Enduring Good and Bad Budget Times Through Collaboration

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 Can instruction and student services collaborate on cuts to the budget without turf wars? The Vice Presidents of Academic Affairs and Student Services at El Camino College have found that collaborating and building a trusting relationship with each other is the key to mitigatating the impact of tough budgetary decisions. 

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 “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing!” Does that statement describe the relationship between academic affairs (AA) and student services (SS) at your institution? Conducting an orchestra would be impossible under those circumstances and running a college wouldn’t fair much better. At El Camino College the collaboration between the AA and SS vice presidents (VPs) started in 2005 with the creation of an Enrollment Management (EM) Committee. Both VPs were new and it became apparent that the left and right hands were not making the same hand signals and this was accentuated by a precipitous enrollment decline that no one could explain. 
 
It became clear to the two VPs that both areas needed better collaboration and a team approach to enrollment management to reverse the 1200 FTES decline. Starting with the EM Committee, both areas were brought together to develop a plan that focused on six general strategic areas: information systems, curriculum and instruction, scheduling, student services, retention, and marketing. The VPs brought together representatives in key decision making roles, from all areas of the college, to develop action steps and a systematic set of initiatives to increase enrollment.   
 
Several forums and summits were held to brainstorm what was working well and what was not to support enrollment management. The result of these events was the refinement of the enrollment initiatives and cross constituent support for the development of the Enrollment Management Plan. The vice presidents demonstrated unity of purpose and a focused determination to get everyone to work together to solve the enrollment decline. Not only did we recover the 1200 FTES decline, but we have also experienced an enrollment increase of 10% this academic year.
 
The success of the planning activities led to other changes to strengthen the interdependence of the two areas. This collaboration continued when the new vice president of student services joined the college in 2007. Today the partnership is evident in the many co-chair roles the VPs share within the institution’s governance structure. Both chair the Council of Deans (made up of AA and SS Deans and Directors), Calendar Committee and Retention Committee. In addition, both attend the bi-weekly meetings of the EM Committee, the Academic Senate and the Academic Senate Executive Board.  The latter has proven to be highly effective as it is an opportunity for the Senate leadership to explore concerns about policy, administrative actions, resource allocation or other issues. While the VPs are united, each brings a unique perspective to the dialog resulting in many potential issues being nipped in the bud.
 
Budgeting in tough economic times and acting in the best interest of students involves collaboration and making decisions hand-in-hand. Like many other colleges, El Camino College (ECC) was forced to cut its budget this year and yet we did not “cannibalize” programs in instruction or student services. We kept the cuts away from the classroom and direct services to students. In fact, each VP maintained an institution-wide perspective in order to minimize the effect of budget reductions on services to students. This type of type of action can only be achieved where all parties are working together to protect the integrity of the entire college rather than protecting turf. What has been most interesting about this process is that when “push came to shove” with the budget, all of the VPs came together with a sense of unity and common interest to maximize services to students. 
 
What we have found at ECC is that by working together, regardless of significant budget reductions, difficult decisions can be mitigated. Even though we understand the reality that funding may not be available in these economic times, it is meaningful to advocate for our areas without undermining each other. Open and trusting relationships have a deep institutional benefit for students and all constituents. We were fortunate at El Camino to have VPs whose personalities meshed and allowed for the collaborative relationship to flourish. Putting one’s ego aside is fundamental to creating this relationship. Boards and CEOs must consider the quality of that relationship as much as the quality of the knowledge and experience of VP candidates.