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At rpk, we work with colleges and universities to align academic offerings to student and labor demand, fulfill mission, and achieve financial sustainability. We frame this work as Mission, Market, Margin®.

That margin component is often foreign to academic leadership. Why? In part because of the historic siloing of the academic and finance sides of the house. When those silos start to come down, powerful things can happen.

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a conversation with two excellent academic leaders about the role of the provost and other academic affairs leadership in supporting institutional financial health and sustainability. Terry Brown, Vice President of Academic Innovation and Transformation at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and Howard Smith, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, spoke with me about their efforts to begin breaking down the silos between academics and finance. Ultimately, they successfully moved to a structure and culture in which the provost and chief financial officer partner to place resources in the service of institutional mission and student success.

Here is just a bit about what they shared:

1. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Institutional culture that exists today was formed over decades, and it will take time to make significant changes. However, both Brown and Smith were dogged in their pursuits, and credit their success to that persistence. This effort is iterative and ongoing. It’s not a one-time analysis or a quick cost savings exercise – it’s a major culture change and institutions should pursue it in the spirit of continuous improvement.

2. Financial planning in academic affairs is a team effort. Both Smith and Brown spoke about the critical nature of their relationship with their CFOs, as well as with Deans and other academic and financial leadership. Without partnership, change would have been much slower or nearly impossible. The specific partnership of academic and financial leadership brings an important gravity to the process and protects efforts from being easily dismissed.

3. Center student success. Brown shared a powerful point that financial burdens or pain points for the institution are likely barriers to students as well. For example, if course planning is inefficient and unpredictable, that is costly for a campus. But students will suffer from those inefficiencies as well when registering for courses or mapping their academic plan. Leading with student success, as opposed to financial savings, can more quickly build a collaborative culture with faculty in this process.

Across all of their comments, Brown and Smith showed the critical role that provosts must play as institutions move toward financial sustainability. Their efforts to link academic efficiencies and productivity to a strong change management model serve as important best practice examples for the field.

You can listen to our full conversation here. And join the rpk team for our next Webinar Wednesday on April 20.

Katie Hagan

Katie is a principal at rpk GROUP. She has an extensive background in fiscal policy and research within the context of both K-12 and higher education.