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4 of 6 Stories

"Culture of Quality"
Northwest Missouri State University's corporate-style goal-setting and number-crunching

By Susan C. Thomson
Maryville, Missouri

Dean L. Hubbard fires up his laptop and clicks open his "dashboard," a display of two dozen squares, all green or purple with just a few slivers of yellow or red. One quick glance at the screen tells him "everything is looking pretty good" at Northwest Missouri State University.

Hubbard is Northwest's president, and the "dashboard" is a color-coded, real-time snapshot of how well the university is measuring up to its academic, fiscal and administrative goals. Deeper in the dashboard, clicks away, lie explanatory trend lines, scatter plots and raw data. Throughout, green means on-target; purple, above; yellow, a little below; and red means trouble.

Hubbard has had some personal red moments, close calls that could have cost him his job, early on in his tenure of almost 21 years. But he has hung in steady, gaining himself and the university reputations as innovators in higher education management.

Under Hubbard, Northwest expanded a small experiment with alternative fuels such as wood chips and paper pellets and reduced the university's heating and cooling bills by 79 percent, or $1.8 million a year, money that now goes into instruction. The university also boasts of becoming, in 1987, the first in the country to put a computer in every dorm room and office.

 
Low out-of-state tuition lured Kara Ferguson, from Clarinda, Iowa, to Northwest Missouri State. She graduates this spring.
(Photo by Craig Sands, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
But, more than anything else, what sets Northwest apart is its unrelenting, unqualified adherence to "total quality management," a concept that U.S. businesses imported from Japan in the 1980s. Hubbard arrived at Northwest in 1984, already a convert to the movement and its chief notions of "continuous improvement" and "fact-informed decision making."

"If you can't measure it, you can't improve it," he likes to say. And so at Northwest, the quest for endless self-improvement goes hand-in-hand with endless quantitative analysis. The university as a whole, and every department in it, sets measurable goals and constantly charts progress toward them.

Hubbard and other Northwest administrators walk around with some of the most telling numbers in their heads. Major among these is the calculation that the university spends almost $500 more a year per student on academic programs, and that much less on administration, than the average for 41 other U.S. universities that Northwest has picked as its peers and external benchmarks. "That's quality right there!" enthuses Kichoon Yang, who became Northwest's provost in January.

Northwest monitors itself on scores of statistics-the costs of various programs, the state of student recruiting for the coming year, sales at the campus bookstore, even problems with campus fire alarms. With a few computer keystrokes, Hubbard or another administrator also can summon up data on learning, measured by student performance on nationally normed tests in their major fields, and teaching, tracked by students' evaluations of their classes.

"Total quality management" has enabled President Dean L. Hubbard of Northwest Missouri State University to weather tough budget times.
(Photo by Craig Sands, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Quentin Wilson, Missouri's higher education commissioner until the end of last year, says that during his more than two years in that job Northwest stood out for "managing for results and applying quality principles in everything they do." He calls the university and Hubbard leaders in this respect, "not just in Missouri but in the country."

This deliberateness and attention to detail stood Northwest in particularly good stead during what Hubbard describes as the "meat-ax budget cuts" Missouri inflicted on higher education when the state's economy lurched into reverse in the latest recession. In fiscal 2002-03 the state slashed appropriations for its public colleges and universities by 10.2 percent. According to an analysis by James C. Palmer and Sandra L. Gillilan of Illinois State University, only Oregon, with an 11.1 percent cut, was hit harder.

Northwest's share of the budget pain was $4.1 million, and it hurt. But the university was nimble enough to adjust without resorting to the layoffs, larger classes, course cancellations and double-digit tuition increases, including a 19.5 percent rise at the University of Missouri, that made headlines around the state.

"Northwest was able to plan and manage through the tough financial times at least as well as anybody in the state, if not better," Wilson said.

Hubbard's prescience helped. After riding out a state budget crunch years earlier, he took a vow of never-again, and insisted on building Northwest's reserves against the inevitable next rainy day.

When it came, reserves were healthy enough to absorb comfortably a third of the state's big budget shock. A tuition increase of nine percent made up a similar amount. The remaining third came out of administration, which Hubbard had already squeezed down to a handful of vice presidents and deans with no subordinates called "associate," "assistant" or "deputy."

Over the years, Hubbard has seized on attrition in the non-academic ranks to eliminate, combine and redistribute jobs, often using students to plug gaps. In a typical move, when one of his two executive assistants resigned a couple of years ago, the president gave her duties to a graduate student now working for him part-time.

There is no such stinting when it comes to salaries. After the big state budget cut two years ago, the university imposed a one-year salary freeze. But it has since followed up with substantial raises-12 percent one year for the staff, and seven percent another year for the faculty. All told, employees' paychecks have either tracked or outpaced inflation over these last few financially trying years.

Missouri has budgeted no money for higher education capital projects since 1999-2000, but Northwest has navigated its way around that roadblock, too. Two years ago, the university improved its football stadium to the tune of $2 million, all from private donations. Last fall saw the opening of three new residence halls, and construction is to start on yet another this spring, with $56.6 million in revenue bonds financing all four.

All are designed with apartments and suites-the accommodations today's college students prefer, and a definite plus for Northwest, given its small-town home in a sparsely populated rural area where incomes trail Missouri averages. Way off center in its home state, the university increasingly trolls for students in nearby Iowa and Nebraska, and it offers various ways for students from several midwestern states to qualify for in-state or reduced out-of-state tuition.

For senior Kara Ferguson, from Clarinda, Iowa, 35 miles away, Northwest was simply the best college bargain available. Senior Ryan Smith, from Council Bluffs, Iowa, 110 miles distant, says not only Northwest's price but also its size attracted him. He likes being at "kind of a big school" that is still small enough that, though he doesn't know all students by name, he at least recognizes most of them. Smith also speaks highly of classes that are "not huge" and faculty members who go out of their way to help.

Hubbard expects no less of his faculty. He promotes the view that students are customers, so satisfying them is a paramount Northwest goal. Periodic surveys show that the university succeeds-mostly. But the square for student satisfaction on Hubbard's dashboard, while largely green, occasionally shows a little slice of cautionary yellow.

Northwest students complain about the usual things, such as parking. ("People just don't want to walk," Ferguson said.) A sore point for senior Leon Harden III, from Kansas City, Missouri, is often being the only black student in classes at a university where more than 95 percent of the students are white, and African-American enrollment is only 2.2 percent. "Some of my friends came here and they didn't stay," he said, guessing that they were discouraged in part by the lack of racial diversity in Maryville as well.

Michael Hobbs, an associate professor of English and president of Northwest's faculty senate, says the faculty has its grumblers too-those who do not buy Hubbard's students-as-customers theory, his obsession with quality and the corporate-style goal-setting and number-crunching that go with it. But in his own dozen years at Northwest, Hobbs has seen a trend, as "even some who were resistant and skeptical began to see that there were some benefits in examining ourselves." So, he says, the whole campus now has pretty much bought into the habits of what Northwest promotes as its "culture of quality."

 
Leon Harden III, from Kansas City, Missouri, is one of the few black students at Northwest Missouri State, where enrollment is 95 percent white.
(Photo by Craig Sands, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Even Northwest students, however vague on the details, pick up on that three-word mantra, which decorates comment cards and mailboxes placed here and there about the campus. They invite one and all to drop a line, pro or con, with or without signature, on anything about the university that has caught their attention. Most of the filled-out cards go directly to Hubbard, who says he reads them and passes them along to the relevant department heads to decide what, if any, action to take.

A 50-year-old horse chestnut tree standing where the new residence hall is to be built recently evoked a flurry of cards, with a vocal spare-the-tree faction suggesting that either the tree or the building site be moved. Hubbard named a committee to study options.

He takes it for granted that students will sometimes use cards to carp about what they see as a boring class here, or an unfair teacher there. The president says that rather than reacting to random complaints, he reads the cards as he does all Northwest data-for trends. In just one case, he says, comment cards helped lead to a instructor's dismissal.

For all the detail at his finger tips, Hubbard avoids getting bogged down. An apple-cheeked, white-haired man with a neatly cropped beard, he is warm in person, generous with his time, and expansive, given to the big picture in his conversation. Recently, he gave the better part of an hour to an interview with a reporter for the campus newspaper, for instance, answering all questions at length, concluding with an invitation to call back with any follow-up queries.

Hubbard exudes the ease and confidence of a man who has done this job for almost a generation and, whatever his challenges of the moment, has put some of his biggest battles behind him. Ron Moss, a semi-retired Northwest management professor, says the faculty was initially wary of Hubbard because he came from a small, religious school-Union College, a Seventh Day Adventist college in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he had been president.

 
Northwest Missouri State Provost Kichoon Yang noted that the university spends more money on instruction, and less on administration, than many other campuses.
(Photo by Craig Sands, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Hubbard's bachelor's and master's degrees come from another Adventist school, Andrews University in Berrien, Michigan. After a Ph.D. from Stanford, he worked as a pastor for the denomination in Asia for ten years.

Though Hubbard says he belongs to no church now, there remains something of the missionary about him, especially when it comes to quality. He arrived at Northwest preaching it, holding up successful for-profit corporations as examples to emulate. But, said Moss, "A lot of people on the faculty were not convinced that was the way the university should be going."

Northwest's problems came as a rude awakening for Hubbard. Shortly after arriving, he learned that Missouri's higher education department was brewing a plan to shut the university down. Enrollment was anemic, about two-thirds of today's 6,600, and deficits were running about $1 million a year.

Hubbard says it took five years to stanch the red ink and ensure Northwest's survival. Meanwhile, he jeopardized his own, first by talking quality, something of a foreign language in academia at the time, and then by tightening standards for promotion and tenure. At that, he says, the already skeptical faculty erupted "in open rebellion" and voted no confidence in him. The university's governing board reacted by giving him a raise and a five-year contract.

Now Hubbard has a contract that will take him into mid-2009, when he will be 71. If the president holds true to form, what may be his last four years at Northwest will be anything but more of the same. Colleagues say he is always thinking of something new. They have learned to expect surprises, such as the announcement two years ago of his plan for Northwest to join the four-campus, 55,000-student, statewide University of Missouri system. This was no impulse on his part, he says, but something he had been talking up behind the scenes for years.

University of Missouri president Elson S. Floyd embraced the idea for what the two men said would be the country's first voluntary combination of public universities. As the system's fifth campus, Northwest would gain access to some University of Missouri programs, they said, and the enlarged system would gain strength and political clout.

Both universities' boards endorsed the plan, but bills that would have made it a reality stalled in committees in last year's testily partisan, budget-dominated legislative session. For the current session, Floyd and Hubbard have set the merger plan aside in order to concentrate their legislative efforts on the overriding issue of funding.


More money for higher education seems unlikely, however. Missouri's new governor, Matt Blunt, soon after being inaugurated in January proposed a budget for the coming fiscal year that would hold the line on higher education spending.

That line has risen some. After the 10.2 percent cut two years ago, and some smaller hits immediately before and after, Missouri has begun to restore to its colleges and universities some of the money it has taken away. Northwest has now gotten back about half of the total of 14.8 percent it lost. However, even after a boost of $700,000 this year, state support has dwindled to 46 percent of the university's current operating budget, from 52 percent just four years ago. To make up some of the difference, tuition for in-state undergraduates has increased from $3,330 to $5,325 in those same four years.

Hubbard saw to it that all of the new $700,000 went toward Northwest's new American Dream Grants for first-generation, low-income students who meet certain academic criteria. He claims these grants as another national first, because they cover not just full tuition but room and board as well for two years. After that, Hubbard says, recipients will be expected to take responsibility and borrow to finish their degrees. Among last fall's 1,182 full-time freshmen, 151 were American Dream students.

Hubbard professes a soft spot for them, having been a low-income, first-generation college student himself. He talks of working on farms and milking cows as a youth, and going to college largely because one teacher encouraged him.

 
Michael Hobbs, president of the faculty senate, says some professors were skeptical of the "quality management" approach, but most now accept it.
(Photo by Craig Sands, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
While he talks, without missing a word, Hubbard reaches now and then into his pocket to check messages on his new "absolutely remarkable" BlackBerry. He and a few administrators, faculty members and students have been issued the gadgets to test his notion that the university might save about $500,000 a year by giving them to everybody on campus and removing the phones from students' rooms.

That's pocket change compared to what Northwest stands to gain from Ventria Bioscience, a start-up developer of drugs made from plants. Hubbard was instrumental in persuading the company to leave Sacramento, California, for Maryville, to join the university in creating a new Center for Plant-made Pharmaceuticals. The move is scheduled for late this year, after the university refits a vacant industrial building for the company.

Hubbard describes an arrangement of mutual benefit, with Ventria employing students in its research and Northwest hiring some of the company's 13 scientists as part-time teachers, expanding its science offerings and taking a financial stake in the company.

Hubbard admits there's a risk, though he insists it is small because the university "vetted this company very carefully." But, he added, "If Ventria succeeds big time, substantial money would come to the university. When I say substantial, I'm talking millions of dollars."

Even with these new balls in the air, Hubbard is pitching quality as hard as ever, persisting in his habit of visiting every campus department once a year to review progress toward its particular quality goals.

Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, says there was "quite a blip" of enthusiasm in academia for "total quality management" in the early 1990s, with 40 or 50 colleges and universities embracing the idea. Most have since either limited its use or abandoned it altogether, he says. "It's a fairly rare phenomenon to be doing this whole hog," as Northwest does.

Hubbard's unusually long tenure at Northwest is key to his success in working quality "into the DNA of the institution," said Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "This is something you just don't translate into a university overnight."

Twice in the last eight years Northwest has won one of the two to four awards for quality management given annually by a non-profit Missouri foundation.

The state awards are modeled on those a national organization gives each year in the name of Malcolm Baldrige, who helped to popularize quality theory while he was U.S. secretary of commerce from 1981 to 1987. Northwest has applied for one of these awards for two years in a row now.

The latest application ran to 50 double-column pages, beginning with discussion, diagrams and lists detailing Northwest's organization, values and processes. Finally came 100 charts coded in dashboard colors and showing the many ways the university measures itself against either its own goals or outside norms. Green (for "on target") predominated.

Hubbard draws special attention to the first chart, showing somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of Northwest's upperclassmen scoring above the national average on the Educational Testing Service's Academic Profile test. That's important, he says, because freshmen enter the university scoring exactly at the national average on the ACT test. The improvement proves to him that students get "added value" from their Northwest educations.

Both of Northwest's applications have impressed the Baldrige organization enough that it sent teams of examiners to the campus for follow-up visits. But the university did not win either time.

But Northwest is not into quality for the recognition, Hubbard said. "We do it because it is the right thing to do for our students. We'll continue to do it even if these awards go away."

Still, the university is going to try for the Baldrige one more time, he said. "We like to win."


Susan C. Thomson is a former higher education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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National CrossTalk Spring 2005

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