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Viewpoint: What Academic Affairs wants from the Business Office

A former provost and colleague make a case for integrating academic and business affairs.
University Business, May 2006

American colleges and universities usually are organized with an office of Academic Affairs and an office of Business or Financial Affairs. Typically, Academic Affairs is managed by the provost or chief academic officer and Financial Affairs is managed by the chief financial officer. These two offices and their leaders are at the operational core of the university. Thus, it is critical to the successful operation of the university that these two individuals have a seamless interface and highly positive working relationship.

While the overarching goal of each office is to enable the mission of the university, often the intricacies of one office are a mystery to the other. Those from the academic side tend to have little or a superficial understanding of the business side of the operation. The opposite is true for those from the business side of the operation.

Often one office assumes what is needed for the other, but not what is
really wanted.

For successful planning at all levels as well as the smooth day-to-day campus operations, these two offices must work with a seamlessly integrated approach. Activities that occur regularly include such things as: getting bills paid on time, ordering equipment expeditiously, managing grants appropriately, readying classrooms, issuing paychecks promptly, and completing maintenance and repairs quickly-to name just a few of the myriad operations that must be completed daily for a university to function properly. These activities cannot be accomplished without an effective working relationship between the two senior leaders of these offices.

In fact, we recommend that they be "joined at the hip" for successful strategic (long-term) and tactical (short-term) planning and operations. This is even more critical when one considers the likelihood, however remote, of a major crisis or catastrophe occurring, such as Hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans.

Think that possibility is remote? Consider the range of potential crises, man- and nature-made-from computer hacker attacks, malfunctions on your business or academic registration operations, weather-related problems, terrorism, mischief or mayhem by disgruntled students, etc.

Disaster planning, disaster management, and disaster mitigation become academic and fiscal planning priorities for any successful institution. If the outcomes already experienced as a result of Hurricane Katrina are the least bit instructive, the need for leadership in all areas of planning and operations has never been more apparent.

As a provost for 11 years with extensive academic experience, but initially with limited business office experience, I (Louis Paradise) had worked collaterally with the business office, and then had that office reporting directly to me. Over those 11 years, it was always a challenge to get what was needed easily from the business office. The people in the business office spoke "financialese" and I spoke "academicese." It was obvious from the start that a lot was lost in the translations.

As any good anthropologist would suggest, the best way to learn a language of a foreign people is to live with them. It was challenging and sometimes frustrating but the best way was literally to spend the time to learn each other's language.

The central or core mission for any postsecondary institution is education/instruction. In recent years, the university's teaching mission has received increased attention from all constituencies, and expectations of the importance that all university personnel place on teaching are high. Those same expectations are generally true for the service mission of the university. Last and clearly most costly to the university is its research mission, which may have a greater importance at larger institutions, but can be found, to some degree, at almost all universities.

For the core mission, integrated efforts between academic and business affairs offices are critical to success. Rather than offering a model for strategic planning or a chart for organizational effectiveness, we'd like to share what we believe Academic Affairs, in essence, wants from its Business office on a regular basis in order to enable the university's core mission. We're not naive in our views, and while many of these wants may seem obvious to those in one office, they are not so to those in the other.

Also, both offices should know the difference between wants and needs. Simple enough, but often one office assumes what is needed for the other, but not what is really wanted. Agreeing on wants and needs is essential and should be done early in the relationship between office leaders.

So, specifically, what does Academic Affairs want?

When one speaks "academicese," it's a challenge getting what is needed from the business office, where the language is "financialese."

Awareness that the central mission of the university is to teach, do research, and provide service to its constituents and not to run a sports franchise, numerous restaurant businesses, commercial bookstores, parking lot management, and the entire additional myriad of auxiliary enterprises necessary to efficiently operate an educational facility today. Surely, these endeavors are necessary, but they must be secondary to the educational role of the school.

Mechanisms to provide user-friendly service to faculty, staff, and most importantly students. It's a simple formula: no students = no faculty = no business = no administrative staff. Often it is wise to run business affairs like a business, not like a monopoly. There was a time when universities had virtual monopolies over the faculty and the students, but not anymore. Commercial bookstores, restaurants, online bookstores, housing-these are all services readily accessible by almost all students today.

A good plan for developing budgets in a process that involves key constituent groups where key business officers are all involved with the academic leadership of the institution.

Easily assembled data so decisions can be made quickly and without taking weeks to collect and analyze data.

Effective costing models that all can agree are based on valid assumptions and that can be implemented easily for planning purposes-while at the same time being models that can be readily understood by non-economists.

Good and useful training for those faculty and staff who do not understand budgets, accounting, and who are not CPAs.

"Shared governance" at all times, but especially when there are budget cuts looming. Budget cuts at the beginning of the budget cycle are usually manageable, while those at midyear are particularly vexing. It is often assumed by administration that faculty enjoys doling out resources and having a major say in allocating funds, but that they want no part of making the hard decisions on the reallocations or budget cuts. However, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. In a 1993 Academe article, Julia Ridgley notes that faculty leaders want to be involved in budget cutting decisions early and throughout the process. In our experience, we certainly agree with her assertions. The more key people at the table, the harder it may be to make a decision, but the easier it is to sell it to the campus.

Business officers who can communicate clearly in easily understood language for all constituents.

Timely reporting of institutional and financial data to all agencies.

The cash position of the university to be available accurately on a daily basis so that opportunities that become available can be undertaken without unreasonable delay. Decisions at a university, as is often lamented, move at glacial speed.

All the auxiliary enterprises to be managed effectively and within budgets so as to add to the bottom line rather than subtract from it.

All the university support groups (alumni, foundation, sports boosters, etc.) to actually support the university and its endeavors and not the other way around.

While the above wish list may seem like the musings of a couple of grumpy old academic administrators on the faculty side of the organizational chart, they are the things that many in Academic Affairs would endorse as critical to achieving the core university goals.

These wants can be difficult to regularly achieve on a daily basis and perhaps they may drain some of the spontaneity and nimble responsiveness from overall university resources and staffing, but they will contribute greatly to a smooth and disciplined approach to achieving the university's core mission with happy staff, faculty, and most importantly, students.

In times of crisis and disaster, faculty, students, and the community will be looking to these individuals more than ever for strong leadership-the sense that someone is at the helm who knows what to do and who can do it.

Louis V. Paradise is professor of educational leadership, counseling, and foundations at the University of New Orleans. He has served more than 20 years as a program coordinator, department chair, college dean, provost, and executive vice chancellor. Kimya Smith Dawson is a doctoral research associate at UNO.

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