Efficiency 101

By Se Young Lee

When I spoke to University President B. Joseph White last March, what struck me the most was his recognition of the need for the University to achieve business-like efficiency in its operations. By announcing plans to hire a chief financial officer on Feb. 8, White has made a small but crucial step in realizing that goal.

While this is admittedly an oversimplification, it is often true that large organizations tied to and funded by a government are not as prudent in monitoring and scrutinizing the way money allocated to its various arms.

The more expansive the organization’s tasks, the easier it is to lose track of where the resources go and how they are used. It would not be a stretch to suggest that the University of Illinois, divided into three separate campuses and serving almost 70,000 students, creates paper trails that defy human imagination.

Some inefficiency and misallocation of funds is unavoidable, since it is impossible to account for all types of anomalies, crises and problems that may arise in an uncontrolled setting.

However, any organization with a sense of fiscal responsibility should strive to minimize such effects. This must hold especially true for this University, which has saw its state funding decline as the economy fails improve and the state government continues its struggle to balance its budget – sometimes resorting to various types of accounting gimmickry that would be punished with the wrath of shareholders if emulated by a publicly traded company.

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It should be clarified that the position of a CFO is not being created because Steve Rugg, vice president for the administration, or his predecessors were unqualified to oversee the various financial functions that help maintain, operate and improve this University.

But in a time of crisis and change, large organizations operated by bureaucracies as big as the University of Illinois’ have trouble shifting gears and finding the right way toward continued success, making it necessary to bring in new individuals to present new solutions. Hiring a CFO who has experience managing the assets and straightening out the books for a large corporation might provide that extra boost that revitalizes all three campuses.

It is undeniable that this University has some tough choices to make in the future. It must cope with the need to remain academically competitive against other private and state-funded colleges and Universities while needing to provide an affordable choice for the tax-paying Illinoisans who seek a higher education.

There is no sign of immediate increase in financial support from the state legislature, and the University can only admit so many students before the quality of the education and life that can be offered begins to suffer.

Under these circumstances, it is paramount for the University to find ways to get the biggest bang for the buck with its expenditures and investments while keeping a keen eye on its financial liabilities.

Most importantly, this University appears to be in need of a sense of urgency. While new faces have emerged in the administration and bold plans have been announced, the rate of progress with critical problems like the inability to find money for renovating the dilapidated Lincoln Hall and shortage of University housing available to students have been disappointing, to say the least.

An outsider who has survived through the rough waters of the private sector in charge of the bureaucratic lifeline – money – has a much better chance of spurring this organization toward progress.

Complacency is not an option at this point, something that should be increasingly clear to all who have a stake in this University. President White, once again, seems to be an administrator who “gets it.”

Se Young Lee is a junior in Communications and the director of communications for the Illinois Student Senate. His columns appear Thursdays. He can be reached at [email protected].