Durham County

Some big-name programs at Duke are about to go under a budgetary microscope

Duke University’s leaders want to check the finances of 11 flagship centers and institutes at the Durham school.
Duke University’s leaders want to check the finances of 11 flagship centers and institutes at the Durham school. The Herald-Sun

Budget watchdogs at Duke University will spend the coming months looking at the finances of 11 flagship programs like the Duke Global Health Institute and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

The review will play out in Duke’s University Priorities Committee, a high-level group of professors, administrators, deans and students that advises President Vince Price.

Its chairwoman, Nicholas School of the Environment professor Lori Bennear, said the move comes at the request of Provost Sally Kornbluth.

Kornbluth “thought, and I agreed, that it was time to conduct a detailed review of each of” the programs to make sure their “finances are well-aligned with their mission and that the funds are being spent optimally,” Bennear told professors on Duke’s Academic Council recently.

The 11 centers, institutes and initiatives all cross disciplinary boundaries and get about $24 million a year in subsidies from the provost’s office, she said.

Bennear added that “what we’re not going to do is any sort of a programmatic review” of them, as the academic missions of each fall within the purview of a different panel at Duke that checks them regularly with the help of outsider reviewers.

The plan is to have each program’s director supply the University Priorities Committee with standardized financial data, and then meet with the group to go over his or her “top three high-impact programs or operations” and the funding that backs them, Bennear said.

That work could extend into the spring semester. Eventually, Bennear’s committee will forward a report and recommendations to the provost. “The results of that review will be made available to the Academic Council,” Duke’s version of a faculty senate, she promised.

Like small schools

Beyond the Nicholas Institute and the Global Health Institute, the list of review targets includes such things as the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Kenan Institute for Ethics. The common feature is that they’re university-level programs, rather than ones working under the umbrella of one of Duke’s major schools, and that they get “core” funding from the provost’s office.

Combined, the funding they get from that source “is like a small school,” Kornbluth said, quickly amending that to “like the smallest of our schools.” That means that budget-wise, they don’t cost the university as much as units like the Sanford School of Public Policy or the Duke Divinity School.

Ahead of Bennear’s heads-up to the Academic Council, Duke officials were quick to discount any comparison between their in-house process and the one the UNC system’s Board of Governors controversially used in 2015 to shut down the former Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Substantively, “the comparison with what’s happening down the road is like apples and carburetors,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations.

He said finance reviews like this one are “a regular part” the committee’s responsibilities, and added that Kornbluth sought this one “because it hasn’t been done in a while.

Other factors are that the provost’s office has completed a new strategy statement to shape spending plans, and recent leadership changes in some of the programs, he said.

At least at the Franklin Humanities Institute, director Deborah Jenson is anticipating what she terms “a constructive dialogue.”

The review “is not really a concerning development for me,” said Jenson, a specialist in French and Haitian literature who’s led the Franklin Institute since 2015. “With a new university president, Vince Price, it makes sense to provide a report on our activities and our investments in the humanities to a presidential-level committee.”

The University Priorities Committee includes all of Duke’s top administrators, namely Price, Kornbluth, Chancellor for Health Affairs Eugene Washington, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask and the vice presidents who oversee personnel and finance.

It’s been a fixture in Duke governance for years, and late in former President Richard Brodhead’s term drew notice for fretting about the possibility that Duke’s future endowment returns won’t be as large as the university’s budget planning assumes. It’s also highlighted the financial demands the university’s student-aid programs for undergraduates impose on the institution.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg