By DONOVAN HARRELL
Pitt’s new chief financial officer is working to learn the needs of each school and to centralize financial planning and risk management.
Hari Sastry, who joined Pitt in October, most recently served as director of the Office of Foreign Assistance Resources at the U.S. Department of State, where he managed a $37 billion budget.
His duties as CFO include being in charge of the University’s finances, including payroll, general, cost and research accounting, budget and financial reporting, and more.
The University Times asked Sastry about his short-term and long-term goals and what strategies the University is taking to make attendance more affordable. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you adjusting to Pittsburgh?
The city is fantastic. I’ve been just exploring Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods. And I like to eat! I go to restaurants and try them out. I went to a performance down in the theater district. I’m gradually getting up to speed, but I can’t wait for spring because I’m a baseball fan and can see the Pirates game.
I’ve been gradually working my way up. My family is in D.C. — so I’m kind of going back and forth right now. But they’re going to move eventually.
What are your some of your goals for this year? And what are some of your priorities later down the road during your tenure?
My initial set of goals for the year are, one, to really just understand the University. I’ve been talking to almost every school and center. I think by the end of next week, I’ll have talked to everyone at least once to get an understanding of “here’s what we do.” Because every school … is slightly different in what they need and what that school encompasses.
And then I’ve kind of gotten into discussions with each of them and I ask: “If you look out five years, what are your goals? Where is it now? Where do you want it to be? And then what are the resources you need to get there?”
And almost all of them have very good ideas of where they want to be in five years. Some of them have an idea of the resources. A lot of them are still working through because we have a lot of new deans. So, I asked them “All right, what does that mean for resources?” How can our office help them? So, my first goal is understanding the landscape of the University of Pittsburgh.
The next step I’m doing concurrently is I want to be able to, after an assessment of the direction and a part of my office’s internal operations, see if there are any kind of areas of improvement they want to tackle. Still in the process of doing that. Then the other thing I want to do in a year or so, maybe a year and a half, is I want to be able to link all of those plans together. So, I want to have a place where you can see planning, budget, performance, all in one place.
Do you mean on a website?
We can put it somewhere, certainly. But I mean, I think the process right now is each school and senior vice chancellor has a pretty decent planning model, but we don’t really link it to resources directly. We kind of do it at the end. And we don’t link it to performance overall for the University.
So, I’d like to have kind of a University planning — we have the Plan for Pitt which gave us a direction of which way we want to go. It’s kind of the next level down from that conversation of “What does this mean? How much is this going to cost?” And then, as things come up, throughout that plan, you now have a platform from which to discuss trade-offs. If we’re going to go do this new initiative, that means we’re not going to do something else. I want to put some framework and structure around ongoing decisions and then link it to our end goal, which is making the University of Pittsburgh stronger. If we’re going to do that. Let’s make sure we’re doing the right things to get us there.
Can you explain a more about your focus on school performance?
I think every school is going to define “performance” slightly differently. But it’s basically, if you want to make your school stronger, that means you want your students leaving with the best opportunity for the next step. If that’s the goal, then what are the things you need to do? Some of it is linked toward bringing the right faculty in, some of it’s linked to the opportunities outside of the classroom. Some of it is the number of degree programs you offer. Some of it is how much of it’s online. So that’s I mean. The schools know what those performance metrics are, but I think we want to make sure that we link that to the plan, to the resources we’re giving them so its aligned.
Now that Gov. Tom Wolf has released his proposed budget for Pennsylvania — which calls for no funding increase for Pitt — what are your thoughts on it?
I’m still learning the state politics a little bit, coming from the federal side. We had put forth a budget that had a decent size increase. It wasn’t an increase that was out of the ordinary, but it was certainly an increase that will allow us to meet our needs.
And with the governor’s budget, I understand he has a lot of priorities he’s trying to balance. Depending on where that lands, that’s just going to put more pressure internally on how we actually make the budget balance. If that level of state funding ends up staying, then from a planning standpoint, you want to plan for a kind of a case where you wouldn’t have any additional dollars coming in.
We’re certainly planning in that direction. But the lower that number, it just puts more pressure on us internally to either find savings or to do less.
How does this new position compare to some of your previous federal positions?
I think one of the biggest surprises is there is this similarity between my position here and the other positions, because in the government, in every position, what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to bring different organizations within the government together under one plan to present to your leadership, to political leadership — “Here, are the decisions you need to make, and here are the tradeoffs between the 10 different organizations that are under your leadership.”
That’s similar to what we’re doing here. I mean, what we’re trying to do is trying to bring together the planning, the budget performance, so that you can actually make decisions on: Provost vs. facilities vs. whatever the case might be on finite number of dollars, finite amount of resources. What are the top priorities?
And in that case, working with the schools, is very similar to working within the government. We work with bureaus … to present the budget. And as you talk to them, it becomes clear they understand that there’s tradeoffs. They say: "I’m trying to give you my priorities, I understand we can’t afford them all, just so we have an understanding.”
And so that part is very similar. In the government, they’ve been doing it that way for a long time. So, the machinery is already there. You’re trying to improve it and trying to make sure that you adhere to it. Here, we’re trying to build a little bit more of it. But like I said, internal to the schools, they all have that planning. So, it’s just trying to bring them all together centrally.
And the budget is certainly much smaller…
It’s smaller, but, the closer you are to actually executing the budget, it’s amazing how much every dollar actually matters. When you’re at the federal government, you’re a couple levels removed from where the program is actually happening. So, it’s slightly less on your day-to-day radar. Here, it’s every day you are very aware of every dollar. So, it’s smaller but in some sense, you’re even more concerned about every single one.
I see that the University recently announced a Pell grant match program. Where does the funding for this program come from?
We’re just going to build this into the budget. If we look at the revenues coming in, look at our costs, what we’re saying is we’re going to increase our financial aid by whatever that Pitt Success proposal total is going to be. We have some estimates.
And I think what that’s going to do is, it’s going to eventually kind of reduce our cash flow a little bit. But we have enough on an ongoing basis to do that for a few years. Once again, the big mission is to strengthen University of Pittsburgh. This will strengthen our ability to compete and naturally start moving us into a stronger position than we are right now.
Can you explain a more about the University’s strategy to make attendance more affordable for students?
I think in the end, the chancellor mentioned this, I think this is one of the things that’s increasingly becoming much more on the front burner and incredibly important to students, to families, affordability and the ability to have access to that education more broadly.
This proposal actually helps us get there. And I think doing something like the Pell match is really going to help increase that access and allow us to compete for many of those students, who I think we would not have been able to compete for without this proposal. So that’s our goal. It’s a thing that will be a step forward with that.
Earlier, you talked a bit about tradeoffs. Will there be any tradeoffs with this Pell match program?
This is not trading off of anything else right now. We’re trying to put together a five- and 10-year budget, and as we put together that long-range plan, we’ll have to see where this fits. But one way to think about it is, this is an incredibly high priority. So, we’re going to make sure that this fits and then see how everything else kind of cascades from it, because this was a critical component of how we want to move forward.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Earlier, you asked what the plans are for the next year. I mentioned the planning, budgeting, performance. The other piece is risk management. We have kind of risk management in almost every office, but we don’t have enterprise risk management.
So, we’re working with the board to kind of build that, and that’s going to take a while. That’s not something that happens quickly. And that’s not something that’s going to happen in a year. But it’s allowing us to look across the entire University at kind of our entire risk posture. So that’s the other thing down the horizon.
Can you talk a little more about your plans involving risk management?
Universities face a tremendous amount of risk from regulatory to compliance to student safety. We want to have an understanding where all of that is, and we want to be able to manage it in a consistent way.
Not necessarily that leadership isn’t managing the risks. Every single person who’s working can manage the risks, but if everybody has a common approach to: "All right, this is how much risk we are willing to take, this is when I should raise an issue up,” with that kind of understanding, we can make some decisions at an organizational level that are risk-informed. And right now, we kind of do it in individual silos. And in higher ed, I think there’s some schools that have started doing this, but they’re probably early in their maturity curve overall. So, we definitely want to move in that direction.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.