Taking the reins as COO in December 2019, CEU’s Chief Operating Officer, Kati Miskolci anticipated the job of transitioning CEU from one country to another to be uniquely challenging. “The stakes were high, and I felt strongly about CEU’s future.” she reflects. CEU’s global impact in research and the education of free-minded students were at risk of a serious disruption. “I had long admired this university, respected its values and renowned professors, and stood with CEU for academic freedom and rule of law. I value knowledge, freedom, and courage and was attracted to this smart, open and active community that speaks up for causes that matter to me and are relevant around the world.” Kati Miskolci was convinced that this one-of-a-kind university needed to continue to thrive. And that she could serve a good cause here.
Little did she know at the time that another disruption was about to unfold, a global pandemic, which would shake higher education around the world. Still, CEU started teaching newly accredited programs in Austria in the fall as planned. “The university community, while understandably overwhelmed by never-before-seen changes, managed to stay safe and is gradually settling and regenerating,” she confides as we meet to discuss the next phase of CEU’s administrative evolution.
Having steered the university’s administrative operations over the past 16 months, the COO’s focus now is tending to the sustainability of CEU, establishing professional, reliable and transparent operations, and upholding and building upon the spirit of a community which has been through significant challenges.
The role of COO was re-instituted in CEU following recommendations by the university’s accreditation body, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Acknowledging how instrumental the COO role can be, particularly during a time of change, Kati Miskolci notes she did not hesitate when the university’s search consultancy approached her to apply for the top administrative job. At the time she had a radically different outlook on her life: she was determined not to take on yet another senior professional role.
“If it were not CEU, I would not have considered joining. In November 2019, I was really enjoying my life. I had just been admitted to a Masters program to study Medical Data Science, and was happily attending courses at Semmelweis University and NYU in Physiology and Cell Biology. After twenty intense career years, I felt it was my time to take a 2-year break and do what I loved the most: study, sports and lots of family fun. I met my husband for lunch almost every day, before running back to a class or a workout session,” remembers the COO.
Drawn by the university’s values, reputation for excellence, as well as social and civic impact, she felt a strong calling to take on the challenge at hand. “I gave up my back-to-school life, and moved in to Nador office within 2 weeks,” says Kati Miskolci. Back to school, but in another sense.
Vienna Transition in the Pandemic
There was no time to waste. The clock was already ticking. The COO had nine months from the day she joined until CEU’s Quellenstrasse campus opened its doors to welcome over 1000 students for the first full academic year in Vienna.
“I built a new transition team which started to create a plan to steer the move to Austria. In February, we approved plans with the Senior Leadership Team and launched five workstreams to charge full steam ahead. Then, just weeks after my arrival, a global pandemic began to unfold. In March, we closed down our campus. But there was no turning back from the Vienna transition.”
COVID-19 in itself posed significant challenges to universities globally. For CEU, it could not have hit at a harder time. “Yet, -- and I find it close to a miracle and surely the result of truly heroic efforts of our wonderfully dedicated, hard-working colleagues -- we got there. Our landing in Vienna was not perfect. Many of our faculty, staff, and students experienced painful delays in Austrian visas or got annoyed by social security mailings from authorities, to name a few of our early difficulties, but teaching started in Quellenstrasse and we moved into newly fit-out and furnished offices. Our classrooms were set up with technology for hybrid teaching. We paid salaries in September to hundreds of colleagues in Austria and Hungary according to the different contractual setups and laws in the two countries. We had a long snag list for some time though... For instance, my office door was missing still in November, but it was none of our worries until the real campus priorities got solved…” Kati Miskolci laughs as she recalls those early days.
These disruptions also surfaced the many shortcomings in the university’s administrative processes. Erratic record keeping, ad-hoc manual solutions without proper systems and undefined responsibilities perhaps sufficed in peaceful times, but not during this flight. Parts of the engine had to be fixed while speeding ahead to Vienna. “We have much more work to do,” the COO adds. “We keep discovering gaps in our operations across the units I am leading which need strengthening and rebuilding in the coming period.”
Administrative Vision and Leading Through Change
Since the relocation of all US degree operations to Vienna and having established operational continuity, the COO is now turning her attention to administrative reforms aimed at bolstering the university’s sustainability, simplifying and modernizing support services. This academic year, her focus is on improving budgeting, human resources functions and processes, and revitalizing communications with future students and donors among other external stakeholders. She expects visible results in these already by this summer, and more to come in the university’s multi-year administrative reform plans.
“Hardships sometimes have positive side effects. Keeping administrative units in Hungary may turn out to be a long-term benefit to CEU. It requires that our operations are reformed and made efficient in both locations. It might not have been the university’s desire to split to two countries, but as CEU was forced out of Hungary, it moved into an advantageous operating model with knowledge concentration, productivity and financial benefits, among others. In effect, CEU has created such a setup, and even better: keeping experienced colleagues in Hungary who provide support remotely and with full familiarity of the university.” To the COO, this is a great opportunity for CEU.
“I have spent years moving support services from Western Europe to Poland, Hungary, and other countries, convincing western leadership that there is talent in Central Eastern Europe, they can trust it will work. And it worked again and again, after months of careful knowledge transfer. Surely it takes time to build trust toward new teams to provide services from other countries. CEU in that sense is lucky, colleagues in Vienna know colleagues in Budapest well, having worked together with many of them for decades. They can rely on the continued commitment and support of the same people with their familiarity, experience, and shared values in the units I am leading. Surely, we first need to fix our operational issues across our two sites. We have started with these fixes. I am determined that this dual-country setup will benefit CEU in the long term,” she envisions. "At the same time certain roles may be worth relocating to Vienna in the future, to be co-located with our teaching site. We will continue to monitor the activities in both countries and make adjustments where needed. Besides, individual aspirations also matter to me,” says the COO, “So I tell colleagues that even if their current roles stay in Budapest, they may apply for Vienna-based roles if their individual desire is to relocate.”
Acknowledging the dedication and resilience of CEU staff through relocation and the pandemic, Kati Miskolci also highlights that employees have a lot to look forward to: “As staff, we work together in line with CEU’s values of intellectual curiosity and critical thinking. These values apply also to operations: I encourage my colleagues to innovate and drive improvements in the way we work. This is how we become shapers.”
She aims to lead CEU staff toward more opportunities to contribute to the university, collaborating well across units over the next few years. “Forward-thinking implementation of best practices, along with new competencies will increase the capacity for colleagues to improve university operations collectively.”
Such constructive progression will take time, the COO notes. “I’m committed to ensuring that everything is in place to support the academic and research excellence for which CEU is renowned.” Currently, with the university in its new dual site setup, establishing clear alignment toward a sustainable future across CEU and maintaining the all-important working relationships between the various sites are at the forefront. “I see a lot of passion in the university to stay together as One CEU, an extraordinary strength to which we must tend,” she adds.
Driving Impact and Sustainability
In the current higher education landscape, Kati Miskolci points out that universities worldwide are experiencing challenges. CEU needs to future-proof its operations so the university can move in a sustainable direction and flourish.
Implementing budget transparency and shared financial guidelines for all, therefore, has been a top priority for this year. For example, for the first time in CEU’s recent history, principles on targeting student numbers, tuition levels, and financial aid were set centrally and communicated transparently for consistency across units. CEU aims for higher tuition for 2021-22 without reducing the stipend amount available for student support. “We are continuing to provide the excellent level of financial support for talented students in need and for those who are historically excluded from higher education,” the COO says. “The university must take root in its new home and maintain its core academic life, while also setting in motion the reforms necessary to our long-term dual campus future. Over the coming months and years, my senior team and I will put the right support structures and financial management in place to better support faculty, staff, and students to uphold the mission of CEU.”
Increasingly data-driven operations are another goal of the COO so that staff are better equipped for adaptive planning in a shifting higher education landscape. Recent examples have included a mailbox workflow system deployment in HR Office that enabled mail tracking and significant reduction of HR email backlog. Electronic vacation request workflow also simplified HR processing. Also in HR, a massive data cleansing effort is ongoing to underpin fast and consistent reporting and data-based compensation planning. CEU also introduced financial benchmarks and academic indicators to work across leadership and inform the budgeting process. The list of improvement ideas is already long and keeps growing. Kati Miskolci is excited about shaping CEU’s administration in the next years. “This is a historic moment for the university, for us all” the COO remarks. “And we want to embed the change that needs to happen in a way that keeps CEU’s core values intact.”
Katalin Miskolci graduated from the Technical University of Budapest with an MSc in Computer Engineering, then earned her MBA from the City University of New York in 2001. She spent two decades in the business world, half of it in consulting with McKinsey and BearingPoint (formerly KPMG Consulting), the other half in corporate leadership roles at IBM and Vodafone.