06/10/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

When Less Can Be More: Higher Education in 2013

As chancellor of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, I am responsible for a $592 million budget, 7,500 faculty and staff, and more than 200 graduate and undergraduate programs. I also hold a position as Professor of Accounting, and I am formally trained as a Certified Public Accountant, with a research focus on governmental and nonprofit accounting.

The financial crisis has forced virtually every family to scrutinize how it spends money; our university family is no different. Though our commitment to student success has not changed, our economic realities are vastly different because of the fiscal challenges facing the state and federal governments. That has given accountants a more important seat at the table because we are responsible for ensuring an organization's fiscal health across divisions.

However, it is essential that when we extract savings here and there that we not derail the overall goals of what we in higher education are trying to accomplish. What is happening at SIU is part of a larger movement in higher education that is referred to as productivity in some circles. It focuses on how we can dramatically increase the number of students earning college degrees so our country can remain competitive, while planning responsibly for the financial realities of 2013, 2023, and 2033.

Let me share with you some examples of what we have done at Southern Illinois University to improve productivity:

-- We reduced the number of fiscal officers (from 400 to 185) to streamline controls on expenditures. This helped avoid cutting core academic programs that would increase student-faculty ratios or roll back investments in next-generation educational technologies.

-- We identified opportunities for new business-related income without turning to increased tuition or fees, such as developing a faculty-and-staff health clinic as a point-of-service within the Student Health Center.

-- We implemented a hiring freeze in order to deal with cutbacks in state support. Because of turnover and attrition, we retain nearly 500 fewer full-time employees today than we did in fiscal year 2008 as a result of the freeze policy, allowing us to avoid hundreds of potential across-the-board layoffs.

-- We have grown our Distance Education offerings, another creative way to improve our bottom line. The development of online courses allows SIU to serve a growing portion of the student population: distance and nontraditional learners, who may require access to a more flexible schedule to accommodate full- or part-time employment. This spring, 160 online courses are available compared to 79 during the fall 2011 semester, less than two years ago. In that time, online core curriculum course offerings have nearly tripled from seven to the current 20.

-- Our colleges and departments are working to shorten the time to degree completion and improve academic success rates, which will help control costs for students and the university system at large. Working toward improved degree completion is critical for ensuring that SIU students realize their full potential; it's also smart fiscal stewardship. When students withdraw or are suspended or expelled, academic failure can not only harm that student's future, but also cost the university financially.

-- Next fall, we will launch a tablet initiative that will create significant learning and financial benefits for students. All new freshmen will receive tablets that include digital textbooks and assignments for some courses. This cutting-edge technology will facilitate teaching and learning and help our students become more engaged with the campus community. In addition to interfacing with other campus and online programs, the tablets will connect students to residential life, events and activities, social media, and campus safety initiatives.

Even steps that may seem negligible, such as implementing electronic deposits for student financial aid refunds, add up to savings. I believe SIU is doing its part to show that we can streamline higher education budgets without resorting to desperate measures. After all, I know that accounting students are counting on me as both a university chancellor and a professional accountant to ensure that we make the right decisions.

I am a realist. We will continue to implement efficiencies while we maintain the legacy of access and opportunity that dates to our founding as a small teachers college. What matters, in the end, is the quality of the education. In that regard, minding the budget and making these strategic decisions is not only financially prudent, but central to building a thriving university community that sets students up for success.