Steelmaker rewards cost-cutting colleges

For United States Steel, it's an iron-y. But not necessarily a bitter one. Ten years ago -- in more prosperous times for the industry -- US Steel created an annual award for colleges and universities that were finding innovative ideas for cutting costs around their campuses.

Since that time, market demands have forced United States Steel to cut back half its own staff and plants. But its ``Cost Reduction Incentive Award'' has continued to be a notable success in higher education -- resulting in the direct savings of more than $154 million in a decade by institutes of higher education.

That's enough to send 8,000 students to college for four years -- all the result of the nickels, dimes, and dollars saved by such methods as using credit cards for purchases under $100 and using ultrasound devices to detect faulty steam traps in buildings.

This year's cost-reduction winner was Southern Methodist University. SMU saved $21,000 over a 12-month period by recording parking violations on hand-held minicomputers.

Other winning ideas included University of Pennsylvania's methods for detecting harmful roof moisture through a nuclear scanning device (saving $125,000); Bethune-Cookman College's energy-cutting, self-sealing fiber-glass roof applications (saving $10,000); and a new student-based dormitory security method at Hofstra University that eliminates the need for guard services (saving $350,000).

Bruce Thomas, chief financial officer of US Steel, presented the awards at this year's National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) meeting in Boston last month. Mr. Thomas says it has been important for US Steel to open up its management to ideas from all employees. ``More decisionmaking at all levels -- including from the workers on the line -- has been vital at a time of crisis for the industry,'' he says, adding that management has found that when ``people ar e given the chance to think for themselves,'' new ideas come forth.

The same principle applies to college employees, and Thomas hopes the savings ideas, the ``new methods, new tools, and new uses of staff,'' will be adopted by others.

They will be, several college business officers say. Further, such officers as Jim Henderson of Duke University say the total $154 million savings figure does not take into account the ``ripple effect'' the new ideas have had.

``We get calls all year from other colleges wanting to learn about our savings ideas,'' Mr. Henderson says. He also notes that the US Steel award has not only helped spread new knowledge, but has helped Duke adopt its own internal cost-savings incentive award.

A slide show detailing the most effective cost-reduction measures is available through NACUBO: One Dupont Circle, Suite 500, Washington, D.C. 20036.

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