July 23, 2009

Update on budget crisis and 'Reimagining Cornell' stresses that all options are on the table

The first phases of the "Reimagining Cornell" strategic-planning process are well under way, but "the solutions are in their infancy," said Bill Fry, dean of the university faculty, at a special meeting of the Faculty Senate July 22.

The meeting, which was the latest in an ongoing series of public conversations, updated about 125 faculty members on the planning process that was initiated last year in response to a looming budget deficit and the worst national economic outlook since the Great Depression.

Everything is on the table, said Provost Kent Fuchs: "It's very scary, but there is a lot of freedom to think creatively."

Interim Vice President for Budget and Planning Paul Streeter also presented, as did partners from Bain & Co., the global consulting firm Cornell has contracted to identify opportunities to streamline nonacademic operations.

Streeter provided a stark look at the deficit numbers Cornell would have faced -- an annual budget deficit of $215 million and a cumulative deficit of $1.1 billion by 2014 -- if the first phase of budget cutting and downsizing had not happened last fiscal year. Even with those budget reductions now in place, the university still faces a significant deficit. Streeter said similar budget-cutting measures will be required for fiscal year 2010-11.

"We're by no means through this," Streeter said.

Jeff Denneen, partner with Bain & Co., explained that the firm's project will run in four phases through late October, as the consultants meet with hundreds of faculty, administrators and staff members across campus. He described their approach as "from the outside in," starting as far away from Cornell's core missions of teaching, research and outreach as possible. Those outermost layers include procurement, information technology, facilities and utilities, human resources and finance.

For example, Denneen noted that the university is nowhere near taking full advantage of the many areas where preferred vendors can be used, saving costs and taking advantage of negotiated, cheaper contract pricing.

At the same time, task forces from each college and school, as well as from several cross-disciplinary areas (and ones dedicated to budget models, Student and Academic Services, and the Cornell Library) are working from the inside out, to find ways to position Cornell for future academic excellence through structural change and enhanced focus.

Fuchs said the tough questions -- the ones that keep him up at night -- are about those crucial decisions that will change the nature of the university. "Some colleges are looking at dramatically changing the numbers of departments they have," he said, and added that even merging some colleges or schools are options that may be put on the table.

"It is important to stress that we're not just looking at things to save us money," said David Harris, deputy provost and project manager for the engagement with the outside consulting firm. "We're looking at things that will position us to be a stronger university, moving forward."

In response to a question, Fuchs stated that capital expenditures have not been the dominant part of the budget problem, as each major building project is tied to a priority program investment. "I'm unwilling to say that we can't move forward [on a building project] unless we have all the funding fully in hand," he said. "But we also can't have an optimistic, naïve view of where the funding will be coming from. All capital funding sources must be identified and incorporated into our financial plans." He added that a capital planning group is developing a new process for initiating new construction.

Other questions touched on looking at ways to make more sustainable purchasing decisions, combining purchasing power with other regional universities, paying special attention to cross-college issues, increasing revenue by capitalizing on Cornell-generated intellectual property and a hope that there aren't too many "sacred cows" that will be spared from scrutiny.

The planning documents are due from colleges and units in October, just when the consulting firm's results will be presented to Skorton and Fuchs. These plans will inform the draft strategic plan, which Skorton will present to the Cornell Board of Trustees next spring. The planning Web site, provides information on the task forces and updates on the overall planning process.