Fiscal and Operational Guidelines

George Mason University Colleagues,

These are challenging and unprecedented times.  While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live, work and play, I have been heartened by the resolve, innovation and commitment I have seen across the university.  This memo provides a framework for colleges/schools and administrative units to navigate financial and operational challenges through the end of FY2020 and help prepare us for the uncertainties of FY2021.

The guidelines below are essential to maintain our workforce and operations, continue support for our academic and research programs to promote the learning and development of our students, and provide other critical support for our university.  These efforts will allow Mason to operate more efficiently in this environment, while also positioning us to recover from the Coronavirus crisis as quickly as possible.

Commitment to Our Workforce

Mason is committed to its employees.  Our goal is to keep as many of the members of our Mason community working as best as we can during this challenging time.  There are no plans for across-the-board budget cuts or a complete hiring freeze at this time.  To accomplish this, we must ensure that we are productive and flexible, and that resources are used as efficiently as possible, including redeployment as required.

Telework Workforce Management

We have evolved from a campus-based workforce to a telework one in a few short weeks.  I wish to commend all of you for your adaptability and flexibility.  However, telework comes with its challenges, both with respect to our routine work and dealing with the complexities of managing that work from a distance with our colleagues.
  • Resource Redeployment. While the majority of our employees are able to migrate to a remote work environment smoothly, there are a significant number of people who may not be able to make this transition due to the nature of their work. In these cases, leadership and managers are working diligently to reassign work or assign professional development activities for these individuals. Managers should consult Human Resources as needed for guidance.
  • Productivity Measures and Communication. The mechanisms to maintain workforce productivity in an on-line/telework environment are different than working in a naturally social environment like a campus with a lot of interpersonal engagement and human contact.

Supervisors should be cognizant of the challenges that employees have working in isolation, especially in these trying times, and employees should be sensitive to the needs of management to remotely monitor and manage work.  Therefore, it is very important for teams to become comfortable with regular contact and communication with each other via technology, leveraging productivity tools like Webex, Microsoft Teams, conference calls and email. There is a lot of information available to facilitate the transition to telework.  For best practices and assistance with deploying or leveraging these tools, please contact ITS.

  • Risk Mitigation. The fluid nature of our current situation requires a close monitoring of key risks and challenges facing Mason.  As we change our work styles (and perhaps roles), everyone must remain cognizant of the underlying policies and processes that underpin our work.  These policies and processes protect the interests of our stakeholders and the integrity and reputation of the University.  It’s important that any concerns about how our change to this new work style potentially impacts our obligations to our stakeholders be elevated.

Since we also are more dependent upon technology to perform our work, we also need to be aware of how that dependency could create new risks, such as working from home computers, using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) and Remote Desktop.  Please follow the guidance that is provided in the ITS tutorials and only use Remote Desktop and VPN on an as-needed basis, which minimizes the opportunity that “bad actors” have to disrupt our productivity.  ITS is also developing alternative solutions, such as virtual desktops (VDI), to obviate some of these risks.  Some of these alternative solutions are already available. Please contact ITS with questions or inquiries about solutions to problems that you may be having in your areas of responsibility.

  • Process Changes (i.e.: Manual Process to Automation). Over the next several months, many workflows may change, either as a result of the COVID-19 disruption or from intentional improvement efforts.  We are confident that we all will adapt, either to a new version of our roles and associated responsibilities or to new roles enabled by automation.  Leadership is committed to assisting us all with adjusting to these improvements.

Hiring and Compensation Actions

We received important guidance last week in a memorandum from Governor Northam’s Chief of Staff, which answered some questions and raised others.  A hiring freeze took effect on April 2 for all State-funded classified and wage positions other than those listed in § 4-7.01(e) (public safety and public health).

Under extraordinary circumstances, an agency head, including Mason’s President, may request to recruit and fill a position that is absolutely essential to the function and mission of our university that would otherwise be barred by the hiring freeze.

In addition, the memorandum directed state agencies, including Mason, to take steps immediately to reduce discretionary spending and to prepare for potential budget cuts in upcoming fiscal years.  While the hiring freeze does not apply directly to faculty hiring, the general guidance has implications for all our spending decisions.  Accordingly, all employment actions that result in increased personnel costs (to include promotions, in-band adjustments, voluntary transfers, and other pay actions) will also undergo further review. Additional guidance:

  • If offers were already extended, then can they move forward? All offers made on or before April 2 are to be honored.  For offers extended after April 2, the Office of the Provost will review and reaffirm approval of instructional, administrative and research faculty positions. Similarly, the Office of the Senior Vice President will do the same for all non-academic and administrative positions, including professional faculty positions.
  • Does the freeze apply to all positions? The hiring freeze applies only to state-funded wage and classified employees at this time. Faculty hires are not included. However, we should recognize the high likelihood of budget reductions in FY2021, which will place added financial pressure on the university, so we must use extreme caution in hiring all positions.
  • For faculty who usually get an automatic raise if they get a promotion (i.e. from assistant professor to full professor) can they still get the increase? The hiring freeze would not preclude a faculty member from getting such a promotion or related pay increase.
  • How will we manage the consideration of exceptions to these hiring restrictions? We anticipate that Virginia higher education institutions will need to seek exceptions for desired wage/classified hires from the Secretary of Education.  We are implementing a Critical Vacancy Review Committee that will develop a process for evaluating exceptional and essential classified/wage staff hires. A justification memo must be submitted to this committee for any critical classified/wage staff hire requests.  We will provide additional guidance on this matter.

Direct and Discretionary Expenditures

Now more than ever, we must be vigilant stewards of university resources, as cost management is everyone’s responsibility.  We will be incurring substantial fiscal losses and the timeline for recovery is unknown.  We must slow direct expenditure spending, defer costs, and eliminate, reduce and/or delay non-critical expenses for the remainder of FY2020 and into FY2021.  We will provide additional guidance on this matter.

Strategic Investments

Despite our challenges, we still must strategically invest in our university and seek initiatives that will generate strong returns.  Such efforts could help offset losses, provide new revenue opportunities and drive strategic goals.  We will be providing guidance on how units can propose such critically important strategic investments.

Short-term Investments to Improve Efficiency

We also recognize that our new working arrangements are exacerbating some underlying technology challenges in our enterprise and we may need to accelerate certain investments to improve overall efficiency, possibly at the expense of incremental investments in other areas of the university.  A University-wide assessment of current technology investments is currently being made in order to better prioritize our expenditures in these challenging times.  These efforts will be communicated in the near future.

FY2021 Budget Revisions, Reductions and Requests

We are currently awaiting further financial guidance from the State.  We anticipate considerable financial constraints, both from anticipated funding reductions as well as costs related to COVID-19, which will create significant pressures for fiscal conservatism.  The Office of Strategic Budget and Planning will be sending a FY2021 Budget Reduction template to units soon.  We will ask that colleges/schools and administrative units utilize this template to revise their FY2021 budgets, reduce costs and outline requested strategic investments appropriately.

Maintenance and Repair Acceleration

This time also presents an opportunity to achieve cost savings or efficiencies while the campus remains mostly empty.  Facilities, Business Services, and other units will be looking to accelerate planned initiatives, maintenance, and/or repair efforts, and will work with employees and contractors to ensure all necessary safety protocols are in place.  Doing so at this time can both minimize operational disruptions and potentially achieve savings via uninterrupted project work.

At a time like this, we must maintain both the short and long view, as the institutions who make key strategic decisions now are the ones who will be best positioned later.  This framework will help us enable greater efficiency in and cost-effectiveness of our current operations, while laying the groundwork for the fastest and most robust recovery.  We will continue to provide more information as it becomes available and as new choices must be made.

Carol Dillon Kissal
Senior Vice President, Administration and Finance
George Mason University

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