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Book Excerpt: The Sustainable University, Part II

Creating flexible budget models to accomplish sustainability goals
University Business, July/August 2012

Presidents, CFOs, and trustee finance committee members will not travel too far down any paths related to sustainability until their associated costs are identified and thoroughly assessed.

Unfortunately, these considerations often still take place within confusing, partially-informed situations on campuses. Budgeting strategically to accomplish multiyear sustainability objectives is among the most significant challenges for a leadership team. Optimally, there needs to be a budget process in place that can flexibly address key sustainability needs at any point in a fiscal year.

Norb Dunkel, director of housing and residence education at the University of Florida, describes the dilemma facing many CFOs: “Even the most willing higher education administrators have concerns regarding the identification of funds to advance sustainable initiatives. The up-front costs of these initiatives can take away from long overdue maintenance and renovation projects. There is still not a full business plan understanding of their return on investment.”

Debra Rowe and and Aurora Lang Winslade, both experienced sustainability strategic planners, have observed these same constraints within many budget development discussions: “It is not simply a lack of funding; it is also the way that budgets are organized that impedes success. A problem encountered on almost every campus is the separation between capital and operating budgets. True savings, both financial and in reducing climate impact, are realized when up-front investments in building greener, more energy efficient buildings are made. Often, small, up-front costs are value-engineered out in the design phase as limited capital budgets require cuts. Those making the cuts are frequently not aware of the cost over the long-term life of the building .”

Additionally, the entire budget-building process for sustainability on many campuses is now held to stricter forms of scrutiny and accountability. CFOs are sometimes torn between serving as conservative stewards of the campus and considering the latest “politically sexy, expensive program that may have little impact on greenhouse gases and reducing our carbon footprint,” as Robert Weygand, vice president for administration and chief finance officer for the University of Rhode Island, acknowledges. Weygand, who also serves as chair of the university’s Council on Sustainability, continues, “My greatest fear is that we will devote our efforts toward sustainability initiatives that are more in vogue than in the science of improving our environmental standing. There is little or no discretionary spending left on campuses. Sustainability programs realize that they must be financially integral to the University’s mission if they are to be included.”

One recommendation that has worked at URI has been to design budget requests that link directly with programming in sustainability-related areas, such as combining a minor in sustainability with the joint-oceanography and MBA program.”

As many higher education sustainability planners come to realize, general agreements and positive impressions of a sustainable future do not always translate easily into simple action steps with adequate budget resources. A flexible, sometimes unprecedented, budget model may be necessary.

The above is an excerpt from chapter one of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

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