Provost Will Dudley discusses new focus

President Falk’s overhaul of senior staff and hiring of Fred Puddester, vice president for finance and administration (“Falk appoints VP for finance and admin.,” May 11, 2011), resulted in professional financial staff in Hopkins Hall. Record Opinions Editor Todd Brenner sat down with Provost and professor of philosophy Will Dudley ’89, who began as provost in July, to discuss the College’s financial situation, the benefits of having an experienced financial manager in the senior administration and the refocused role of the provost.

 

What are your current responsibilities as provost relative to those of Fred Puddester, vice president for finance and administration? What is your administrative focus? 

 

[Puddester] has a really nice way of putting it, actually. He says his job is to tell me how many dollars there are available to spend and my job is to only spend each dollar once. It’s oversimplified, but its actually pretty accurate in that the provost has chief responsibility for making sure that we allocate the College’s resources in accordance with the College’s priorities. So that remains the same. But the old provost’s job in addition to that included being responsible for accounting and auditing and thinking about how to finance particular projects. The questions related to the mechanics of how we pay for or finance a particular project, how we track the spending that we’re doing, how we then audit the accounting of the spending that we are doing – those things are the responsibility of the VP for finance. To my mind this is a glorious thing because accounting, auditing and financing are not things that I, or very many faculty members, would bring particular expertise or value to. So not having to spend time on those tasks means that I, and future faculty members in this job, actually have significantly more time to think about the really important questions that we want faculty members thinking about, which are the educational priorities of this place.

 

In what ways has Puddester’s appointment improved the administrative functioning of the College? 

 

At this point, we are talking about managing more than $200 million a year – it’s a lot of money, it’s a big complicated place and it’s really important that you don’t lose track of all that money moving around. It’s really important that you finance the things you are doing as efficiently as possible because saving a bit here and there adds up, and if you’re not doing that as well as you can, you’re going to have fewer resources than you would otherwise have. [Puddester] is a professional – he’s spent his entire career doing this stuff.

So when we talk about “more efficient,” in one sense you could say [the reorganization of staff] is less efficient. You used to just have the provost doing this stuff and now you have two people. So why would we need two people? And I think the answer is that as the College has gotten bigger and more complicated, keeping track of our money and thinking about how to finance things has gotten significantly more complicated. It’s a job that frankly you want someone with tremendous professional experience doing. So “more efficiently” isn’t my favorite term, but more thoughtfully, more intelligently and more professionally on the tracking and accounting side, so that we can have more confidence that mistakes won’t be made.

Admissions, financial aid, the libraries, the science center, the art museum, the Zilkha Center – those all report to the provost. So part of the real benefit of my not having to worry about accounting and auditing and financing is that I have a lot more time to spend with those people than any previous provost has had, and I can already tell that it’s paying off. They are grateful for the attention. Having a provost who actually has time to manage those people is extremely important for the institution. If you e-mail [former Provost] Bill Lenhart, he will tell you that the financial piece of the job, which was only supposed to be one-third of it, was 80 percent of it for him, and it didn’t leave any time for strategic planning or for managing those people.

 

As a senior faculty member, would you say that the changes to the senior staff have affected faculty governance at the College?

 

Faculty members serve on and as chairs of a number of important committees that are charged with and have a significant role in thinking about and developing the College’s perspective on its priorities, its curriculum and so forth. And that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that the faculty member who serves as the provost doesn’t have to serve as the College’s accountant and finance expert, and that means that the provost gets to spend more time working with those committees and thinking about both short and long-term institutional priorities.

What is the College’s financial situation at present? Should we expect continued budget cutbacks or could growth in the endowment spur new projects and programming?

 

The endowment had a good year last year, which was really nice to see because it has had several difficult ones before that and it’s having a difficult one this year. The more heavily you rely on your endowment to provide your resources, the more dependent you are on the performance of financial markets, and the markets, as we’ve all learned, are volatile things. The lesson from that is that it’s really important not to tie our spending to the short-term performance of the market.

Essentially, the plan now is to try and hold the number of employees at its current level, to continue to be need-blind in admissions and, as the endowment recovers and there is a bit more money available, to make capital investments and to restore operating budgets. Right now, the view is that we have responsibly controlled spending in response to the financial crisis and gotten ourselves in a situation that we can afford.