Wright State University will trim around 178 jobs as part of sweeping budget reductions next month while increasing the athletics budget by $1.6 million, a decision one faculty leader called “egregious.”
WSU’s interim president on Friday proposed the school lay off 71 people, including about 24 classified staff members, 43 unclassified staff members and four faculty members.
The university could also leave around 107 positions vacant that along with layoffs would save the school $14.1 million in salaries and benefits, according to a proposal from interim president Curtis McCray.
“Nobody likes this budget…As one member of the trustees, I apologize that we’re here but we must fix it,” said Doug Fecher, chairman of the board’s finance committee. “I essentially believe that this is the low point for Wright State University here today and everything from here is forward and up.”
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Another 14 currently filled full-time positions will have their hours reduced and the proposal does not include any salary increases for 2018. Originally WSU officials were considering eliminating between 80 and 120 positions, meaning the number of layoffs will come in under previous estimates.
The announcement could bring the total number of WSU jobs eliminated since October to 201, as 23 employees were laid off last fall. The board of trustees is expected to vote on the budget proposal at a June 8 meeting and layoff notices will go out the week of June 12.
WSU must slash $25 million while boosting reserves by $5 million in order to regain its financial footing. The university’s budget crisis was caused by years of overspending that is estimated to amount to more than $120 million.
While most departments and colleges at Wright State will have their budgets slashed, athletics will see its budgeted funding increase. The athletics budget increase was referred to as the “elephant in the room” by chief financial officer Jeff Ulliman.
Athletics received the smallest personnel spending reduction of any department, cutting just $191,000. Although the school will eliminate its two swimming and diving teams to save $500,000, the overall net budget for athletics could increase by $1.6 million, according to the proposal.
The idea that athletics would be “shielded” from budget cuts is “uncomfortable” at best and maybe even an “abomination,” said Geoffrey Owens, vice president of the WSU chapter of American Association of University Professors.
“It’s especially egregious we’re putting money into a secondary, tertiary endeavor when…teaching, providing support services for students is subject to cuts,” Owens said. “If there was plenty of money to go around then we should support athletics and grow it…but in this time of austerity it just seems uncomfortable.”
The athletics budget was boosted because it was never realistic to begin with, Fecher said. Despite the budget increase, Fecher said athletics will be held to spending less than in previous years because the proposal gives the department “a budget we can hold them accountable to.”
The university hired McCray with the contract stipulation that he address the budget crisis without lowering WSU’s Division I athletics status.
“You don’t solve a short term budget crisis by cutting long term strategic issues,” Fecher said of athletics. “We need to discuss it…but to do it as a knee jerk to this budget situation probably isn’t appropriate.”
‘From here, there’s hope’
Just five different areas of the university will absorb more than $11.4 million of the $30 million in cuts.
The Boonshoft School of Medicine could lose the most with $3 million in funding for operations and personnel on the chopping block, according to the proposal.
The College of Engineering could lose $2.9 million, making it the second biggest loser in the proposal. Combined, the College of Liberal Arts, College of Education and Human Services, College of Science and Math and Raj Soin College of Business could lose $4.78 million, according to the proposal.
Russian, Italian and Japanese programs will all be eliminated, officials said.
Wright State’s financial troubles have left some students on campus upset and let down, said student government president David Baugham. Until trustees vote on the budget proposal in June, the university will be accepting comments or recommendations and Baugham said he expects students take that opportunity to voice their concerns.
“From here, there’s hope,” said Baugham. “I don’t have any angst in terms of how it’s been handled in general.”
The budget proposal also slashes $8 million in savings through operational changes including reductions in travel, professional services, student employment, repairs and maintenance, and some scholarships and fellowships. Students likely won’t notice the operational changes as much, McCray said.
“There may be occasionally a hallway not cleaned as well as it should be, paper towels may be missing from the restroom during various times,” McCray said. “But, I think basically the students are going to see things as normal.”
Reversing ‘errors of the past’
Wright State won’t escape its budget issues for a few years to come.
The school is almost certainly heading for state fiscal watch, Ulliman told the finance committee on Friday. To avoid fiscal watch, WSU would have had to add another $25 million to the school’s reserves in 2018, Ulliman said.
The state measures every public college’s fiscal health with something called a “Senate Bill 6 score,” an annual rating of 0 to 5. Any school that falls below a 1.75 two years in a row is put on notice.
Once on fiscal watch, WSU will have three years to recoup its finances and boost its score back to a 2.4 for at least a year.
“We don’t necessarily want to continue cutting, cutting, cutting. That’s not what we’re looking to do,” Ulliman said “The challenge is upon us and we still are going to have to continually improve each year.”
Leading Wright State out of fiscal watch will be left to incoming president Cheryl Schrader, who takes over on July 1. Schrader declined to comment through a WSU spokesman on Friday but posted a tweet about the budget announcement.
“Only with open and clear conversation can we reverse the errors of the past and emerge stronger,” Schrader posted on Twitter.
McCray was hired on to make cuts before Schrader takes over. Despite the fiscal watch prediction, McCrray praised the board on Friday for getting more aggressive with WSU’s budget.
“I’m sorry we’re in this position,” McCray said. “But, I believe for the first time…this board is taking charge of the budget.”