Published on 2020/09/25

It’s easier to tackle any challenging obstacles first—make informed and deliberate decisions when it comes to your organization chart and operation impact.  

To raise education attainment levels, many colleges and universities are looking into a consolidation process. But in creating a new process comes obstacles that need to be faced head on, and sooner rather than later. In this interview, John Fuchko discusses the philosophy behind the consolidation strategy, the challenges that come with it, and its differentiating impact on the student experience. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are so many institutions and systems looking seriously at consolidation?

John Fuchko (JF): It’s hard to put myself in the minds of other systems, but for ours, it was a very proactive effort in thinking about student success, improving access, regional economic development, etc. Certainly, efficiencies and economies in how we went about our mission of creating, applying and transferring knowledge also was important. Some systems are better positioned in their states than others. Maybe some do it in response to budgetary reductions–those are the ones that I read about most frequently in higher ed literature. But for us, it was really more about thinking about how we can best deliver education in the current environment in our state and how we can better help our students succeed.

Evo: How important is the reasoning or philosophy behind a consolidation process to its eventual success and impact?

JF: Our system was created with the end in mind. If you’re going into it with a list of things trying to accomplish, even if it’s a high-level set of goals, it helps to drive all of your future decisions. You’ll always have to go back to it because distractions will always come up. Before we put our first consolidations on the map, our priority was increasing opportunities to raise education attainment levels. That was our first priority, then access; avoiding duplication of academic programs, potential economy to scale, regional economic development, etc. Then it was streamlining administrative services while either maintaining or even improving service level and quality. Those were the guiding principles—the touchstone as we were going through these consolidations—to always keep that perspective front and center. Having a set of goals or principles tied to that becomes very important. You’ll lose sight otherwise and go off in a different direction when you have difficult decisions to make.

Evo: Do the kinds of changes that come with a consolidation create aspects of a student experience that could eventually be considered differentiating?

JF: I hope so, and the proof is ultimately in your graduation and retention rates. If you get all those things right–student experience, academic advising and engagement with the various support services–you should see a return down the road. A couple of studies that address this and have found that there was an improvement in retention and graduation rates. That’s a result of a good consolidation effort because we’re keeping those things front and center. 

There are teams at both institutions that are specifically looking at those types of things. What is the student experience? How are we handling advising? How are we handling registration? How are we engaging with students? Our approach is to try to test practices at both institutions, and then implement what works best across the two. As you go through this process, you hopefully learn some lessons that can cascade on to future consolidations. It’s just a learning process throughout.

There’s also an investment component to it. When institutions generated savings, they were able to redirect them back into the institution–the consolidated institution. But the requirement was they had to use it for something that tied very directly to student success. That could mean hiring new faculty in a high-demand area, hiring new advisors, or funding a monitoring or advising system system. All of those examples would be appropriate and acceptable uses while improving the student experience.

There’s also the backend of things. We use Banner, so we talk about Banner A and Banner B and which one we go with. But that information should be under the surface for students. They should be able to register, get their financial aid and do what they need to do seamlessly. We would just garner some backend improvements in how we manage data and that sort of thing.

Evo: What advice would you share with institutional and system leaders that are moving into a consolidation process?

JF: Be purposeful about what you’re trying to achieve. Ideally, that is supporting our students and creating, transfering and applying knowledge. We just need to be clear-eyed about what we want to achieve going into it. Second, I’d recommend having good collaboration between and among both institutions, your system and your external partners. You want to engage early and often with your accreditor and with the Department of Education. 

There are many things you don’t realize. So many people are involved in this, and you don’t want to forget to keep them up to date on everything. You want to have a really good list of who you need to engage with and get involved in the process. Sometimes it’ll be the first time they’ve done this. They may need to do some research and learning—that’s why early engagement is really important. 

Tackling some of the more challenging issues sooner rather than later can be helpful. Being very deliberate about selecting your organization chart at a senior level has the most operational impact. It’s important that leaders are engaging with faculty, staff and other constituents to build out that org chart. People need a sense of stability and there’s a chance to be very clear upfront about what that is. 

As you can expect, you don’t need two chief business officers or provosts. It’s compassionate and ideal to notify someone if you know they’re not going to become the new provost of the new institution. It gives them time to find a new position elsewhere in your system or at another institution. For us, that was always a good thing because a lot of those people were able to find another good role. And letting them go was no reflection of their work—it was just the functional fact that you don’t need two people doing one job. 

One another element I would add would be to create a space for collaboration and accountability for what needs to get done between and among the system office and institutions. In our case, we had a list of consolidation tasks that surpassed 600. Those were broken down to very minute detail. We’d have a weekly status meeting wherein we’d check at a system level and had people who were supporting our campus-level colleagues in each of those areas and working through decision-making. When you boil it down, this isn’t one of those things for which you can say, “Okay, just go do this, and it’s going to all work out.”

You have to support folks who are working at the institutional level, and the same thing if you’re an institution awithin a system. You want to make sure you’re leveraging their knowledge and talents both at the system office and across the system to help you get the consolidation done. There’s generally not in a book or procedure, so you need the right people around the table to help you figure it out.

Evo: Are there any other challenges that you feel should be, if not top of mind, then on radar for leaders in the early days of executing on a consolidation strategy?

JF: A communication plan is important. You need to spend your time on those core constituents and engaging with your students and faculty. When we would initiate a consolidation, we would do a town hall with all of those plus all-comers. It was predominantly faculty and staff and students. There are parts of this that are hard—it’s the unknown and change rolled into one—so we would spend a lot of time at the front end just answering questions and having those conversations. 

Without a communications plan, you’ll be constantly reacting to questions. Once you’ve done this once or twice, you’ll know the other 20 questions you’re going to get. You can create a space in which people can ask those questions or share responses. The other aspect is to have a vision but also get down to the implementation. The nature of putting things together, the perspective and getting it in front of your accreditor, and then getting approval on the timelines. It may seem like a while, but it’s really not. Timelines are pretty tight, and there’s a lot to line up and sequence correctly. Someone with an understanding of the system or institution and all the stakeholders needs to manage it. 

There are certainly different models to do this—we largely did it internally. We didn’t really rely on consultants. We felt like we knew our system as well or better than anyone. But we did use consultants for some of the very technical components that needed to happen with database migrations. 

People are always going to ask why we’re doing things a certain way. And there’s no secret to it. You go back to the principles, you go back to the analysis, and then you focus on what you are doing now and what you need to do to make it work. So that becomes really critical in the planning.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about this broad industry shift towards a consolidation strategy, and your observations on how to best go about this approach?

JF: Leadership is very important, particularly with board engagement. It’s great to have an engaged and supportive board that has its ear to the ground wherever it is that they might be from. It’s not a hands-off moment, and you always want to maintain a proper role. The board is a governing body, and the role of administrators is to implement, but you do want to put a realistic picture in front of the board and engage with them. Let them know what they should expect and then be accountable for it. 

To further board engagement, we also would normally invite the president and representatives from the new institution to present to the board. They would talk about the good, the bad and the ugly. Just discussing things we’ve had to adjust to and the lessons we’ve learned. Keeping that as part of the rhythm becomes really important for the new institution and for the board to maintain a certain level of awareness and engagement.

 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

 
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Consolidated Administration: The Key to Delivering a 60-Year Curriculum

Shift the status quo to achieve long-term success and viability for your university.

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Key Takeaways

  • Once you have your student experience, academic advising and engagement with the various support services in order, everything should fall into place and your retention rates should reflect it.
  • When dealing with an advisory board, it’s important to understand the responsibilities everyone has, between the board and administrators. Give the board an expectation of how things will look to hold accountability.
  • With many stakeholders involved in the process, it’s important to create a clear and consistent communication plan to keep everyone informed.