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5 tips for communicating new cost containment policies to campus

April 17, 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak has wreaked havoc on higher education institutions, including their financial plans. Across industry segments, institutions are recording significant emergency expenditures and projecting material revenue losses across the months ahead. In response, nearly every cabinet is considering enacting cost containment strategies to combat financial losses.

Knowing that these pressures are on the horizon, leaders need to prepare the most effective and considerate way to communicate cost-cutting measures. Many cost containment strategies will impose hardships, and therefore thoughtful and clear communication is crucial. Below, EAB outlines five tips for communicating cuts to the campus community, with corresponding examples from institutions’ COVID-19 communications.

1. Communicate cost containment policy decisions in a direct letter to the campus community.

Make the communication more personal by formatting it as an email letter to the campus community or relevant stakeholders. Keep it simple, and selectively use bolding, underlining, and italics to call out the most important information for people skimming to notice quickly. Use approved logos, consistent fonts, and a limited color scheme to signal the importance of the communication. Follow up the email letter by posting the communication on the institution’s COVID-19 resource page.

Discretionary Spending – All discretionary spending, including the hiring of outside consultants, is suspended immediately. This includes food/meals, events, recognition banquets and other expenditures that are not critical to the operation of the university. Essential expenditures that directly support the mission of the university must be approved by the provost or the executive vice president.

Capital Projects – All existing capital projects will be reevaluated to determine whether they should proceed, and no new capital projects will be approved.

Cornell University: Managing the Financial Impact of COVID-19

Hiring Freeze
We are putting into place a temporary hiring freeze, effective today. Limited exceptions will be allowed and should be forwarded through deans and division heads. All exceptions will be subject to approval from Provost Johannes Britz and Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administrative Affairs Robin Van Harpen.

Effective immediately, compensation adjustments for our employees, other than due to promotions, will be on hold, with very limited exceptions that will be subject to the same approval used for hires.

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee: COVID-19 Impact on Our Budget

2. Include a message of appreciation for stakeholders’ work, collaboration, and understanding during the coronavirus crisis.

Acknowledge the challenges the campus community has already overcome and thank stakeholders for their resilience and adaptability. Recognize the mental and physical state of stakeholders before jumping into the business of cuts.

I cannot tell you how thankful I am for your support and goodwill in these challenging times. We are navigating uncharted waters together, with each other as a compass, and as I said in my letter of March 16, I continue to marvel at all you have done to help our students, our faculty, and fellow staff members find their way. The spirit of the Connecticut College community-defined by creativity, hard work, and openness to change-has never been more vivid.

Connecticut College: A Message from the President

First, we hope you are staying safe and getting outside some as we all adjust to new routines. Second, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the extraordinary and ongoing efforts of our health and safety colleagues. They are truly the gold standard, and we should all be proud of and grateful for them. Each of you has also risen to the occasion. You are meeting the challenges of virtual instruction and playing critical roles in many areas, directly supporting our ability to manage this crisis. Thank you.

George Washington University: Message from Provost Brian Blake and EVP and CFRO Mark Diaz

3. Provide context for the cost containment policies to help stakeholders understand the urgency behind these decisions.

To help your audience understand why the measures you’re introducing are necessary, consider detailing the financial impact of COVID-19 on your institution to-date. If possible, share projections for future revenue losses to be incurred, and share context to help readers understand what those dollar figures mean.

Today, I write to share an update on how the pandemic is affecting our financial situation at UWM. The impacts include: [A] Lost revenue from operations that have been closed. Without open facilities, we can’t provide catering, dining, recreation, community engagement activities and other services. [B] Providing pro-rated refunds for parking permits, University Housing and dining operations budget. [C] Costs associated with providing COVID-19 leave. This is the right thing to do, but it was an unplanned expense. As a result of these unexpected developments, I am announcing several measures to help mitigate the financial impact the pandemic is having on our campus:

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee: COVID-19 Impact on Our Budget

The University faces a very significant loss of revenue in 2020, currently estimated to be in the range of $120-$150M.

La Trobe University: La Trobe University Senior Executive Group Takes Voluntary 20 Percent Salary Cut

4. Reassure your audience of the institution’s commitment to its core values.

Reaffirm trust in the administration’s decision-making. Assure campus stakeholders that despite any cuts, the mission of the university will remain intact.

The University remains focused on the financial priorities below and the resources necessary to achieve them: [A] Ensuring our students receive a high-quality education. [B] Supporting retention and recruitment of our students. [C] Continuing research and scholarship, especially related to the public health crisis and precision health. [D] Supporting the University’s response to the public health crisis and other engagement activities. [E] Supporting activities that grow revenues for the University.

University of Missouri System: Important Financial Guidance for University Leaders

We also have a strong commitment to our students. We know that many of them will see changed personal and family circumstances as a result of the current crisis, and we aim to guarantee that every single one, currently enrolled or newly admitted, can complete their Cornell education. In service of this goal, members of the leadership team – including the president, the provost, vice presidents, deans and vice provosts – have voluntarily assumed salary reductions for a duration of six months. Every dollar of these recaptured funds will be used to help meet the financial aid needs of our undergraduate, graduate or professional students. Should additional faculty and staff wish to pursue this voluntary avenue to support student financial aid, please contact Kim Babuka ([email protected]) in Human Resources.

Cornell University: Managing the Financial Impact of COVID-19

5. Reiterate thanks and promise future communication.

Close the communication with more appreciation for stakeholders’ understanding and collaboration and promise to continue to frequently update the community on senior leaders’ decisions. You may want to preview that leadership may need to make more difficult decisions in the months ahead as the crisis unfolds.

We understand the stress that the current health crisis is creating for all of you, and we so appreciate how everyone is working together to live our values by supporting our entire community to the best of our abilities. Given the dynamic and unpredictable nature of this crisis, please know that we will continue to monitor its impact and communicate regularly with you over the days and weeks ahead.

Cornell University: Managing the Financial Impact of COVID-19

As President LeBlanc wrote recently to the GW community, we are in a momentous time that calls for us to find strength and resilience. The crisis caused by COVID-19 has affected every aspect of our campus life. As we monitor this evolving situation, we will continue to evaluate these hiring and spending decisions as well as further actions that may be necessary, depending on the length of the crisis. We thank you for all you are doing for our community and, most especially, our students. Stay tuned, stay positive and Raise High.

George Washington University: Message from Provost Brian Blake and EVP and CFRO Mark Diaz

Exemplar Cost Containment Policy Decision Communications

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