Operating budgets cut by 2%; Web site for cost-saving tips launched

The College has enacted two new initiatives to curb its spending: a 2 percent reduction across all operating budgets and a Web site to collect anonymous cost-saving suggestions from faculty, staff and students.

The budget reduction directive, which applies to operating expenditures but to neither academic departments nor payroll, requires all managers to spend 2 percent less than what was budgeted for the current fiscal year, July 1, 2008, through June 30, 2009. “The decision to have managers reduce their current year budgets by 2 percent was made by senior staff after careful review of data from multi-year financial projections,” said Bill Lenhart, provost.

Although Bill Wagner, dean of the Faculty, has asked chairs of academic departments and programs to hold their actual spending below budgeted levels if possible, their budgets have not been reduced formally. Wagner plans to meet the chairs again to discuss budgets for both this year and the next.

Steve Klass, vice president for Operations, foresees “no difficulties” in achieving this reduction this year. “On the one hand, mid-year cuts are challenging because you’ve already spent down on your annual allocations,” he said. “On the other hand, you already have a good sense of the various patterns and challenges that comprise the current year’s activities, and can make much more informed decisions.”

Both Lenhart and Klass emphasized that senior staff were working with individual department heads to cut back on spending using the strategies that are best for each department. “We’re fortunate to have directors and managers who understand the details of their units in all their complexity,” Klass said. “Speaking for my areas, the early response has been extremely encouraging across the board.”

Martha Tetrault, director of Human Resources, agreed. “The general feeling is that we’re in this together, we believe in the guiding principles of the institution and, as a community, we’ll work together to rethink the way we do business,” she said.

“It’s important to point out that I’ve been asked to find 2 percent from my office budget, not from the College’s HR functions such as benefits,” Tetrault added, noting that 2 percent was not a large amount to return. “Consequently, we’ll be able to find it in areas that we believe won’t be spent fully this year, as with other offices on campus.”

The Library Committee convened yesterday evening to address the new policy. “We are looking at a series of steps that will spread the impact among various aspects of our operations while also minimizing any direct impact on students, faculty and staff who are our primary library users,” said Dave Pilachowski, College Librarian. “The good news is that we will be able to maintain library hours and all of our regular services at their current levels in spite of these budget reductions.”

However, the pace at which the libraries build their collections will inevitably slow, as this area composes the bulk of library expenditure. A portion of the collections reduction will be realized by canceling paper journal subscriptions that duplicate full-text electronic subscriptions; other reductions will be distributed evenly across allocations for academic departments and programs. Additional budget reductions will come from cutting operating costs such as printing, shipping, and equipment, and through bringing several thousand volumes back from a rented storage facility in Palmer, Mass., to the new Library Shelving Facility.

For the Athletics Department, the manager’s budget comprises supplies, services, travel and other operating costs. “Personally, I hope that the Athletics Department will make reductions that will not affect either the student athlete experience or the broader student experience within our department,” said Karen Whalen, assistant director of Athletics for finance. “It never hurts to relook things and see where we can tighten the belt.”

According to Whalen, director of Athletics Harry Sheehy and other administrative staff will consult on cost-saving measures before Sheehy conveys the final suggestions to the provost and the dean of the Faculty. In addition to Sheehy’s open-door policy, Athletics has held a department-wide meeting to give all its personnel the opportunity to make recommendations.

Facilities has also employed a grassroots approach that aims to minimize the impact on the community. “All the budget trims have come from supervisors who are actually coming with me and saying what changes they can make,” said Diana Prideaux-Brune, associate vice president for Facilities. “We’re doing what we think is responsible cutting.”

As the majority of the Facilities budget goes to materials and supplies, the savings will have to come from the “discretionary piece” of its expenditures, for example temporary help during the summer and internal office operations. “I don’t expect any crisis this year,” Prideaux-Brune said. “I think we’re just trying to find ways to do [things] more effectively. I think we’ll be able to manage.”

Web site

In addition to these intradepartmental adjustments, the College last Thursday launched a Web site for members of the Williams community to propose broader cost-saving ideas. Within a day of its launch the site garnered over 100 submissions. As of yesterday afternoon, the tally of suggestions was approaching 275.

“The concept of the Web site is something that came out of discussions among the senior staff as we move forward thoughtfully and strategically to reduce our operating costs,” Klass said. “This Web site is an obvious outgrowth of that desire to learn from our colleagues across campus.”

Although users need a Williams log-in to submit tips, all submissions to the site, http://www.williams.edu/go/saving_tips/, are anonymous and cannot be traced.

All suggestions will be considered by a review board composed of Stephanie Boyd, director of the Zilkha Center; John Gerry, associate dean of the Faculty; Sue Hogan, Controller; John Noble, director of Career Counseling and Prideaux-Brune. The board met for the first time on Monday and will evaluate ideas then pass them along to the appropriate offices.

“Nobody expected this volume of suggestions,” said Prideaux-Brune, who joined the College from UMass Lowell in September. “I’ve looked over them, and many of these are also long-term shifts that will take a little time to implement.”

The five-member review group shares the enthusiasm of the Web site’s patrons. “If someone suggests something, it’s an interesting analysis of how people in the community see us and how we work,” Prideaux-Brune said. “Another big reason why I’m excited is that it’s going to help me learn more about everything on campus, especially things that I don’t normally get directly involved in.”

Facilities renewal

Prideaux-Brune and her colleagues at Facilities are also overseeing a $3 million cut in spending on facilities renewal, one of the three guiding principles set out in President Schapiro’s Oct. 18 e-mail to the College community. Over the last few years, the renewal budget has averaged $11 million, or roughly 2 percent of the value of College lands, buildings and equipment.

“Because we’ve invested that amount in renewal very consistently for so many years, this past spending functions like insurance and we can make this reduction for a few years without any risk,” Prideaux-Brune said.

To accomplish this $3 million reduction, Facilities management has classified all the projects it had planned for this year as either necessary maintenance or discretionary work. Critical maintenance, such as dorm renovations over the summer, remains unaffected by the new principle. The discretionary projects are either being rescheduled for later years or entirely reevaluated.

Notable among the reevaluations are renovations at Mount Hope and Thompson Chapel, which have been earmarked for several piecemeal refurbishments, although roof maintenance on the Chapel will proceed as planned. “We’ll be doing more big picture planning about how we want to use these buildings. We might actually invest more money to get a more useful product,” Prideaux-Brune said.

Beyond the renewal budget cut and the 2 percent expenditure reduction, Facilities is also assessing fundamental, long-term changes, for example, in energy management systems and the utilities budget. “It’s a good exercise for everyone to go through. When you have a lot of resources, there is a tendency to get a bit complacent. Now we really have to hone our actions to our core values,” said Prideaux-Brune, citing their continued commitment to sustainability despite the additional costs entailed.

Similarly, Lenhart believes that measures like the managers’ budget cuts will be effective in controlling spending over the next one to three years, but noted long-term concerns. “Even with the successful implementation of these steps, barring a remarkable turnaround in the economy, we will be using funds from our endowment to support our operations at levels that are too great to sustain for more than a few years,” he said. “Therefore, we will need both to control spending in the short term, and also to bring the use of our financial assets for our annual operations, over time, back down to sustainable levels.”