Working With ResLife and Other Auxiliaries

Change is needed in the way O&M work is performed at campus auxiliary functions.

This is a rather blunt statement that may not apply to all institutions. But it remains a reality at an unhealthy number of colleges and universities, and is one that continues to be unrecognized by administrators from the top down.

Having had the opportunity to visit several dozen campuses in recent years, I have seen various models of how O&M needs are satisfied on assets assigned to auxiliary enterprises. I add to that “how” question other queries such as “why,” “when,” “by whom,” and “how well.”

First, I will ruminate on the models that I have seen. For simplicity’s sake, I will apply this analysis mainly to Residential Life (a.k.a. student housing, sometimes called ResLife):

  1. They have full responsibility and authority to maintain and operate all of their assets. They have a full PM system, and perform all tasks associated with HVAC, custodial, grounds, utility distribution systems, building maintenance — everything. They are staffed to handle these responsibilities. They have the authority to bring in outside contractors as they determine necessary. Except in extreme emergencies, there is little interaction with the central FM group.
  2. They have a diluted version of Item 1. For instance, some of the more technical activities on MEP systems, grounds, and utility distribution systems might be “contracted out” to the main FM group. The ResLife’s in-house staff might only be authorized to participate in low-tech and first-response activities. ResLife has limited or no authority to hire contractors to perform any O&M activities.
  3. ResLife has no in-house staff, other than an administrative position who “coordinates” O&M activities, all of which are performed by the main campus FM organization, assigned ownership for all ResLife related O&M functions.

These three scenarios are not absolute. They should be seen as points along a spectrum, with some variations in between. I have recently seen institutions shifting from one to the other, although the trend seems to be toward Scenario 2 or 1.

It should not be said that any of one of these is inherently worse or more effective than the others. Each could function reasonably effectively if critical core values and processes are well defined and in line with the organizational structure imposed by the institution. Let’s take a look at some of them.

  1. Maintenance roles, standards, and practices have been clearly identified, documented, and are in harmony with the institution’s long-term strategic plans. They are determined with full consideration of total cost of ownership (TCO), user health and safety, and revenue streams. Such standards, etc. are established with buy-in from all stakeholders.
  2. Standards support the concept that ResLife (at most institutions) is self-supporting, and must rely on “curb appeal” at least as much as the main campus. Mom and Dad are not going to let their offspring live in an environment that leaves a negative impression!
  3. Cost accounting processes and measurement tools are routinely practiced that allow monitoring and re-assessments of actual practices. Useful Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and “dashboards” are identified and routinely reviewed — including by the institution’s senior leadership.
  4. When campus FM provides some or most of the required O&M activities at ResLife, response priorities must be agreed upon and clearly understood by all participants. If priority conflicts arise, as they will, arrangements must be in place to bring in additional help from other parts of campus, or through agreements previously established with relevant contractors.
  5. Emergency planning and management is a continuous activity, involving all stakeholders.
  6. If a re-charge system is in place, when the campus FM organization does some or all of the work, it must be clearly defined. Billable rates should be calculated using line items that are approved by the administration and understood by the people paying the bills. They should be regularly recalculated and updated, subject to approval by senior administration, and understood (if not accepted) by the customer. Specific activities for which ResLife is expected to pay must be clearly documented, current, and transparent. Lump-sum transfers that cannot be substantiated with current information do not contribute to congenial relationships.

The best leadership cannot function effectively, and the best hypothetical organization can flounder, if these key processes have not been specifically addressed and re-addressed. Conversely, an average but competent manager working within anyone of the organizational structures identified above can be more successful if these core values and processes are firmly understood and an inherent part of the culture.

That is what is lacking at many institutions — that is what must change!

Pete van der Have is adjunct faculty at Weber State University in Ogden, UT, and an independent FM consultant with Facility Engineering Associates, Fairfax, VA. He can be reached at petevanderhave@msn.com.

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