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Administrators meet with staff to discuss budget, personnel cuts

4/28/2002
April 29, 2002

Dr. Sherry Hoppe, Dr. Bruce Speck, Dr. Bob Adams and Dr. Jennifer Meningall assembled on the stage of the Clement auditorium Friday in a session requested by the Staff Council to discuss the University's budget and proposed personnel changes.

About 75 people gathered to hear Hoppe and the vice presidents as they answered questions presented by staff in advance of the meeting as well as queries from those in attendance.

Hoppe began by noting that one question had been voiced "over and over": Why did Austin Peay seem to be affected so much more severely than other institutions by recent budgetary restrictions? "The answer is, in part, that Austin Peay had already endured severe budgetary cuts before the current crisis hit," Hoppe said.

Declining enrollments bear part of the blame. "Enrollment at the University hit its peak in 1996," Hope said. "We have about a thousand fewer students now than we had then. We're talking about the loss of $1 million in state and student revenue."

The current funding crisis also is attributable in part to the University's erroneous reporting of enrollment figures in the late '90s, according to Hoppe. "Austin Peay received funding to which it wasn't entitled. Those funds had to be repaid."

A drop in state funding is also part of the problem. The state dropped its funding of the formula from 87 percent in previous years to 84 percent this year.

"There has been a cumulative effect," Hoppe said.

She did have some good news to share. "Last week THEC recalculated the amount of money TBR institutions would lose under the Downsizing Our Government (DOG) budget. The recalculation was in our favor by an estimated $500,000," Hoppe said. "That extra $500,000 will allow us to keep seven or eight first-year faculty members that we thought we'd lose."

If the University is allowed to impose a 15 percent tuition increase, no first-year tenure-track faculty positions would be eliminated, she added.

In the face of a proposed cut of $1.2 million, administrators had sent notices to 24 first-year faculty members that the University could not renew their appointments. The letters were sent out quickly to comply with the University's deadline for notification of retention. In subsequent weeks, administrators worked to cut other areas, reducing the number of lost faculty positions to seven.

Addressing the question of why personnel cuts were the first to be considered, Speck said, "They weren't. Earlier, we had a decrease in our operating budget of $900,000 because of a drop in enrollment. But we didn't cut any filled positions until last October.

"We're at the point where there is nothing else to cut," Speck said.

Hoppe emphasized that although some positions had been frozen, no staff positions had been cut. "No individuals lost their job unless they chose not to accept a transfer," she said.

She also emphasized that the DOG budget might not come to be. "But we had to make assumptions based on a worst-case scenario."

In response to a question about how personnel decisions were made, Hoppe outlined eight factors, including how critical the position was to the University's mission, whether the service provided by the position could be provided another way, how many students were served by the department and the position, whether the University's affirmative action mission would be affected negatively, what legal issues might result from a change and how the level of staffing in the department compared to that of sister institutions.

One of the most prevalent questions was whether seniority would be considered as decisions about personnel changes are made. Hoppe's answer was yes, "there might be situations where seniority could be considered."

But individual skills also will be a factor. "Someone must be qualified to move into a new position. We will make every effort to transfer people into areas where they are qualified."

Hoppe assured those in attendance that positions were identified as possible targets for change, not people.

Notice of possible changes went to those affected in mid-April, though the budget won't be decided until May or June. Speck noted that administrators wanted to get word of possible personnel changes to affected faculty and staff as soon as possible, even if the changes might never materialize. "We felt it was important that people have ample time to make other arrangements, rather than wait and say 'You have two weeks to find another job,'" he said.

"We knew there would be fear. We knew there would be anger. But we viewed this as more humane."

Adams noted that anyone who position was affected would have 30 days to make a decision. "Their position would not be eliminated that day." The University also would attempt to provide training when necessary.

Could faculty or staff voluntarily give up a day or more of pay to allow the University to retain all faculty and staff? That solution is more complicated than it may seem, said Speck. "Reduction in salary is a very tricky issue. It's very hard to do. And it's not a long-term solution."

Couldn't the University simply eliminate athletics? Football? That might end up costing the University, Hoppe explained. "We spend $300,000 on football. The state appropriates $500,000 for 100 students, plus we get a quarter of a million in tuition from those students. So we're paying $300,000, but we're getting $700,000."

What about reducing the budget for roads and grounds? Or postponing some expenses till next year? That's not a perfect answer either, said Adams. "We're given an amount we have to spend on maintenance. It can't be spent anywhere else. And this year's budget has to be spent this year."

Though the exchange didn't result in any miraculous "fixes," it did precipitate greater understanding of the issues and Hoppe said she welcomed questions. "That best way for us to get through this is for us to provide you with as much information as possible."

She also encouraged departments facing personnel changes to develop creative counterproposals, as staff in the Financial Aid Office and the library did.

When will the University know what its budget will be? Possibly in late May, according to Hoppe. "Last year we knew in July. I suspect it won't be that late this year."

Hoppe said that despite current financial problems the University will not go into "retrenchment mode. "That might help this year but long-term it would hurt us by intensifying the downward spiral in students.

"These decision were not made easily," she said. "We struggled with them. But we know our discomfort pales next to what someone who's lost his or her job experiences.

"We'll do everything possible to get our state legislators to reform the budget. We encourage you to do the same. Let them know how their inability to fix this is affecting you as an individual as well as Austin Peay as a University."