Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Two's company

An interesting story in Inside Higher Ed raises the question of universities sharing administrative resources. Two two-year Colleges - Terra State Community College and Northwest State Community College – have agreed to establish a joint organisation which will provide:
a central administrative structure but, at least for the foreseeable future, no direct governance oversight of the community colleges themselves. The Northwest State and Terra State governing boards each will appoint two trustees to lead the new "regional council of government," as the new structure is formally known under Ohio law.
According to the press release from the two Colleges
The move does not merge the colleges themselves, rather it creates a centralized district and consolidates certain administrative positions for both colleges. The District office is expected to be housed at the University of Toledo Scott Park campus, in alignment with the recently-signed consortium agreement with the University of Toledo. Both Northwest State and Terra State are approximately 40 miles from the new central office.
And some very specific details about implementation:
The new central office is expected to be up and running by July 1, 2015. The first positions to move to the district office are the vice president of academic affairs and the chief financial officer. Terra State’s vice president of academic affairs is set to retire at the end of June, and Northwest State’s current vice president of academic affairs will move to the District office and assume the role for both schools. Similarly, Terra State’s CFO will move to the district office and will work collaboratively with Northwest State’s chief fiscal and administrative officer. Other positions will be phased in over several years through attrition, including a chief executive officer (separate position from the college presidents); chief operation officer; chief workforce development officer; and marketing and public relations, human resources, and information technology functions. No faculty positions are affected by the change.
Some faculty at the Colleges, according to Inside Higher Ed, suspect that this is a precursor to merger with the University of Toledo, and from a distance this does look like a possible outcome.

Campuses in Archbold and Fremont; a shared office in Toledo
More generally, and in the UK context, university governing bodies and vice-chancellors do on occasion wonder whether a sharing of back-office resources between universities would promote efficiency. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea, but in practice it has proven very difficult to do.

There are many reasons for this, but most boil down to the question of institutional autonomy. There’s little problem in sharing services which can be tailored to meet the needs of the partner institutions: for example, the Careers Group at the University of London is a brilliant example of universities sharing costs to get more than they could individually, but with local delivery looking and feeling different for each partner. But in many cases efficiency in delivery of services comes from common policies and procedures, which are often felt to be a component of institutional autonomy.

In addition, there’s the question of whether a partner could reasonably withdraw from a sharing once started. So, for instance, a shared Director of Finance could not effectively deliver for a partner institution which wished to have second thoughts about the arrangement: the space and time needed for the doubtful institution to think it through could not be given since the Director of Finance would have a clear duty to tell the other partner straightaway of this material change in circumstances. Once you start sharing strategic management you’re effectively merged.

Finally, there’s the issue of effectiveness. Many of the services which could be shared – that is, are transactional and routine to the extent that they don’t impact on the academic character of a university – rarely have the scale only within universities to make sharing worthwhile. Consider payroll: definitely shareable without harming autonomy, but it is done on a bigger scale beyond HE – why look to another university for payroll when the benefits of scale will come from much larger private operations?

The collaboration reported by Inside Higher Ed seems to deal with some of these issues (that is, it builds on an existing collaboration, and within a framework of law and regulation which perhaps means that autonomy is not such a pressing concern), and by working in harmony with planning retirements some of the managerial issues are dealt with. But I’d be very surprised if the governing bodies of the colleges hadn’t got at least an eye on merger down the line.

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