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Empowering Employees to Achieve Cost Savings

As the University of California, San Francisco confronts a continued changing landscape, the UCSF community will likely face cultural and organizational changes that are necessary to support effective, nimble decisions that align strategy with spending priorities.

by University of California - San Francisco
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John Plotts, senior vice chancellor of Finance and Administration, says the university is actively looking at ways both large and small to save money and increase efficiency building a culture of continuous improvement.


In the past, faculty and staff felt if they had an idea, they couldn’t get it through the bureaucracy, he says. The university’s new attitude is: “If you have an idea, do what you need to do to make this place more effective,” Plotts says.

Thinking Big

Plotts encourages faculty and staff to think big – beyond their immediate unit or department. UCSF needs enterprise-wide solutions that leverage the University’s talent, space and capital. Instead of people working vertically in their own silos to solve problems, if people think horizontally and solve problems across the University, they have the potential for a much bigger impact, he says.

UCSF has begun to consolidate its organization between the campus and the medical center for human resources and information technology, to leverage talent, improve the consistency of service and increase efficiency.

Already, UCSF is making a difference: 

  • A new “e-procurement” system, in which UCSF has teamed with UC Berkeley and the University of California Office of the President to leverage purchasing power, is saving millions of dollars each year.  
  • Employees are collaborating across UCSF on a massive, enterprise-wide budgeting system (UPlan), a redesigned financial system (MyReports), and a redesigned Chart of Accounts that will yield benefits such as strategic, timely financial decision-making; streamlined, standardized and automated annual budgeting; and better alignment of accounting, reporting and budgeting processes. To be implemented in March, the new system also will bring transparency and effective consolidated budgeting and planning, and will enable robust business analytics to drive decision-making.
  • A “space committee” is looking at ways to efficiently use the valuable real estate assets across the University. 

Faculty and staff should feel empowered to take individual actions to save money, Plotts says, whether turning off lights and unplugging power strips at the end of the day, using e-procurement in buying materials, or taking other measures tailored to their individual work environment.

Some of these employee-driven actions are making an impact. 

A great example is UCSF’s most recent energy efficiency upgrade project at UCSF Medical Center's clinical labs, a 39,230-square-foot space leased at China Basin. Thanks to teamwork involving staff at Facilities Management, Real Estate Services and Medical Center Design and Construction, improvements to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning and other changes will save energy, reduce carbon emissions, and in the long run, save UCSF more than $100,000 per year. Read more.

Other departmental and individual grassroots efforts in sustainability are happening in many areas across the campus and medical center. In fact, the projected annual savings of all earth-friendly facilities projects at UCSF approximates $3.8 million, according to Gail Lee, sustainability manager at UCSF.

Members of the UCSF community can get involved in the sustainability effort by getting their office, lab, or unit LivingGreen certified. It’s a fun and easy way to support UCSF’s commitment to sustainability and save money.

Faculty and staff are also invited to submit their suggestions on how to save money on the university’s “Bright Ideas” website. 

Managing Amid Changes in Leadership

Managing through myriad financial challenges will require constant vigilance and ongoing employee engagement, Plotts says.

The process of proactively planning to secure UCSF’s long-term financial future began years ago, well before UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann announced her departure. UCSF leaders praise Desmond-Hellmann’s leadership, and say the University will manage very well going forward. 

With longtime leader Sam Hawgood, MBBS, dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, taking over as interim chancellor on April 1, “I don’t see us missing a beat,” says B. Joseph Guglielmo, PharmD, dean of the UCSF School of Pharmacy. 

Hawgood currently oversees an organization with an operating budget of more than $1.7 billion, nearly 8,000 faculty and staff, and 3,655 medical and graduate students, residents, fellows and postdoctoral scholars. All told, UCSF employs 22,500 people, and serves 5,590 students, residents and postdoctoral scholars. He plans to bring his experience and leadership to benefit the entire University as interim chancellor.

“A fair amount of the expense is in updating facilities, recruiting new people, bringing in superstars, buying the latest equipment for the researchers,” Hawgood says. “It’s not like we’re just breaking even. The reason we break even is that we spend a lot of our revenue every year to invest in our core missions."

The School of Medicine, for example, recruits 200 new faculty members every year. "That’s our future. They will be the superstars 10 years from now,” he says.

Remaining on Solid Financial Footing

All campus leaders want to reassure employees of their commitment to excellence across all mission areas. 

UCSF’s faculty need to know that “the value proposition of being an academic research center is still strong here,” says Jeffrey Bluestone, PhD, executive vice chancellor and provost. “There’s no doubt that a lot of external financial challenges exist, but we’ll do our best to meet them through philanthropy, through public-private partnerships, and through the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation funding and from other governmental sources, such as the Department of Energy. We’re committed to serving the faculty by providing as much of a menu of opportunities for funding their research as they have ever had.”

That may require innovation and belt-tightening in other areas, he said. “We’re going to be working as hard as we can to make sure that, for our research faculty, we’re going to keep it up, whether it’s trying to save money through procurement and cost savings in our own operations, or investing in core laboratories that will support a more aggressive infrastructure.”

Bluestone offers high praise for UCSF’s staff members, who he said have worked hard over the past five years to make sure the University remains on solid financial footing. “They’re essential,” Bluestone says, “and we need to focus on making sure they feel supported.”

Indeed, Hawgood says that major layoffs are not the way UCSF can navigate in the years ahead. “We are putting together strategies as to how to reduce costs through process improvement,” he says. “What’s not a viable strategy is to simply lay off a percentage of your workforce, because you’ll just hire them back in the next three years if you do it that way. No one’s sitting around doing nothing. 

“That’s a very important message,” Hawgood says. “Everyone is working harder. What we’ve got to do is figure out ways to work smarter, better, faster. That will allow us to deploy people in different ways to support program and revenue growth.”