Creating a New Model of Shared Services: Dual -- Not Dueling -- Campus Leadership

In April 2011, State University of New York (SUNY) system administration provost David Lavallee drove from Albany to my office at SUNY Delhi. It turned out he had some news for me that needed to be delivered in person. It went something like this: "Candace, I'm here to ask you to be president of Cobleskill."

Undoubtedly anticipating my reaction to leaving the campus that I had been leading for the past 13 years, he quickly added, "No, you're not leaving Delhi. We want you to be president of both campuses."

This unconventional move was inspired by a mandate across SUNY to do more with less. Since 2008, like other systems of public higher education, SUNY's share of state aid has decreased by $1.4 billion. To support academic excellence in the face of these cuts, SUNY has launched a shared services initiative that shifts existing resources from administration to instruction and other direct student services -- to the tune of $100 million across its 64 campuses.

One of the arrows in the shared services quiver is the Campus Alliance Network, a strategy of aligning two or more of SUNY's 64 campuses to expand academic resources for students while increasing efficiency. The shared presidency model lies at the leading edge of that framework, and had never before been attempted at SUNY.

It made sense to pilot the model at Cobleskill and Delhi. Cobleskill's embattled president -- the sixth leader in 13 years -- had recently retired. The prospect of a search process for a new president with the campus in its current condition seemed doomed to failure. Second, a campus alliance between Cobleskill and Delhi made sense both geographically and in terms of the respective missions and profiles of the two rural agriculture-technical sector colleges.

Delhi also had the advantage of stable leadership and had developed best practices in some of the areas that needed the most attention at Cobleskill. Putting an experienced SUNY campus president in charge greatly reduced the learning curve for working within the system, and gave Cobleskill a fighting chance to address longstanding issues while exploring shared services practices that could become models for other campuses.

All of this gave me confidence that this unusual arrangement might just work.

Fast forward to Aug. 25, 2011. Now officer-in-charge of SUNY Cobleskill, at a community meeting in a crowded auditorium on the campus, I got a reality check about the challenges ahead. While many members of the Cobleskill community were welcoming, the air was heavy with skepticism about the plan -- and concern that a shared presidency signaled second-class status within SUNY.

In the past 15 months, I've worked hard to dispel those concerns, believing the most important tools I could bring with me to Cobleskill were glass-half-full optimism, listening skills, and an enthusiastic embrace of new challenges.

The other key asset I had to offer was an experienced group of administrators at Delhi who shared my commitment to making this experiment work. Three Delhi staff members joined top administrators at Cobleskill to form a joint cabinet that fully aligned the administrative functions of the two campuses. Each campus has maintained its own provost and vice president for student life, but vice presidents for business and finance, operations, enrollment, college advancement and communications are shared.

The new joint cabinet got right to work creating an inventory of ways to collaborate, cooperate, share best practices, and consolidate operations between the two campuses.

Now in our second academic year, we have made significant progress toward our goal of shifting 10 percent of resources from administration to instruction. For example, Delhi and Cobleskill now share an IT procurement person and a webmaster. All print shop functions have been moved to Cobleskill -- which provides savings for Delhi and revenue for Cobleskill. And we have cut costs on administrative salaries, decreasing the number of full time deans on each campus from three to two and reducing the number of department chairs by shifting faculty responsibility from administration to teaching.

As a result, Cobleskill has reduced its operating deficit and has new resources available for priority academic programs and new faculty positions. Meanwhile, Delhi has invested its administrative savings in nine new instructional positions.

But the inevitable question arises: How is it really working to try to run two campuses? The answer is that in terms of getting Cobleskill to a better place -- and realizing savings for both campuses, the alliance has been successful. It has also been, in the words of one joint cabinet member, "the professional development opportunity of a lifetime." And I believe our work embodies SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher's vision of systemness -- the web of connections systems can leverage between institutions and sets of resources.

Navigating the different campus cultures and uncharted administrative waters, while challenging, has been an adventure in leadership that I could never have experienced otherwise. I've watched as my team has shifted to a new mindset that continually seeks prospects for sharing and efficiency. We've developed new sets of antennae for ways in which the two institutions can complement one another.

And as we have found savings and shown the value of developing working relationships between the two campuses, I think some of the deep-seated distrust has softened.

Is it sustainable for a president to serve two campuses that are not in the same community? The laws of physics do apply: you can't be on the ground in two places at once. In the long run, I believe Cobleskill needs its own president. But SUNY did not set a specific timeline or exit strategy, leaving the next chapter of this story to be determined based on the outcomes of our initiatives and a consensus transition plan.

Meanwhile, we remain focused on developing shared services in ways that will make sense under any administrative structure. No matter how the shared presidency model evolves, we are designing durable new pathways to build academic capacity within the new normal of decreased public resources.

At the end of the day, I'm a believer: Under the right circumstances, shared administration is a strategy that university systems can take to the bank.