Group offers suggestions for more transparent resource distribution process at UMass

By Isaac Burke

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(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)

(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)

The University of Massachusetts’ Joint Task Force on Resource Allocation has released an updated draft of its research findings, nearly a year and a half after it first began evaluating the University’s budget.

The report contains new recommendations for updating and improving the way resources are divided among the many entities that make up the University’s campus.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy charged the task force in October 2013 with making sure the campus was considerate of alternative resource allocation models. This was done in an effort to make the budget process fairer and more efficient.

“There was a recognition that often times we have great goals as a campus, but we often don’t know how to actually make it happen in terms of how we allocate resources,” said Elizabeth Chilton, co-chair of the JTFRA and a professor of anthropology.

According to Chilton, the 23member task force, which includes representatives from campus staff, faculty and students, found that the main shortfall in the budget model UMass currently uses was a lack of transparency.

“Right now, it’s complicated and the opposite of transparent – so I guess that would be opaque,” she said.

Chilton likened the current model to a collection of checking accounts.

Essentially, each of the colleges at UMass is given a certain “allowance” to spend for each year, which is then spent on various programs and services within the college. At the end of the year, the University’s budget office  tallies the total spending and the college is again given an allowance for the next year.

However, these allowances are generally based on what organizations were given the previous year alone, and rarely change because they are not controlled by individual colleges. Instead, a central budgeting office sets the amount all the colleges are allocated.

When a college needs more money, its dean can go to the chancellor or provost to ask for it, but these requests are often denied, and the process is generally not open to the larger campus community for review or debate.

“I was a department chair for six years and I never really understood how it was that I was given a certain budget,” Chilton said. “My operating budget never really changed – it wasn’t sensitive to growth or shrinking over time. It was always just incremental.”

To counter this problem, the task force recommended the new budget model be decentralized and made more open to input from the campus community. The proposed model – called the Strategic Budget Allocation System – would allow colleges and their chairs to be more directly involved in the process, offering more choices for program funding and providing individual departments more opportunity to voice specific needs.

The new model would also take into account rising or falling costs within a college over time. Data on where money is being spent and how the amount of spending changes each year would be examined so that colleges could more accurately estimate how to adjust funding appropriately.

Chilton said this model would be less of a formula, and more of a “tool,” which the University would use to analyze changes in spending and decide where to allocate funds.

“It gives a mechanism for growing or even shrinking budgets as colleges grow and shrink,” Chilton said. “(We) want to see what’s changing over time and why.”

The updated report containing the new model was presented to the Student Government Association last Monday, and students were able to ask questions and critique the JTFRA’s plan. The team’s next move will be to compare the new model alongside the current one in the fall of 2015. This “parallel testing” is meant to give the JTFRA data on how the University’s budget would respond to a new system.

“Nothing would change, but we would model what colleges would look like if we were to have allocated budgets in the new way,” Chilton said.

After observing the model for a year, the task force will then recommend further changes if necessary. Chilton and the other members of the task force are hopeful that, within five years, the new model can be fully implemented.

“We have a responsibility to the taxpayers,” she said. “We have to be thinking about how is it that we’re aligning our resources to support the priorities we have as an institution.”

The public can view the draft report by the JTFRA on the Office of the Chancellor’s website, and can offer feedback about the process.

Isaac Burke can be reached at [email protected]