Auxiliary Enterprises: Asset or Albatross?

Auxiliary Enterprises: Asset or Albatross?

Manageable management of non-core activities

Educating students to "think critically, reason wisely, and act humanely" is solidly at the core of what we do in higher education. Sometimes it seems, though, that what's at the periphery—including retail, real estate, and public facilities— demands an inordinate amount of our time and energy. In audits and reports, letters to alumni, and press releases, we lump those responsibilities together under "auxiliary enterprises." The diversity and range of what these may be, however, defies categorization.

In the case of Wells College (N.Y.), the array of auxiliary enterprises we manage is almost mind-boggling. Others may debate: Does our focus on these things detract from our commitment to academics, or are they important contributors to our overall missions?

I firmly believe that, at least in our case, our auxiliary enterprises aren't auxiliary at all; they're part and parcel of what Wells is. They improve the Wells experience for our students, faculty, and staff; contribute to our financial position; and, as we are one of the primary drivers of our local and regional economy, benefit our community's health. Still, managing such a diverse set of enterprises well depends on a committed board, the generosity of philanthropic partners, and a skilled team.

At Wells—small at just under 600 students, and situated in the village of Aurora, even smaller at just 400 residents--we are called upon to provide nearly everything that our students need, assure our own financial health and continued growth, and serve as the major employer and economic engine of our locality.

Besides the contributions of our alumni to society, private colleges and universities are major community contributors. They are the fastest growing sector, adding nearly $50 billion to the national economy. In Aurora, we are the single largest employer, taxpayer, and purchaser. From the impact on recruitment and retention to the multiplying effect of every dollar we put into circulation, the effect of every enterprise and decision is magnified in such a closely intertwined environment.

We run everything from a four-diamond inn and bed and breakfast to the village market, pub, and coffeehouse, plus a public golf course, a water treatment plant, residential rental properties, campus transportation, the bookstore, and dining services. Perhaps most complex is the body of local commercial enterprises we manage. The renaissance of our village properties— made possible through a partnership with a philanthropic and visionary alumna—presented Wells with an unprecedented opportunity to add value to the college experience, contribute to village life, and leverage a substantial asset to our benefit.

Private colleges are major contributors to their communities' quality of life and economic health.

Managed as a wholly-owned subsidiary and overseen by a village board, Wells' local businesses provide amenities as well as job opportunities for students and residents. They generate more than $300,000 in property and sales taxes and pump another $3.3 million into the local economy in payroll and purchasing.

In our small community and struggling upstate economy, this represents a substantial portion of regional commerce. Having the expertise and commitment to quality in-house, we recently moved our campus dining services under the management of the inn staff. Our students enjoy the benefits of excellent food and service, and we can improve our bottom line and provide more stable year-round employment for our food service workforce.

And stay tuned: Given the popularity of this discipline, we're launching a culinary arts immersion program. It will take advantage of our physical and human assets, make use of winter downtime in the hospitality industry, provide opportunities for students, and bring more people (and their spending power) to Aurora.

As we continue to grow, leveraging our assets and attracting new learners emerge as recurring themes and key strategic imperatives. Each auxiliary enterprise must carry its weight. We must invest in areas that contribute to the quality of the Wells experience and the college's financial well-being, and we must eliminate enterprises that simply cannot meet those criteria.

Of course, there are challenges inherent in deploying a small staff and limited resources to cover such a range of properties and services. It requires prioritizing and re-prioritizing as challenges and opportunities present themselves. Careful cooperation and coordination, as well as precision separation, are called for depending on the degree of shared resources, common talents or specialized needs at any given moment or on any given project. Orchestrating all of the moving pieces is not for the faint of heart - nor for those short on talented staff.

In our small community and struggling upstate economy, this represents a substantial portion of regional commerce. Having the expertise and commitment to quality in-house, we recently moved our campus dining services under the management of the inn staff. Our students enjoy the benefits of excellent food and service, and we can improve our bottom line and provide more stable year-round employment for our food service workforce.

And stay tuned: Given the popularity of this discipline, we're launching a culinary arts immersion program. It will take advantage of our physical and human assets, make use of winter downtime in the hospitality industry, provide opportunities for students, and bring more people (and their spending power) to Aurora.

As we continue to grow, leveraging our assets and attracting new learners emerge as recurring themes and key strategic imperatives. Each auxiliary enterprise must carry its weight. We must invest in areas that contribute to the quality of the Wells experience and the college's financial well-being, and we must eliminate enterprises that simply cannot meet those criteria.

Of course, there are challenges inherent in deploying a small staff and limited resources to cover such a range of properties and services. It requires prioritizing and re-prioritizing as challenges and opportunities present themselves. Careful cooperation and coordination, as well as precision separation, are called for depending on the degree of shared resources, common talents or specialized needs at any given moment or on any given project. Orchestrating all of the moving pieces is not for the faint of heart - nor for those short on talented staff.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson has served as president of Wells College (N.Y.) since 1995. She served for five years as a board member and was an executive committee member of the Council of Independent Colleges, www.cic.edu.


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