Fiscal sustainability integral to NAU’s ‘triple bottom line’

Laura Huenneke

By Laura Huenneke, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

This university is justifiably proud of its accomplishments and commitments in sustainability. Yet I wonder how many of us fully appreciate that sustainability goes beyond environmental awareness and responsibility.

For NAU to remain a leading institution, we must keep our eyes on the  “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profit. That requires attention not just to long-term environmental health but also to a vibrant human society and stable economic enterprises.

Recently there’s been considerable attention to the long-term financial viability of higher education institutions. Where state support for public institutions has eroded, and the ability of students to pay increasing tuition and fees (and incur increasing debt) is constrained, how are colleges and universities doing in managing their own long-term financial futures?

While some are struggling, NAU is doing remarkably well.

We are in the top 25 percent of high performers in an extensive analysis demonstrating the financial difficulties facing many institutions. The report highlights loss of institutional focus, over-leveraging and rapid increases in debt, and administrative/infrastructure inefficiencies as being key risks to sustainability.

The Chronicle of Higher Education posted a follow-up column by Peter Wood arguing that some institutional commitments (e.g., to diversity or to operational/environmental sustainability) actually contribute to lack of focus and financial discipline.

Not so at NAU. Instead, it seems to me we’ve made great progress on these commitments, and they are central—not peripheral or unfocused—to our values and mission. What do you think—do we have to compromise on our values to achieve true financial sustainability?