In April of 2012, the Central Region APPA (CAPPA) President approached me about assuming the role of 3rd Vice President for CAPPA. At the time, I was waiting on the results of the APPA elections; I had been nominated for Vice President of Professional Development at APPA. I said that if I were not elected, I would consider his invitation. Also at the time, I was the Secretary of Rocky Mountain APPA (RMA). There was another winner, and I accepted the offer from CAPPA and resigned from the RMA board.
As it happened, the end of the CAPPA 7-year commitment in Fall of 2018 would closely coincide with my 64th birthday in July of the same year. By February of 2019, I will have the requisite “points” to retire in New Mexico, and the following July will become eligible for my Texas retirement. In addition, NMSU has a new Chancellor and a new President. Besides all that and more importantly, my wife thinks that we should sell the house and travel the country in our RV. I’ve been told that when it’s time, I’ll know. I’m listening.
While we have not made that final decision, I am starting to realize that many of the tasks and activities that I am presently involved in might be my last. This fall in South Dakota will be my last Executive Committee meeting and may be my final CAPPA conference as an active member of an institution. The new residence hall at NMSU may be my final groundbreaking; Jett Hall, the concluding ribbon cutting; this year’s 5-year facilities plan could be the last one I prepare, although good riddance and I won’t miss doing those.
There may not be too many more “next times” in facilities management for me.
My father was the Director of Physical Plant at TCU for 17 years. I was a student there and spent my first summer as a student employee converting metal filters to fiberglass. I have also worked for Texas Woman’s University and the University of North Texas, reaching the top job at NMSU in 2008.
As a facilities officer, I am from the era of growth. Most of the facilities officers my age assumed our positions when enrollment was vigorously expanding from the children of the post war baby boomers. As a general rule, our mantra was always, “more money and more people,” and those of us who could make our case effectively generally improved our condition.
We still say that, but with the recession, budget cuts, enrollment flattening and then declining in many places, we are really shorthanded these days. The thing about it is, so is everyone else. Every department on campus sings from the same sheet of music. And sadly, most are correct in that they have insufficient staff to operate effectively, including facilities.
Not only that, the turnover rate of the two positions that we usually report to, the Vice President of Finance and Administration and the President, has reached the point where most of us can expect to work under 4 or 5 different people in the course of our career. Assuming, of course, that we get along with and can work with them instead of losing our jobs.
Recently, another chief facilities officer wrote me that, “We are at a critical crossroads in facilities management. As Senior Facility Officers (SFO), we not only face major budgetary challenges, the optics of having a long lustrous career as an SFO are changing. Our challenges continue to change, and our skill sets in many ways are being challenged by corporate leadership.”
As I look back, and knowing that there are exponential changes coming in the way we operate, maintain, and construct our campus facilities, is there a future in facilities as a career anymore? And if there is, what does it look like? Can it be satisfying instead of frustrating?
In a nutshell, colleges and universities are returning to the situation where I started my career with a wide gap between the “haves” and “have nots.” That’s not surprising after some thought, because it was in the 1970s that the “haves” were subsidizing Athletics and Housing. Later, the state legislatures mandated that educational funds could only be used for academic support, and that as a general rule, Athletics and Auxiliaries had to earn their own way. Now that state funding has declined, we are all reliant on tuition with enrollment and retention being the watchwords. With the children of the baby boomers past college age – our sons and daughters – there are simply not enough customers to go around.
It is also undeniable that higher education has collectively allowed costs to spiral out of control. As much as we may wish to deny it or point out that in most cases facilities management is funded at levels below where it should be, the physical plant is caught up in the cost cutting frenzy that many institutions are experiencing.
Just as the income gap continues to polarize the nation, this situation will grow worse before it gets better. The “haves” will keep building exciting new facilities that attract additional students and the “have nots” will continue with program reviews and strategic position eliminations if they are thoughtful and radical cost cutting when they are not. I attended an APPA Information and Research Committee meeting when the APPA President gently chided the members for paying more attention to the problems of schools that are growing than to those of the rest of us who are contracting.
If you’re fortunate to be employed at a school that is growing enrollment and still expanding, count your blessings and keep watching costs, because your day may come. More likely, if you find yourself at a “have not” experiencing rough financial times and/or enrollment contraction, first of all, know that this is most of us. Consider how you can help guide your school to becoming the best smaller university it can be.
For us to be successful in Facilities, we not only have to accept but to buy in to our employers’ mission. One reason our field has seen such success from former military personnel is that in particular, they understand “mission change.” We must shift the way we have thought for years. If an overly compassionate progressive discipline process and/or union rules make holding personnel accountable, or high fringe rates drive labor costs up, embrace outsourcing instead of holding on for dear life. If monetizing an asset like plant and equipment can make needed cash available when there is no other alternative, be the person who thought of it instead of the one who lays down roadblocks. Think differently.
As our former chancellor says, anyone can manage in good times. Recognize that this is when you demonstrate your management and leadership skills, and facilities management needs good people now more than ever. Our staff deserve leaders who can help them through tough times and they are counting on you. Happiness isn’t getting what you want, it’s wanting what you get.