Don’t Tell Me Your Priorities, Show Me Your Budget: Shared Governance in Action at the University of Alabama – Birmingham

An interview with Pete Jones, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration and chair of the Faculty Senate Finance Committee at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. This interview is part of our series on shared governance in action.

Pete Jones, University of Alabama at Birmingham

One of the complaints we hear from faculty here at UNL about the ongoing budget reduction process is a lack of shared governance and transparency. Not only did the Chancellor ignore the recommendations of the faculty Academic Planning Committee, but many faculty members have felt like they have not had enough information to understand what was happening, when, and why – and without that information, they could not give informed feedback on the Chancellor’s proposal in the first place.

But, isn’t that just the way higher education is? Aren’t budgets and budgetary decisions generally kept under the purview of the administration with little information shared publicly?

Well, actually, no. It turns out that at many other institutions, financial information is shared much more broadly. One of those institutions is the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). I recently had an opportunity to chat with Dr. Peter Jones, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration and Chair of the Faculty Senate Finance Committee at UAB to learn more about how shared governance works in action there. Below is a summary of our conversation, edited for length and focus.

Niehaus: Can you tell me a bit about your work on the Senate Finance Committee?

Jones: I started my first term on the Faculty senate in the fall of 2021, and since my research expertise is in finance and public administration, I became part of the Finance committee. The chair at the time asked me to serve as vice chair, but then he had to step down so I ended up very quickly becoming chair! At that same time, UAB had a new Senior Vice President (SVP) for Financial Administration and was implementing a new budget model, so I kind of got thrown into the fire.

The old Chair had a good relationship with the previous SVP of Finance and Administration, and they would often meet informally to talk about issues. When I assumed the role of chair, I reached out to the new SVP of Finance and Administration and asked him (1) to come guest lecture in my class, and (2) to continue the practice of getting together informally. He agreed to both, and since then, he’ll come do a guest lecture about UAB’s budget process when I teach my public budgeting class, and we also have a regular meeting once a semester where we go out and catch up. In those meetings, I talk about senate priorities for the year, things I’m hearing from the faculty side. He shares a little bit about headwinds and administrative goals. It’s just an opportunity to touch base.

Additionally, as Chair of the committee, I sit on the University Budget Advisory Committee, which consists of deans, the Provost, the  SVP of Finance and Administration, a couple of other VPs, like the VP for research, and some school-level financial officers. As I mentioned before, UAB started using a Responsibility Center Management (RCM) budget model, so the Committee monitors how that is going and talks about institutional level opportunities and challenges.

Niehaus: It sounds like that is a great relationship to have! Can you tell me more about what sort of information is available to the faculty through the Finance Committee?

Jones: Our SVP of Finance and Administration is good about information sharing. He says we are a public institution that receives public dollars, so our financial information is public information. Much of what we get is available to anyone online, but he has also been good about sharing institution-level financial information in more accessible formats like year-end reports.

I also ask several of the SVP of Finance and Administration’s team to report to our Finance Committee, too. Each year, we have UAB’s CFO come review the previous fiscal year’s revenues and expenditures, and in another meeting, we invite the Controller to walk us through our audit. This can be dry stuff, but it is super important. And most faculty don’t know what a Controller is, let alone want to meet with them. I’ve found those administrative folks to be incredibly gracious with their time, and I’d like to think it’s because someone has finally acknowledged what they’re doing is important by asking them to share.

One thing the administration has done really well is they hold a Finance Academy every year, hosted by the SVP of Finance and Administration and his team. It is a day-long event broken into two parts. If you don’t understand budgets or the RCM model, the morning is an overview of how money flows through the system. The afternoon is new each year and includes a discussion of institutional challenges and opportunities.

They invite the Executive Committee and Finance Committee of the Faculty Senate, and most of leadership also attends, from deans to VPs to folks on their teams. The finance folks are very transparent throughout the day; in fact, this year they shared each college or school’s reserve fund levels to highlight how some schools could manage theirs better. With reserve funds, if you are carrying too much, you’re not spending enough to invest in the mission of the university on behalf of faculty, students, and staff. And having too much in reserves can also hurt future budget requests with the state since legislators might not think you need another X percent if you’re sitting on a large reserves fund.

Niehaus: So are you able to share out with the faculty more broadly what you learn from the academy? What have you all been able to do with that information?

Jones: Yes. After the Academy is over, the SVP of Finance and Administration sends out the slide deck to participants. After the first year, I did a ten minute presentation for the full Faculty Senate to summarize important points from the event. The SVP of Finance and Administration has said a few times that he thinks the Academy has increased the overall understanding of budgeting across UAB, and that holds for the Faculty Senate. I would say we are really starting to understand the system better, and in many ways, I think that’s indirectly impacting conversations across other committees.

For example, I have a good friend who’s chair of the Research Committee, and her committee is actually working on a resolution to request per diem for travel reimbursements. I get that reimbursements are the bane of every higher education institution, but the Research Committee made a case that our process was really hampering research. And they have taken a really thoughtful approach with the resolution. They’ve acknowledged the multiple audits UAB must go through, and they understand that a dollar reimbursed from one fund might require different documentation than another. Basically, they have framed the discussion within the context of our budget model instead of just complaining, “I hate turning in receipts.”

After all, if you’re the Controller of a university, you don’t care how much faculty complain, but you do care what auditors say. If you get dinged on an audit, that’s your career, or at least the reputation of the university suffers. So, faculty taking an extra hour of time to gather receipts is worth it if it means public dollars are being accounted for. And candidly, that should be what the Controller cares about.

So, my thought is that, as faculty, if we understand the incentives of each administrator, we can engage in a better dialogue and show what doesn’t work for us AND them. Controllers care about clean audits, but CFOs don’t want reimbursements taking months. If we ask them to track days to reimbursement and they have a huge backlog, we’re able to point to the backlog for them when we talk about how much it sucks to keep track of receipts when we travel to a conference.

I don’t know how this will turn out, but it hasn’t been a flat out “no” from administration. We are meeting with the CFO soon, and they’re going to give us some data and talk through some of the faculty concerns. My hope is that the relationships we’ve built with the SVP of Finance and Administration’s team, as well as a better understanding of the budget process by the faculty, has gotten us to this point.

Niehaus: So are there other examples of where this sort of information has helped the Finance Committee make a difference for the faculty and for the institution as a whole?

Jones: The new budget model has been a big deal for UAB, and with an RCM budget model, revenues flow directly to schools and colleges. They are then assessed some amount—derived from a formula—to support the service providing units like IT or the Center for Teaching and Learning. That leaves most of the budget decision making to the school or college level, and with that transition, we lack a lot of transparency across schools and colleges. When I took over as Chair, one of the biggest complaints from faculty was that budget information wasn’t shared in the same way across schools. My wife is on the faculty in the School of Nursing, and they have a State of the School address every year where the Dean goes over the budget and other metrics.

Other schools were not doing this. In their defense, this was a new budget model, and COVID had put other things on hold, but we felt it was important that faculty get a sense of their unit’s financial position. So, the Finance Committee sent a memo to the Deans to say that they should be sharing budget information at least once a year with their faculty members. That information should include an overview of revenues and expenditures but also give some insight into their budget process and priorities. Don’t tell me your priorities; show me your budget, right?

In the memo, I referenced some research from my field about how transparency and participation can lead to more efficient, effective, and equitable budget decisions. Again, the goal was to show leaders that there was a benefit to sharing this information. I also avoided any prescriptive language, though I’m sure any memo from us would be construed that way. Still, we’ve gotten a lot of positive responses. My Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences has started sharing budget information, and while there are a couple that still don’t, we at least got that message out there that yearly budget updates are an expectation of the faculty. And this was incredibly important to do earlier in the transition to the new budget model so it became a normal part of the process.

Niehaus: So why do you think transparency is important?

Jones: I think there are a lot of inefficiencies that come from a lack of transparency. You could have departments going off and trying to develop new programs that have little chance to succeed because school or college leadership does not plan to devote resources to it. UAB is ramping up certificates now, but there hasn’t been a great plan for marketing. I can’t imagine how much time is being wasted by faculty members creating certificates that might never reach a sustained enrollment because no one knows about them. But that all goes back to budget priorities—if a dean hasn’t shared your budget priorities and what you have money for, you might just spin your wheels.

And conversely, if a faculty could have seen there was no resources for marketing, they could have said to their deans, “Hey, we want to create these certificates, but we need help getting them off the ground.” To me, this also gives decision makers cover, too. Say they did invest in marketing and certain certificates didn’t take off. It is a much easier discussion to have with faculty that you’re sunsetting certain certificates because of lack of interest after you can show the financial investments you made in previous years. All I’m saying is that a better-informed faculty will make better decisions to help you go where you are wanting to go as a college or school. And maybe we’ll complain less, too, but I doubt that.

Niehaus: Is there anything else you would like to share about how you think about shared governance, or how shared governance is working at UAB?

Jones: I want to give our administration credit, but I also don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture. Transparency doesn’t equal participation. I still think our administration could engage with us more, at different levels and at different points in the process, and I would like to see us participate in the decision making processes more.

But, I have a perhaps unpopular opinion that if they wanted to engage with us more, we wouldn’t necessarily be ready or willing to spend the time to do so. I think it takes a lot of work from both sides to engage effectively. From the administration side, research on participatory budgeting has shown us that you can’t just send out a survey. Faculty and administration must be talking about all points of the budget process. And that means, from the faculty side, we have to be willing to take on the service to understand and engage in the process. That service cannot just come from the Faculty Senate—it has to be recognized and valued across every faculty member at the institution.