Bulletin of Dental Education

Minnesota's New Normal: Meeting the Mission in an Environment of Increased Ambiguity and Reduced Funding

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Dean Patrick M. LloydNo one can say that dental schools have a proprietary lock on dealing with financial challenges. What can be said is that the breadth and magnitude of the current economic downturn is different from any we've seen before. It has affected everyone - our state and country, our academic institutions and corporate and community partners, our funding agencies, and the personal finances of individual patients and donors.

Complicating the situation is that other people are making a lot of decisions that affect us, sometimes with and sometimes without our input. In Minnesota, the governor "unallocated" $50 million in promised funding to the university and, just like that, our dental school lost $3.4 million. The state also reduced its reimbursement and adult Medicaid benefits. As one of Minnesota's largest providers of dental services to public program patients, losing this source of clinic revenue added complexity to our financial challenge.

The biggest game changer has been that, for the foreseeable future, everything is a moving target. We find ourselves in a state of "new normal" that requires we meet the mission in an environment of increased ambiguity and reduced funding.

At the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, our approach has been to meet with our senior management team and division and program directors. We reviewed their cost savings and revenue-enhancing ideas, our utilization of staff and faculty, and our education, research, and service commitments. The result was a broad set of recommendations about enhancing revenues, identifying new partnerships, and reducing operations. This information was shared with members of the school's budget committee, composed of faculty and staff representatives, and consensus recommendations were generated and studied for feasibility and financial impact. We set up an electronic "suggestion box," wrote about the issues in internal newsletters, held a series of all-school meetings to share the information, and moved forward on a number of recommendations.

As examples, we are staggering student 2011 summer vacation times so that predoctoral clinics are fully operational year-round. We stepped up clinic marketing. We renegotiated tuition reciprocity agreements with adjacent states and streamlined our patient admissions process to accommodate more patients and enhance patient retention. We also reduced adjunct faculty salaries and cut back on travel and discretionary expenses within the administration and departments.

The university created new retirement and reduced-appointment incentives, and we encouraged people to consider those options if appropriate to their situation. Last year, the university announced a salary freeze, and this year there will be salary reductions or furloughs for every employee. Our entire senior administrative team and a number of faculty and staff volunteered to accept additional salary reductions.

We are not, however, cutting our way out of a financial challenge, and our first priority is to retain jobs. As one of our faculty members so appropriately acknowledged, "The School of Dentistry is best able to do its work when all of its faculty and staff are here." Our challenge, then, is to stretch our vision. We are capitalizing on synergies with community partners and identifying and creating new opportunities that match the interests and goals of friends and colleagues with opportunities at the School of Dentistry. At the same time, we are making strategic investments in new education and outreach programs. We are enhancing research initiatives through increased grant funding. We continue to hire in areas of priority. And we are responding to the broad workforce needs of the state by helping address critical issues and developing and evaluating new models of care delivery.

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