"Managing Departmental Budgets in Times of Constraint"

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February 2006

The Quality Advocates met on February 17, 2006 to discuss approaches to managing departmental budgets in times of constraint. The three panelists included: Caroline Eckhardt, Department Head of Comparative Literature, College of the Liberal Arts; Richard Koubek, Department Head of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, College of Engineering; and, Jacqueline Stefkovich, Department Head of Education Policy Studies, College of Education. These specific panelists were asked to present their experiences because they had found innovative, creative strategies for dealing with budget cuts.  This newsletter summarizes some of the major strategies these three and others have taken to manage budget.

Stefkovich and Koubeck

Collaboration, both within units or departments and across colleges, is another key to dealing with budget cuts.  In the department of Education Policy Studies, staff and students regularly attend faculty meetings and this helps to achieve support for specific projects or changes. Within the department, the Higher Education Program Alumni Council exemplifies the ways that alumni and students can interact in ways that benefit both the student and the alumni since the student association meets regularly with the Alumni Council. Outside of the department, Education Policy Studies has partnered with the Goodling Institute, the Population Research Institute, the University Libraries, and the Children, Youth and Families Consortium, among others, to fund graduate assistantships or share the costs of graduate assistants. Faculty and graduate students in the department support these collaborations because they realize budgets are limited and new methods must be found to fund assistantships, which are considered vital by the department.


The Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering found collaboration with corporate sponsors can benefit both students and the sponsors. Working with Career Services, the department was able to identify which businesses were hiring graduates and several were contacted about their interest in being sponsors of senior projects. Several corporations have given major gifts of $25,000 over five years and they are able to make connections with current students in the program. Corporate gifts now also fund part of the costs of student clubs and corporate representatives gain exposure to students by participating in student exhibitions and projects.


Rethinking target audiences, developing programming for new audiences, and developing new delivery mechanisms can enhance revenue, but this will require collaboration among many colleges and departments. Eckhardt, in the Department of Comparative Literature, suggested that academic units may need to look to new audiences to build revenue and expand academic opportunities. For instance, the University has some residential summer programming for high school students, but to develop ventures such as expanded summer foreign language institutes, a critical mass of students is needed, which requires greater collaboration between academic and support units. Other audiences that might be targeted, if units can work together across the University to offer an attractive mix of courses, residential accommodations, and support services, include retirees or Penn State’s 601,000+ alumni base.   


Along with different audiences, new models of delivery of education, such as eLearning which allows one course to be delivered at more than one campus, may help to serve students better, increase revenues, and provide cost savings at campus locations that do not have enough local students or a faculty member to teach required courses.

As another step in the cost reduction process, departments can look to new technologies and innovative methods to increase efficiencies and accountability. For instance, according to Eckhardt, the Department of Comparative Literature had trimmed away almost everything, or so it seemed, and had no other routine costs to cut. But by examining how new technologies could be built into routine support services, the department found it could save costs by using voice over IP for their telephone service and new software to control the expense of photocopying and printing, thus preserving funds for other needs such as travel and visitors. 


Increasing accountability has helped the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering keep costs in check.  One example is in the materials used in student projects: students now request material for their projects through an online submission form, which automatically documents materials, and part of student design lab grades are based not only on the final product, but also on productivity with regard to cost. Another example is a change in the way the department allocated travel monies. The old process involved individual requests for each trip, requiring much paperwork and time for approvals. Under the new system, faculty receive a set amount each year for professional development for use at their discretion, thus lessening the paperwork and approval time. Such changes lessen the time spent by department heads on administrative matters and give faculty more control over decision-making.

Koubeck and Eckhardt

Communication within departments is also critical to success in managing budgets. Depending on the culture of the department or unit, summary budget data may be available to faculty, or more detailed information may be shared more widely. Departmental culture and values dictate the depth to which budgets are shared: complete and open access that leads to increased innovation by faculty in one department may lead to demoralized faculty and staff in another. Making faculty and staff aware of the budget and fiscal limitations can help build support for cost-cutting steps or revenue-enhancing strategies. In addition, it may nudge faculty and staff into thinking of innovative strategies for revenue enhancement or cost cutting.

Managing budgets in times of fiscal constraint requires a department to carefully consider its mission and vision, identify its core values and ensure critical functions are carried out, and look for innovative methods to cut costs and increase revenues.  Collaborating with other departments, colleges and alumni could be a key step in this process.

The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.