URBANA – Four small academic units at the University of Illinois won't have to consolidate for now, but campus administrators are urging them to cut costs by sharing business services with other departments – and consider mergers down the road.
Interim Chancellor Robert Easter and Richard Wheeler, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, responded earlier this week to a budget review of four units with 40 or fewer full-time faculty: the College of Media, School of Labor and Employment Relations, School of Social Work and the Graduate School of Library Information Sciences.
The review team found that no significant savings could be gained from merging those units, and expressed concern that consolidations could actually harm their quality and competitive standing unless it grew out of careful "bottom-up" planning by faculty.
But it also recommended that the College of Media – which comprises journalism, advertising, media and cinema studies, communications research and public broadcasting – continue discussions about possible reorganization as part of a comprehensive planning effort to secure its future. The review panel was one of more than a dozen appointed in a campuswide effort studying how to use dwindling resources more efficiently.
Easter and Wheeler generally agreed, proposing no mergers or consolidations "at this time."
"The review committee expressly recognized, however, that there may be mergers or consolidations that could offer cost savings, significant intellectual synergies and financial flexibility," they wrote.
The administrators said the College of Media, which is largely self-supporting through tuition, is already engaged in an internal review about its structure. They encouraged the other schools, which focus on graduate education and rely more heavily on state funding, to "investigate mergers or consolidations with other academic units as a long-term plan to sustain and protect their programs."
But John Unsworth, dean of the Graduate School of Library Information Science, took issue with the administrators' interpretation of the committee's findings.
What the committee report actually said, Unsworth noted, was: "We are not saying that there is no conceivable realignment of these units that might not generate significant intellectual synergies, cost savings and financial flexibility. But the evidence we have reviewed suggest that any cost savings would be far outweighed by academic and financial risks."
"It's not that these alternatives have not been explored," Unsworth said. "They have been explored, and it's the opinion of the faculty in these units, and also the independent external review committee, that this isn't the way to go. So it's more than a little disappointing to see it back on the table."
Easter and Wheeler also called on the four units to share information technology services or business functions with other departments as well as the Graduate College. All four have begun that effort, and Easter and Wheeler asked two associate provosts, Stig Lanesskog and Keith Marshall, to work with them to implement shared services by the start of the 2011-12 academic year.
Based on similar efforts across campus, Easter and Wheeler said, that effort could save $250,000 to $300,000.
But the deans of the four small units involved say they've already done that, something they explained to Wheeler and Easter before the letter was released.
They also encouraged the administrators to open a broader campus discussion about shared services. The benefits "are best realized on a large scale," something the review committee had pointed out, Unsworth said, noting his unit's $5.4 million budget represents just 1.2 percent of the total campus budget.
Wynne Korr, dean of the School of Social Work, said the figures cited in Easter's letter misrepresented her school's financial situation and cost-cutting efforts. Social Work was one of the first units to move to shared IT services, later adding communications and research support, she said.
"Our fiscal position remains excellent, even after the campus-wide budget cuts required because of the reduction in state funds to the university. We have in fact taken many actions over a period of more than five years to ensure that we are both generating new revenue and keeping our administrative services cost-effective," she wrote on the school's website .
Unsworth said the graduate library school has been trying to launch an undergraduate major so that it can become less reliant on state funding. Likewise, Social Work has created a bachelor's degree program and hopes to generate 90 percent of its base budget from tuition, he said.