The Trek

The Trek

Navigating the peaks and valleys of higher education procurement

When it comes to navigating today’s higher education procurement landscape, it might be fair—and certainly much easier—to say that the peaks have their share of highs and valleys their share of lows. Eric J. Dickey remembers partnering with a vendor that was really invested in making a sale, so much so that it lowered its asking price from $1.3 million to a little over $900,000. The move, which falls anywhere in the range of unprecedented to par for the course, enabled one of the University of North Florida (UNF) department heads to keep an extra $400,000 in his budget.

As Dickey, Chief Procurement Officer for the nationally ranked Jacksonville college, will tell you, budgets are always an issue for today’s university heads. At UNF, which recently ranked No. 263 in the 2022-2023 edition of “Best Colleges and National Universities,” Dickey and his team get creative with rebates, signing bonuses and expedited payment terms to help make ends meet. “Everyone, everywhere, is tasked with doing more with less these days. Negotiations are great, as they allow the supplier and the university both to achieve an end goal. You always shoot for a win-win situation.”

“Everyone, everywhere, is tasked with doing more with less these days. Negotiations are great, as they allow the supplier and the university both to achieve an end goal. You always shoot for a win-win situation.”

— Eric J. Dickey, Chief Procurement Officer, University of North Florida

The greater truth, if truth be told, is that higher education procurement is ever-evolving. For the past 10 years, the landscape has seen its share of contract routing, data analytics and e-procurement systems. Looking to the future, Dickey believes those will continue to be important topics, with more institutions starting to focus on AI and ChatGPT.

Another topic that continues to dot the landscape is eco-friendly and socially responsible procurement strategies. UNF, for example, continues to encourage sustainable procurement. Today, it leans on a committee to review the terminology and revamp its sustainability statement, ensuring that it remains current. Dickey says one of the issues that surfaces from time to time is that while an item might be eco-friendly, it does not always align with the university’s low bid processes.

“As a state university system, we try to work on collaborative contracts that will benefit the entire system. But every institution is so different, it is sometimes hard to make it work. We do have an office supply contract that I believe the purchasing power of the group allows for larger discounts than if we all went out individually.”

Another issue that challenged UNF and other universities across the country was the ramifications of the recent pandemic and the race to find the new normal. Always on the cutting edge of technology, UNF stepped into the battle prepared. “Our ITS team was prepared for this pandemic and allowed the university to move to remote work with no hiccups,” Dickey recalls. “We were ready with Zoom. Obviously, in the past few years, everyone’s comfort level and understanding of this new normal is tremendously helpful. It is probably why we have more Zoom and Teams meetings than ever before.”

Jumping into the game

Shawn Asmuth holds the belief that even the most challenging of situations can be teaching moments. Take the pandemic. While the experience was beyond horrific and not something anyone ever wants to face again, it may have done more to raise awareness about the value of procurement than anything before or after it.

For example, the Executive Director of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) cites the extraordinary collaborative efforts that arose among people trying to get things done. On many college campuses, prior to receiving state, federal and/or COVID relief funds, financial resources to fund the acquisition of the emergency supplies necessary to handle the pandemic were either limited or non-existent.

“This definitely was the case on my campus (Asmuth spent eight years as the Director of Procurement Services at UNF). In my office, the buyer charged with acquiring scientific supplies worked very closely with the director of our Safety & Environmental Health office to research the products needed on campus (hand sanitizer, face masks, gloves, etc.) to ensure that we bought the right quality items before trying to chase down the best pricing.”

The enormous task was to make sure the university did not waste any of its extremely limited funds. In addition, Asmuth worked one-on-one with each academic and administrative unit to ascertain what their real needs were, rather than working from perceived/assumed needs, thus preventing overbuying. “We centralized the distribution of the supplies acquired to ensure that they were allocated as ordered based on those needs. The entire process was a campus-wide collaborative/team effort.”

Asmuth believes that one of the most valuable lessons higher ed procurement offices learned during the pandemic was that they can run things without having staff on campus to do so. But the question that is still playing out is if that really is the best way to do business—and is it sustainable?

“Many of the changes we were forced to make were ones we had been trying to implement for some time, but had met with some resistance,” Asmuth recalls. “That includes the use of scanned documents as official copies, submitting bids electronically, etc. So yes, I think those changes will last. Others, like remote work, may shift over time based on generational preferences and the need to repurpose office space, which, in turn, will save building costs.”   

One of the recommendations that Asmuth, who today spearheads NAEP’s efforts to develop the highest standards of ethics and proficiency in the environmental profession, cites is a strategic sourcing model. UNF was one of the first to incorporate revenue generating efforts that were practical and advisable.

An aspect of that effort was to require payment by PCard for all small dollar acquisitions, which help generate additional revenue from its existing PCard program. “That revenue was, at first, used to help supplement our salary budget pool for the PCard program, but later used to supplement our operating budget as well. It was very successful.”

In the end, chief procurement officers, controllers, etc. in university and college business offices will have to keep their eyes on the big picture. Gone are the days where they can just focus on their particular area of expertise. “Today’s procurement officers have to know how everything fits into the larger picture and how a change in something like the regulatory landscape in one area will affect all areas,” Asmuth says.

“Today’s procurement officers have to know how everything fits into the larger picture and how a change in something like the regulatory landscape in one area will affect all areas.”

— Shawn Asmuth, Executive Director, NAEP

The secret to navigating today’s procurement landscape will involve developing a comprehensive procurement strategy that addresses both the peaks and valleys. Today, it is the only strategy that will work.


The ups and downs of today’s higher ed procurement landscape

Navigating today’s comprehensive procurement landscape means riding the highs and lows of each decision. Here’s a peek into some of the challenges and opportunities faced by university procurement teams.


Quality Enhancement — Finding the procurement balance of new technologies, state-of-the-art facilities and updated teaching resources can continue to enhance the educational experience.

Innovation & Research — Procurement can facilitate cutting-edge research by providing access to advanced laboratory equipment, research materials and industry partnerships.

Operational Efficiency — Bulk purchasing. Vendor consolidation. Efficient supply chain management. Strategic procurement practices can save money and streamline operations.

Sustainability — Schools can meet environmentally friendly procurement practices by sourcing eco-friendly products, promoting recycling and supporting sustainable vendors.


Budget Constraints — From tuition fees, regulatory guidance practices and fluctuating funding, budget limitations can hinder the ability to invest in necessary resources.

Bureaucracy — Complex procurement processes, involving multiple stakeholders, lengthy approval cycles and compliance requirements can slow down the acquisition of essential resources.

Vendor Selection — Sourcing, negotiating and partnering with reliable and dependable vendors that fit a university’s criteria can be challenging and time-consuming.

Evolving Technology — The pace of technological advancements—and the pace to keep up—can be daunting. But keeping procurement, IT, etc. cutting edge is critical. Market Volatility — Economic fluctuations and supply chain disruptions (see the pandemic) can impact the availability and cost of goods and services. Sourcing and planning is everything.