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State of Facilities Conversations: Episode 2

State of Facilities Conversations: Episode 2

Pete: Alright, so greetings once again to all who are listening in to our series of conversations on the State of Facilities in Higher Education. My name is Pete Zuraw, and this is the latest in our exploration of issues and ideas related to this year’s…11th report. We encourage anyone who hasn’t seen the report to grab a copy that’s available on the recording website.  

The series is intended to go beyond what’s in the report and talk about where the observations in the report lead us and how it connects to the future direction of colleges and universities, and particularly their leaders. Like every interaction here at Gordian, we hope to support you today in your work building better communities by transforming data insights into smarter decisions.  

Today, we’re going to be tapping into the robust intellectual resources to be found in the minds of our guests. Jim Hundrieser is currently the senior advisor to the president of NACUBO and was the inaugural VP for Consulting Services with that same organization. Over his 30 year history in higher education, Jim served in a wide range of roles in a career focused on student access and success. In his service to the Association of Governing boards, the AGB targeted strategies for institutions to grow, partner or build strategic business models. It is just a delight to welcome you, Jim, I’m glad you’re here. 

Jim: Great to be here. Thanks for that. Best introduction of my life.

Pete: Mike Moss serves as president at SCUP, where he works tirelessly to create a place where society members can come together to solve their stickiest challenges, with emphasis on together. Mike has served non-profit communities across an array of missions, and, I only learned recently, on four continents and in 15 countries, facilitating strategic planning processes and teaching strategy and governance courses. Happy to have you with us too, Mike. 

Mike: Thank you. Appreciate it. Good to see you. 

Pete: Gents, you two are here because you’ve been working together the past few years along with leadership at APPA. Well, actually, you’re here because you said yes, but also you’re working with leadership of APPA on an initiative to rethink the framework for collaboration in higher education and particularly the way that planning, finance and facilities teams can collaborate. That ongoing initiative has leveraged some of the ideas that appeared in recent State of Facilities reports and also that work itself has appeared in the 2023 report. The 2024 State of Facilities Report speaks to a number of pressures seen in the Gordian database, and also explores some of the issues finding talent that are plaguing facilities stewards everywhere, not just in higher education. 

I want to ask you what you believe are the key pressures facing leaders in the three areas of planning, finance and facilities as they look toward the future as a way to start off this conversation. I had a secret drawing before we started. And Mike, you drew the shortest straw, so I’m gonna ask you to reply first. 

Mike: I think I’m gonna oversimplify it to start with, which is, there’s just three things that, regardless of the of the headwind we’re facing, that we have to be just up front about and that is to over qualify leadership as effective. But we must have effective leadership, and that is not title born, that is role specific, and we’ll talk more about that. We must have continuous communications. I think all of us have at any point in our career have been told in a leadership role that we need to do better about communicating. We make massive investments in that and the next year, rerun the poll and are told we need to do a better job of communicating. So that’s that. While it is a continuous issue, it is a very huge opportunity for us to get in front of some of  these headwinds, which is through the continuous communication and at the end of it, whether we’re talking strategic finance, strategic leadership, strategic planning, strategic, anything, it needs to be in an embedded culture; it cannot be seen as an additive directive. And it certainly can’t be seen as an unfunded mandate. And we’ll talk more about that. So I think those three kind of overarching themes tie into all the headwinds, but specifically the ones that you’ve talked about related to planning, finance and facilities. 

Pete: Interesting. You agree, Jim? 

Jim: Completely, and communication was one of mine that I would say was top and for me what I continue to hear more and more about is the Chief Finance Officer struggling to have people understand revenue minus expenses and there has to be something left over or minimally break even. And when we, you know, and we’ve talked about this before, the three of us in other sessions, but it still continues to like plague the Academy, of this need like yes, we need better facilities, yes, we need updated facilities. It’s like, great, that all costs money to do and minus the maybe the top 250 (colleges). Even this year I’m hearing many of them saying, you gotta stop saying that Jim. Cause you know, we’re feeling great. You know some great pressures as well, even though their enrollment is up, you know, net revenue is down. And so that’s, I think, figuring out that piece of the puzzle is important.  

It is one of the headwinds of just getting people to really believe the CFO that there is more of a challenge than people are realizing. I would say the second is, the piece that is linked to the facility, is the technology now and the intertwining of that is just massive and becoming more and more complex from a safety perspective. From a classroom perspective, from a teaching, learning perspective, from a preparation perspective and I think some of the states at the community college level are really trying to figure out, how do we weave in this technology to have advanced skills? And then that head wind is gonna create a new pressure for the four years of pulling students out faster or those who are seeing the that. And the third is that ROI. I do think the ROI issue is just gonna continue to be a pressure that everyone is gonna continue to face and that ROI is gonna cause this ripple effect on some of the things we just talked about, the roles and the right people. I mean, I love that, Mike. You know, like that piece I think is just title almost means nothing. At some level it is the role and how effective are we being in it and how are we raising up probably three tiers of the org chart to understand that their role is of vital importance. 

Pete: Those are such great thoughts, and I [want to] just for a second linger on the embedded culture thing because the work, the rethinking, the framework thing, is about bringing those three communities together to try to have an impact, and yet I have a sense that they have their own embedded individual cultures, right? And so these notions of communication and understanding specific leadership issues, it’s fascinating to think about how you can bring those together. But are you fighting these cultures that are still fixed? And is it going to be possible even to breakdown the cultures in those three, let alone the cultures that are endemic in the little nooks and crannies all across schools? 

Mike: Now it’s a great question because the ecosystem of the entirety is always the issue. And so oftentimes, as we should and rightfully so, we are focused on maybe some definitive or myopic issues on campus and maybe even down to the granularity of a building. But the influence of the ecosystem on that building goes far beyond even just the academic programming that’s resided there, or the residency. So I think one of the pieces of embedded, and it’s again, thank you for the obvious, Mike, but it’s putting “we over the me”, but we can’t deny the me, right? So how are you putting together this embedded culture that recognizes the importance of the me? There are things that specific roles have knowledge of that may not always, to your point, Jim, be in those three tiers of alignment. The “me” matters, the collective solutions around the “we” is what we’re all endeavoring to do and get that embedded, and that’s the structure by which decisions are made. And I think that’s a really hard thing. Thank goodness there’s like 10,000 leadership books written per year so that we can figure it out. But that’s the kind of stuff that can very quickly sound like a performative exercise in language, and it’s not. It is really recognizing it’s “we before me,” but me matters and really finding a way for that is also the part of continuous communication that is often executed and its effectiveness by being a megaphone down. And one of the analogies is like, you know, in a crew team, you’ve got a person at the end of the boat doing the cadence, marking the team. Everybody’s going, wouldn’t it be great if planning work that way? It does not. 

Planning works much better as a four by 100 relay, where there’s teamwork, handoffs, multiple points of failure. But me and we come together. I must run my leg and we must finish together. So just as a silly sports analogy, with the Olympics pending, I think that is something that’s a lot on the SCUP mind is that that’s really, really freaking hard to do. But that’s your embedded culture, and that does have some, to your point, Jim, there is some role entitled involvement there that makes that happen because the other part is we acknowledge with the workforce headwinds is that tenures are shorter of staff and faculty, we see daily news reports on changes that weren’t necessarily too anticipated that are taking out multiple decision layers. How are you structured to continue to serve the student in those realities that we’re all facing as the finances become a little tighter? 

Pete: Well, and we over me as I sit here in Boston Post to Celtics championship is absolutely the spirit, the spirit of the city right now. So thank you for that reference. 

Appreciate that, you know, and Jim, I think it’s also fair to say it is shocking, I think, to anybody in these disciplines, this idea that that departments and people just don’t get the idea that revenue minus expenses should be neutral or positive. I mean, every one of these organizations lives every day that way, and it’s shocking that the larger collective “we” doesn’t understand that it is a fascinating tension. I mean, in some respects it often builds a bad rap for finance officers, right, that they’re not hearing a department’s urgent priorities. They only pay attention to cash and money, right? But my understanding is that within the work of the rethinking the framework initiative, it’s showing finance leaders to be really some of the more thoughtful and attuned voices in the conversation about the big picture challenges and maybe the possible solutions. I’m wondering if you have any particular stories from the work that are that are insightful about this truth that maybe finance officers actually are pretty darn smart. After all, they’re not so crazy thinking that 2 – 1 should be one. 

Jim: Yeah, I am certainly hearing about more. I was just meeting with one last week who is talking about the need to do a whole lot more professional development for their staff, and they had ever expected that they would. And they’ve been in this role for 10 plus years and the light bulb sort of went on and said, like, hey, the gap keeps growing, the knowledge gap or the operational gap or the activity gap and or the ceiling that, you know, Mike, you met? Yeah, like how do we break down that everything was a bottleneck coming through me and that I think is a classic CFO, especially at any resource constrained institution. They see themselves as the gatekeeper for hundreds or thousands of jobs, and so how do they keep all those people moving and then intertwined facilities, improvements and intertwined a planning process that’s been laid out and then can’t happen as planned. Right? And so you’re pivoting again. I think I’m hearing much more about people trying to tap on the shoulders of good leaders to say, “How can you get more involved?” And you have the potential for leadership. How can you get involved or connected, which is great and NACUBO had some record number applicants for their emerging leaders program as just one example of that, which is terrific.  

And then you know a person that we’ve all talked about before is Laura Hubbard, who’s at SUNY. You know, she’s absolutely phenomenal. And what she’s doing to try to think big picture and small. And Mike, the me to the we and the back to the me is a perfect example of what she’s trying to help people understand and work on and prioritize at some level and create a three, five, seven, 10 year planning construct. And in that three, five, seven, 10 year planning construct, why do you have 25 million (making up the number) in your savings account? Well, that’s to go towards the facilities needs we need for that, the technology needs, we need for that the laboratory needs. We need for that trying to help set up a conversation with the academic Deans across other auxiliary units to be able to say I have no magic button, but I do have an ability for us to thoughtfully think through, how are we gonna begin to really align our resources with our priorities? So as Lauren is looking to align and put those pieces together with her team, and then she’s trying to align that in a way that really helps them see. This is where we’re [going to] plan for this, where we’re [going to] save for this and where we’re [going to] invest. And then add into that the state priorities and as one of the identified flagship institutions that trying to put that together in a place that also supports the state’s workforce needs or projected workforce needs and how programs can grow or be added in a time when most institutions are talking about contraction, there does have to be an add and subtract and almost every time you’re adding a new program, there is a facilities need that is a part of that add. 

Pete: Right, it’s the no net new principle stands to start applying everywhere right now. Right, the no net new concept, Mike are you seeing things with finance officers interacting in the planning world that are that are demonstrative of this, this idea as well or and it’s that come up in in your conversations with SCUP. 

Mike: It has, and certainly not as definitively as, because that’s not a large representation in our community, but those that are represented or who interact are hearing a much more aligned and integrated approach. And I think that’s, you know, one of the things that that’s a reality that we just have to accept is that we can with any level of foresight, an organization can say you need to be ready for and you should have a structure and here’s the tools, too. But until there’s a stressor or some sort of accelerant, hopefully a positive accelerant, but stressors usually are the accelerant. We’re a little slow to adapt and rightfully so. Things aren’t broken, but I think that’s what we’re seeing a difference in is that, like, even if I’m not currently, I’m seeing enough of my colleagues and comparables under stress, I need to get out in front of this. So I think there’s a nice energy between our communities and NACUBO, APPA and SCUP that are really starting to say, hey, I don’t need to wait until it actually is a negative. I can see enough going on in the market with my comparables. What could we do different and learn from? And the beautiful part is those under stress are sharing. Those experiences vary widely. 

Pete: You know, it’s funny as you two were talking, it just kind of hit me that you’re talking about this broader and deeper learning that has to happen in order to integrate this the community and thinking about that, APPA has got a new program where they’re doing deep learning within even the facilities organizations trying to get much deeper. Jim, you Mike, you’re both referencing their leadership kind of things, but they’re saying we gotta go much deeper, that we’re going to change the culture and get that connectivity across all of the things. It’s really cool to see that kind of innovation happening right now across all of the platforms. But my I mean SCUP is famous for integration, right? Right. The integration of people and they’re planning for work right to get to the highest potential. Can you talk about some of the hurdles that you see that that work of integration at SCUP or here in the rethinking framework is gonna get us over some of the particular things that, that, that integration actually really particularly helps with in moving forward? 

Mike: Yeah, and it it’s again, I’ll oversimplify it to say when you’ve hit that point when the clarity is understood at all levels, right. So working backwards off of that aspirant goal, I think what we’re seeing, which is really cool. It’s never as simple as the Venn diagram on someone’s whiteboard, right? It’s just, it’s never that simple. And it was explained to me this way. So let me build off my horrible sports analogies and move to music. Is that it was explained to me by a musician that it’s never the notes I play. It’s a sound between the notes that I play that makes the makes the composition welcomed right, and I think that’s the whole point of the integration. It’s not the actual meeting by which we all blocked 90 minutes to come together and agree, it’s what happened between that 90 minute meeting and the one in six weeks.
There’s the sounds of integration…what actually happened and changed behaviors and recognition of new identified stressors and accelerants. And how did you address those between the meetings? Not just at the meetings at the meetings. At the meetings will work over time, but that’s a much longer timeline to make determinations on change than you know, sound between the meetings, right? So it’s not maybe the most eloquent way to explain it, but I think that’s what integration looks like. It looks like what happens between the meetings, not at the meetings. 

Pete: I love that. That’s really excellent. 

Jim: Yeah, that’s a perfect example of where, you know what I think talking with some of the facilities folks, the implementation is key, right and the challenge they’re facing right now is trying to figure out that implementation piece with a talented workforce or a workforce willing to be trained or skilled to get to where they need to be, which is a little piece of the facilities framework in that how do we also begin to help others understand the need for that kind of staff development as well, right, to get to get to that place that you just described like that, that’s that doesn’t happen by accident. 

That is a mindful entity, and I would say it’d be having been on a campus for many years, we often dismiss the facility side in some of these things because they’re tactical practitioners, doers doing things and but it’s siloed right? And we know we’ve got to move away from the silos. 

Pete: I was just talking to somebody who was telling me they’ve been participating in a PhD educational development course, a curriculum, and they’ve finished the whole thing and realized that there was nothing about facilities in educational leadership in this program at a very renowned institution. And so he’s literally working to try to see if he can help them resolve that issue for just the point you’re talking about like, it’s just not folded into thinking yet. It is the embodied obligation, the embodied debt, that we talk about is folded into the very fabric of these institutions, and you have to understand it and what it’s tied to. I’m realizing I’m missing not mentioning that we’ve included we’re going a link to the rethinking the framework for higher education report with this conversation. Now it can…also be found at APPA, NACUBO, SCUP and on the Gordian website. It’s the first report we’re hoping to see another report coming out sometime soon. 

Jim, you’re just talking about stuff and I wanted to ask if either of you had any reflections on the challenge of finding talent that’s raised in this year’s State of Facilities? And just if you have any recent insights, I’m just trying to keep that up front with people. If they’re sending their key, seeing or hearing or reading about, or some innovation they’ve heard, I’d love it. If either of you had any observations to share, and I’ll leave it to you to decide who’s gonna go first. 

Jim: The first the first thing that I’m hearing about that seems so easy, but to me was like one of those “aha brilliant” moments was people really rethinking about how they’re posting for jobs and what they’re saying about the job. And just in terms of the most basic functions about what does benefits mean, what does a 401K mean?
Trying to figure out how to integrate that into the interview process and the screening process very early on. I’m hearing about many places figuring out how to bring in, larger institutions in particular, HR staff that are bilingual, speaking the language that is closest to the people who are likely to be applying for positions to help ease the barriers. And the third is really trying to figure out ladders. What is the ladder? How do you get people, if you are a facilities person, level two or three? Is there a ladder for a facilities person? Is there growth, is there opportunity and also a willingness to accept. For some people, they’re really happy with their role. I remember at Plymouth State there was a go getter who was on the grounds crew. He loved being on the grounds crew. He never complained about a snow day, never complained about an ice day, and we would say to him repeatedly, you know you should apply for this job. He’s like I’m happy. I’m good. I’m happy. I’m good. So the balance of that, right, like to reward though, but he didn’t get any rewards other than us saying apply for new jobs. So how do you figure out how to reward person? Who really likes doing what they’re doing as well? 

Mike: Yeah. And we just did some work with another set of associations and a for-profit partner on some workforce work and it reinforces what Jim was saying, which is really making sure that you’re taking a systemic approach to your workforce and not just a symptom approach. And so, for example, it’s not uncommon in these workforce studies to say, well, my boss is awesome, but my boss’s boss’s boss? I don’t know what’s up with that. And so there’s always those stresses and those are real, but those mostly are evidence of silos and misunderstanding and maybe going back to our earlier conversation around communication and clarity. But that systemic approach does start from the day you’re recruited till the day you retire. And so we’re challenging ourselves at SCUP as an organization, not with our members, but just as we go into our next fiscal year, what does it look like for professional development to not be discretionary and to have a multi-year commitment for each employee, you know, all levels and for a small organization like ours that number may not feel substantive on first pass, but it’s usually in stressful moments. Hey, let’s hold off on the conferences. Let’s hold off on the training. Let’s hold off and that that’s the cultural flip, right? To embed that professional commitment from hire to retire as a system of investment, it’s very challenging. So we are going to run that experiment ourselves and our fiscal year 25 budget. 

Pete: And all of those were about sort of an intentionality, right? A very directness, no accidental things, really be thoughtful and think through everything you’re doing so you make sure that it’s folded in. Those are great suggestions, I think, for people who are struggling right now because it’s just…so difficult. I guess I wanted to ask in closing if there any particular things that you think need to change across higher ed if we’re gonna actually address these challenges, are there broad-based shifts that higher ed has to go through? You’ve touched a little bit on communication and socialization. Maybe that’s it. If there’s some other kind of shift in, Jim, you’re even talking to the very beginning about this sort of understanding of the ROI pressure like we got, it’s got to be valuable enough for people to want to keep investing in higher education now. Are there any other kind of really broad-based shifts, or are those the key things that you think people need to focus on? 

Jim: Mike mentioned net neutral. I think that this…has to be the future at where you add a program you have to subtract a program that we are no different than any other market and there were certainly value in some of the programs that need to be reduced or sun-setted or phased out. There may be a time when several of them come back again, but we no longer have the luxury to offer everything to everyone and so we have to move into a cadence. Think about how different our financial infrastructure would be right now if for every program we added, we cut one for the last 20 years. It would be fundamentally different today. Had we followed some really good principles that other businesses, and I know we don’t like to get compared, but it’s true, we had that. We do have a business piece to what we do and that that piece, I think, is a critical shift that has to happen. 

Mike: Yeah, I would support that by also recognizing that innovation moves everything forward, but it isn’t always required for your success. So what is required for your success, to Jim’s point is what are you doing to make sure that you’re effectively serving the students, and sometimes that’s a much different conversation than what are we doing to move this discipline, this thing, this entity forward is. That’s still important, but depending on where you are in this, this moment of massive headwinds, devaluation, all the things that are happening, taking an effectiveness approach may start to help. As Jim outlined there that net zero effect of this is really important for our local economy that we are a locally based college, let’s make sure we are acknowledging that, but it does come at a decision at all levels of, but then this can’t happen. And what? How do we weigh those risk? It’s maybe more around effectiveness than trying to seek funding through innovation, which is always part of higher ed, I’m not gonna ever refute that or deny that, but if we’re in a situation of looking at five year, seven year, 10 year horizon of financial stress, where are we doing our planning for effectiveness? And that may open up some comfort for people to say, well, I’ve seen this and I’ve seen that at all levels, which may actually move things forward faster. 

Pete: Those are great, right? I mean, they’re both talking about you, even though, Jim, you don’t talk about necessarily, people don’t talk about this as a business, right? Colleges and businesses have this issue of a central purpose or goal on mission of vision, a place to go right, and it is in this case about serving students and doing that the most effective way, and if we can stay focused on that, everything else should be possible to rally around that right to make the changes we’re talking about. 

You laughed when I talked about robust intellectual resources at the top of this, but I love talking to the two of you and you’re remarkable, and your thoughts. I really, really am grateful that you’ve joined me in a conversation today. I feel like the things you’re saying are really connecting the observations in the State of Facilities and with the with the realities that are much larger context. I just really, really appreciate your taking the time today to have the conversation. I wanna ask anybody who is watching this to keep their eyes peeled for some more conversations this summer in which we’re gonna speak to people more deeply on the staffing challenge in particular. We’re also gonna dig deep with a finance officer or two about what they’re thinking about the future. Specifically, I want to thank the two of you and everyone else for being with us. And until next time, we hope that you are focused on, like we are, on transforming data insights into smarter decisions that will aid you in building the best possible communities. And with that, I’m going to say to everyone, good day and goodbye. 

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