georgia has been the national leader in pursuing intercampus efficiencies through mergers, so it makes sense that they would also seek out intracampus efficiencies.”

Some states have formed steering committees to guide their administrative reviews, and others have hired outside consultants, Harnisch said. Georgia is asking the newly formed steering committee to review the effort's methodology, look at its project phases and analyze data gathered.

The committee’s members include university presidents, other administrators, a student and a faculty member. Kelly McFaden, an associate professor of social foundations of education at the University of North Georgia and the chair of that university’s Faculty Senate, is the faculty representative on the steering committee.

McFaden believes that a well-functioning administration helps faculty members in their jobs, she said. Her aim is to make sure changes put in place are good for faculty members and the system as a whole.

The University of North Georgia was created in a consolidation completed in 2013. Consolidations have typically been said to have saved money and increased efficiency -- the University System of Georgia has estimated that its consolidations resulted in a collective savings of $24.4 million. But some have voiced concerns that they resulted in combined universities with too many administrators left over from each constituent institution.

The administrative review is a chance to examine that issue, McFaden said.

“My hope is that this is an opportunity to say, ‘Now that we have gone through these round of consolidations, and now that the landscape of higher education is changing, are we being as efficient as we can be?’” McFaden said. “I mean revisiting how the administrative structures were combined at the time of consolidation.”

The chair of the University System of Georgia Faculty Council, Elizabeth Desnoyers-Colas, wants to find out more about the review. Desnoyers-Colas is also an associate professor of communications at Armstrong State University, which is in the process of being consolidated with Georgia Southern University.

“We don’t know what criteria they are using to do this review of administrators,” she said. “We don’t know what questions they’re asking.”

Still, faculty members generally welcome the step, she said.

“I do suspect some of the colleagues I’ve talked to have the same questions,” she said. “I think they welcome the step and would like to know more about it and how it’s going to work.”

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