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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many educators recognized that higher education is operating in an increasingly complex and volatile world. While leaders aspire to turn uncertainty into a clear vision for the future, we are often doing so during tumultuous times, such as during significant leadership and funding model changes or while our biggest competitors are simultaneously overhauling their strategies. We cannot allow our planning systems, which often follow fixed or arbitrary timelines or utilize unnecessarily bureaucratic processes, to inhibit our ability to pivot. As preeminent quality management leader W. Edwards Deming proclaimed, “a bad system will beat a good person every time.”1

The leadership challenge is to determine how our systems, such as shared governance, planning, or budgeting can be altered, leveraged, or even completely reconstructed to recognize our world as it is, not as we wish it to be. At Tulsa Community College, we created a supplementary budget process by which employees seek funding beyond their department’s operating budget any time of year. The process is simple:

  1. A link on our intranet is open to all employees.
  2. The requestor provides basic details such as one-time and annual costs and justification (tied to the strategic plan).
  3. The request is routed to the supervisor for support and then to the cabinet member. Either party may provide notes and approve or deny the submission.
  4. If the request is denied, it is returned to the employee(s) for edits and resubmission, as appropriate. If the submission is approved, all parties receive a confirmation email.
  5. The executive team discusses all submissions when determining annual foundation-funded projects.
  6. The President’s Office, Foundation, Finance department, and Grants Office regularly consider new submissions.

Whether or not funding is identified immediately, the benefit to our employees is that they know their request has been received by those who hold the purse strings. For administration, the benefits are both practical and strategic. The process gives us an efficient way to handle new requests and provides an existing mechanism to solicit needs for funding opportunities that may arise throughout the year (e.g., Higher Education Emergency Relief Funding). Additionally, it demonstrates that the submission has been vetted by the requestor’s supervisory chain. More importantly, this helps us make decisions that maximize financial responsibility and value to students, an important component in our strategic plan. We can identify themes of needs across departments and leverage funding opportunities by strategically packaging grant and donor applications. We can even identify talented, strategic thinkers and big ideas.

An unexpected advantage of the process has been making connections for internal resources, which means solving issues without the need for additional funding. For example, departments have asked for outsourced services, when the real need was delegation by a senior leader to a college department for prioritization. In other cases, we have recognized that certain functions could benefit from having their own, or an increased, budget. We have even seen examples of small requests, less than $100, that led us to consider whether multiple years of state funding cuts directed our employees to be such good stewards of scarce dollars that they had learned not to ask for anything. This last one should give any senior leader pause. Sometimes a little funding can go a long way.

Many colleges have mechanisms by which individuals request funding for specific projects. While leaders can always choose which funding requests to accept, restricting requests too much negates the desired outcome: We want our employees to get what they need to advance our mission of building success via education throughout the year.

All colleges are different, and all institutions may not need a process like that used by Tulsa Community College. However, it is important to remember that the middle managers at community colleges make things happen, so we should design systems to make things happen faster and more efficiently for them.

We want our employees to think strategically, to embrace change, and to acknowledge the changing landscape of higher education. We must do the same.

 

1 The Deming Institute. (n.d.). Quotes. quotes.deming.org/10091


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