Wright State University’s board of trustees approved more than $30.8 million in budget cuts Thursday even as top administrators and trustees panned the proposed reductions.
WRIGHT STATE COVERAGE
INITIAL REPORT: WSU trustees set to approve more than $30 million in cuts
The school will lay off around 57 employees as part of an overall elimination of 189 positions, which will save the university more than $13.9 million. WSU will save another $8 million from operational changes, $6 million from last year’s voluntary retirement incentive plan and $2 million through additional attrition, according to the school.
The university’s budget is $284 million.
The number of positions being cut is up by 11 but the number of employees to be laid off is down by about 14 as more people decided to voluntarily leave the school. Layoff notices will go out to employees next week, officials said.
Although the budget proposal was made public on May 19, it was criticized on Thursday by the very people who prepared it.
Interim WSU president Curtis McCray said the university’s cuts should have cut around $10 million more.
“I think our problems are a little deeper…I would have preferred that perhaps our cuts had been around $40 million,” McCray said after the $30.8-million cuts were approved. “It’s going to be a tough year. It seems to me that probably we have yet cutting to do.”
Jeff Ulliman, Wright State’s vice president of business and finance, also cast doubt on the budget cuts when pressed by a community member during a question and answer session. Ulliman was asked if he had considered the public fallout of the cuts and if they would keep students from coming to the university.
In determining cuts, Ulliman said the university was unable take certain ideas into consideration because officials had a short timeline to find solutions.
“We did not, in my opinion, vet this well,” Ulliman said.
Like McCray, newly appointed trustee Bruce Langos suggested the budget cuts did not go far enough. He warned trustees that they may be “back in this room” to make more cuts in six to nine months.
Gov. John Kasich may also lose patience with trustees if they are unable to correct Wright State’s finances soon, Langos said. Kasich appoints trustees but his office would not comment on Thursday on the suggestion that the governor would want to replace the board.
Wright State will need to add another $45 million to its reserve fund over the next three years, school and state officials have said. WSU is projected to end fiscal year 2017 with around $31 million in reserves, according to the budget. Regardless of the cuts approved this week, the school is on track to be placed on state fiscal watch by 2019.
The cuts the board approved were strategically made to have minimal impact on the university’s “academic mission,” said vice chairman Doug Fecher.
No faculty members are being laid off but no pay increases have been budgeted either. The only programs the school is eliminating are its Russian, Japanese and Italian language courses because of low enrollment.
If deeper cuts were made, trustees would have had to consider eliminating entire degree programs and the university was “not ready to take that step yet,” Fecher said.
“We’ve said our backs are up against the wall and they are,” Fecher said. “You don’t make major decisions about degree programs or athletic programs in a 90-day time frame, which is exactly what Dr. McCray had to do to put this budget together.”
A ‘sacrificial lamb’
Supporters of Wright State’s swimming and diving teams may have kept the school from sinking the teams.
Alumni and members of WSU’s swimming and diving teams attended the meeting and clapped and stood up as trustees discussed the teams.
Wright State’s board of trustees directed McCray to work with the athletic director to see if there is a way to save the swimming and diving teams without increasing the athletics budget for fiscal year 2018. The board gave McCray until June 30 to see if there is a way to preserve the teams.
Athletics funding has been a controversial topic since budget cuts were announced last month since the athletics budget increased. Fecher said athletics went over budget by so much in previous years that 2018’s proposed $1.4 million budget increase will result in a $200,000 decrease in actual spending.
Trustee Grace Ramos said that it was unfair to cut the teams without giving student athletes more notice. Saving $200,000 in athletics does not justify ending the swimming and diving programs, Ramos said.
“We have, I think, jeopardized the swimmers and divers at this school and made them sort of the sacrificial lamb,” Ramos said.
Amid budget cuts, WSU trustees also approved a 3 percent increase in tuition for out-of-state students and graduate students. Room and board fees will also increase by 3 percent.
Tuition is typically a college’s biggest single source of revenue as it is at Wright State.
Wright State’s tuition is nearly $1,000 below the national average and the school has one of the lowest tuition costs of Ohio’s public universities. WSU’s low sticker price can be a good thing but it may not be sustainable, Ulliman said.
“While this supports our commitment to a broader range of students it’s not a sustainable model without a corresponding higher level of enrollment,” Ulliman said.
But, enrollment is on the decline at Wright State. Enrollment dropped by 2.25 percent last academic year and it is expected to decline again next year by more than 5 percent to 13,861 total students, according to the budget.
Wright State is behind other universities in enrollment growth. WSU’s enrollment has increased at 90 percent the rate of other state universities, Ulliman said.
Officials are forming an enrollment task force to help turn that decline around. To avoid more cuts, the university needs to find a way to attract more students, officials have said.
“We can’t continue cutting our way to prosperity,” Ulliman said. “We need to increase enrollments.”
Beyond the budget
Wright State’s board of trustees tackled two other controversial matters Thursday.
The board eliminated ‘bumping rights’ for non-union classified staff in a five to three decision.
The policy change goes into effect immediately and means that if a position is eliminated, a non-union classified staff member cannot bump someone with less seniority from another position.
The board also responded to an inquiry from the Ohio Inspector General on an immigration investigation that has dogged the university for more than two years.
The OIG has requested access to material WSU provided to the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation and U.S. Attorney’s office concerning potential immigration law violations. The board approved a resolution granting a limited waiver of attorney-client privilege in order to provide the materials to the OIG.
In April, WSU trustees asked the university’s attorney to make referrals for further investigations to the state out of “an abundance of caution,” Fecher said. The OIG’s request was likely the response to those referrals.
“I don’t know that it’s meaningful in any way other than they’re starting the investigation,” Fecher said.