Q&A: Nancy Zimpher, State University of New York
Shared services in UK universities still seem to be a bit of a Cinderella topic, although there seems to be a growing interest and take-up in the US, as I found when I visited the Shared Services & Outsourcing Network’s (SSON) annual conference on Shared Services in the Public Sector in Chicago . I was therefore delighted to have the opportunity to discuss things with Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) and leader of their new strategic plan ‘The Power of SUNY’ which includes a wide series of shared services initiatives. Chancellor Zimpher is very much leading this from the front with a clear public commitment of time and energy to making these changes a success, so I started by asking what was behind the shared services drive at SUNY.
Nick Mellors: The State University of New York (SUNY) educates approximately 480,000 students across 64 campuses. Has the scale of your operations driven you toward adopting shared services?
Nancy Zimpher: Certainly, what we call SUNY’s “systemness” – that broad scale you mention – lends itself to an initiative like shared services. But I really think that this is the kind of thing all systems of higher education – even state governments and big businesses – should be implementing in today’s challenging economy. We simply cannot afford administrative overhead and duplicative basic services and operations. In public higher education especially, while state support is increasingly difficult to secure, even maintain, in many states despite growing enrollments and greater demands for access, quality, and affordability.
In essence, we need to make every penny count, and we need to keep the revenue we do have focussed on what matters most: students. SUNY’s shared services initiative leverages our systemness by promoting collaboration among campuses for administrative functions – among leadership and within information technology or human resources, for example – while increasing efficiency and enhancing educational opportunities for students. That is why cost savings as part of this initiative are reinvested toward academic instruction and other student-support services.
NM: I think most UK university readers would recognise those challenges and the need to “make every penny count”… What are your ambitions for the programme?
NZ: SUNY campuses across the system are working together on a regional, sector, and mission basis to shift five per cent of their administrative spending to services that directly benefit students – at a minimum. Taken to scale over three years’ time, we expect this initiative will result in at least $100 million in savings over the three years to bolster instruction and student support services across SUNY.
Since launching its shared services initiative in August 2011, SUNY campuses have partnered to generate net savings of more than $20 million, which are being reinvested in expanding academic and student services such as increasing course offerings, hiring more full-time faculty, and supporting on-time degree completion, as well as investing in career development, academic and instructional equipment and financial aid programs.
NM: That’s an impressive figure: where have these savings come from?
NZ: From sharing online tutoring programs and clinical training facilities to collaborating on purchases and course offerings, SUNY campuses have embraced this initiative with commendable action, and we continue to discover new ways to share services every day. Some examples include:
- STAR-NY, an online tutoring program that links SUNY Cortland, SUNY Delhi, University of Buffalo, Tompkins-Cortland Community College, Alfred State, SUNY Oswego, and SUNY Ulster, enabling students to have access to tutors at any of those campuses.
- A pilot program between SUNY Cortland and Upstate Medical University in which the observation rooms and program SUNY Upstate uses to train prospective doctors in communicating with patients are made available to SUNY Cortland for training prospective teachers on how to deal with difficult interactions with parents or struggling students.
- A joint offering of foreign language courses between SUNY Cortland and TC3, piloted last fall with Arabic 101, in which campuses split the cost of one instructor and offer the course to students at both campuses via video.
- Renegotiations of SUNY System Administration contracts and new agreements in the area of information technology have generated millions in system-wide savings, and it is anticipated that these contracts will save approximately $6 million over three years.
- University of Buffalo re-negotiated its contract with the trademark and licensing firm LRG. The contract now makes available to all SUNY campuses the same favorable pricing UB receives, serving as an example of systemness in action as a larger SUNY campus can provide cost savings and greater opportunities for the smaller campuses.
- Alfred State College will begin providing SUNY Fredonia and SUNY Geneseo with printing services for letterhead and envelopes, and SUNY is exploring replicating the partnership through a SUNY-wide Print Shop Utilization Project that will examine print shop capabilities university-wide, with the goal of consolidating resources and expenditures with a few key regional print shops.
- SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam have hired several joint administrators – including a chief financial officer – which has resulted in savings at both campuses.
NM: That’s quite an impressive and varied list. What has been key to the success of your shared services projects?
NZ: By sharing services with other campuses in their region, every SUNY college and university in New York has put itself in a better position to do more for its students. Our 64 campuses – presidential leadership, financial aid officers, business offices, IT departments, etc. – have all embraced this initiative and that teamwork mentality has been critical.
We have campuses partnering in every region of New York State. They are partnering in pairs as well as large groups, and they are all seeing results, which incentivises them to keep doing more.
We are also hosting regional Shared Services Summits that bring together representatives from SUNY central administration and campuses, so that campuses are sharing with one another and, centrally, we are able to keep campuses in each region appraised of successful ventures taking place elsewhere within our system – ventures that they too can implement easily and productively.
So I would say the key to our success has been the system-wide commitment that we have made to seeing this initiative through – from leadership centrally, to our campus presidents and the faculty and staff across the state who have not only embraced the concept of sharing services but who continue to find new ways to ensure its success – all for the benefit of our students.
NM: I’ve seen some of the material from the Shared Services Summits you have established; they do seem to have generated cross-campus enthusiasm for change. What lessons have you learned so far that others thinking of setting out on a similar journey might use?
NZ: Shared services come in every shape and size, from campus-to-campus collaborations and regionally, and communication is incredibly important. Encouraging the sharing of best practices and celebrating success throughout the process is critical.
It is also important that new projects be closely monitored for effectiveness, and if something is not creating the cost savings it was anticipated to have, it may need to be reworked or even abandoned.
Finally, it should be acknowledged that the benefits of sharing services go beyond cost savings. Quality enhancements, increased innovation, service improvements, and operational efficiencies are often the driving force of a shared project.
NM: The scale of SUNY’s ambitions for change is huge, but there is a clear demonstration of commitment from the top of the organisation as well as engagement with teams and campuses at all levels across the university. Certainly the early results are excellent and I wish you well delivering more through the ‘Power of SUNY’; thank you.