BOONE — Appalachian State University officials are reacting to a recent mandate from the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to UNC system institutions that called for university chancellors to submit plans for “worst-case” 25-50 percent budget cuts.
App State Interim Provost Heather Norris explained to Faculty Senate members on July 20 that chancellors received the emailed directive from Board of Governors Chairman Randall Ramsey on July 14 as a “worst-case scenario planning exercise.” According to NC Policy Watch — a project of the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center — university officials were told to submit plans that were “very specific and include details of which programs will be shuttered, which positions will be furloughed, laid off or eliminated entirely” and other details of how the 25-50 percent spending reduction would be handled. The publication added that several UNC officials had been told they had to submit plans by July 24.
Policy Watch, which obtained a copy of Ramsey’s email, reported that it directed chancellors to submit a report on the financial impact of closing their campus and reducing tuition and room and board fees; a plan to reduce their budgets by 25-50 percent (to account for the reduced revenue resulting from reduced enrollment under various plans of closure); a projection of how the cancellation of fall athletics will affect their campus and specific plans for revenue shortfalls; and a General Administration analysis of the long-term impact on UNC institutions that have struggled financially.
Norris added that Chancellor Sheri Everts had a meeting with other UNC system chancellors on July 16, and Norris herself was part of a meeting among chief academic officers that same day. The discussion the chief academic officers had about Ramsey’s directive was “robust,” Norris said.
Norris was asked by faculty during the July 20 meeting if they would be able to see a list of employee positions or programs that would be proposed to be cut in the plans App State would submit to the Board of Governors.
“We don’t have a list and won’t have a list by Friday,” Norris said. “There’s not a list that we’ll be sending forward at this time. It’s just not that detailed at this point. We’ll involve the departments, the colleges and programs if we need to do that level of planning.”
Norris added that there is no certainty about where the university’s budget will land, as several factors are taken into consideration: potential drops in enrollment; reductions in state appropriations; loss of business, auxiliary and athletics revenue; and any other unanticipated expenses. App State’s enrollment is trending above what the the numbers were last year at this point, and the loss of business and auxiliary revenue depends on if the university is open and to what extent, according to Norris.
“While it is important to recognize these are planning exercises, I want to be clear that my leadership team and I meet regularly with the Faculty Senate Executive Team, and we will continue working collaboratively with Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and our Student Government Association to ensure they are engaged should we need to enact any of the possible financial scenarios,” Everts stated in a message to campus on July 18.
App State’s Faculty Senators have continued to advocate for a seat at the table while administrators make decisions regarding budgetary matters during the pandemic. Continuing in that spirit, the group voted to approve a report from the Faculty Senate Budget Committee that addressed the Board of Governors’ 25-50 percent reduction request. The report approaches both the 25 percent and the 50 percent “hurdles” requested, with sequential “gates” to accomplish the request within each hurdle.
When making the suggestions, the report states that the committee kept the following values in mind: students being the priority and keeping programmatic offerings and resources available to support their high-quality educational experience; aligning staffing with the temporary reality of being an online university; streamlining processes and structures to leverage them more effectively; and enhancing revenue.
“Fortunately there are members of our committee who have been thinking about this since the very beginning of the pandemic,” said Tanga Mohr, the committee’s chair and a professor in the Department of Economics. “There has been some very diligent thought going into this to think about how can we make recommendations to administration about potential budget cuts in a way that prioritizes the academic mission. When we are invited to the table, these are some of things we would advocate for.”
For the first gate for the 25 percent hurdle, the committee suggested the use of creativity and available “slack resources.” To do so, the report suggests tactics such as moving payroll by one day to save one-twelfth of a labor budget; using $70 million in an auxiliary fund; aggressively selling naming rights to campus properties; creating an ad hoc group to pursue pandemic-related recovery grants; finding innovative ways to more highly leverage system negotiated contracts for products and services; selling slack land and building assets and resources; and selling New River Light and Power.
The second gate for that hurdle had a suggestion of expanding freezes on discretionary budgets and expenditures such as freezing discretionary spending including all non-essential facilities and work requests, non-essential travel and non-essential hiring. This gate also called for the reduction of all operating budgets, and the freezing of all construction projects.
The third gate for the 25 percent reduction included the suggestion of tapping into organizational savings (including athletics) made available by being an all-online campus. This “gate” called for the consolidation and streamline of administrative/staff functions and positions to focus only on those essential to meet the needs of an all-online campus, which could include immediate temporary furloughs of non-essential university administration positions while partially furloughing all administrators and staff functions whose job duties are reduced proportionally. This gate would also include significant reductions in all non-academic positions. The fourth gate then suggested reducing the payroll through voluntary separations, and the implementation of voluntary retirement and separation bonuses and incentives.
The report’s plan for the 50 percent hurdle included a targeted consolidation of academic departments/functions/operations to leverage their administrative costs for the first gate and suspending or delaying off-campus scholarly assignments for the second gate. The third gate could include deploy graduated salary cuts across-the-board for faculty, staff and administration, according to the report. The third gate could mean a decrease of percentage cuts categorically from salaries that are $200,000 or more; $150,000-$200,000; $100,000-$150,000; $75,000-$100,000; and $50,000 to $75,000.
Budget Committee member Jim Westerman — a professor in the Department of Management — explained that the report was created with a strategy that each of these gates be fully implemented sequentially to the extent possible to address the Board of Governors’ request. He added that the hope is that both the 25 percent savings and the 50 percent savings scenario can be achieved through the first two gates, and that the latter suggestions would not need to be utilized or recommended in a response to the directive.
With 31 in favor, five opposed and five abstentions, the Faculty Senate voted to accept the report. Mohr explained that the report gives the committee a basis going forward with discussions with administrators.
The meeting ended with Faculty Senate entering executive session to discuss the results of a resolution passed during the group’s July 6 executive session. The resolution directed each senator to poll their department on the department’s confidence in the administration’s planning for fall 2020. The group’s July 20 executive session was to discuss the results of the department poll; Faculty Senate Chair Michael Behrent confirmed that there were no motions from that executive session.
Approximately one month ago, instructors at Appalachian State University created an online petition addressed to Everts and Norris — with 446 signature as of July 21. Some of the requests in the petition were similar to those of a Faculty Senate resolution passed at a June 22 meeting.
Requests included not requiring any instructor to teach in-person if they have any concerns for their personal health related to COVID-19 during the fall 2020 semester; not requiring any instructor to disclose the nature of their personal health concerns if they request to teach online; and allowing instructors the option to switch to fully online at any point in the semester if personal health concerns emerge related to COVID-19.
The petition further requested that those on campus should be required to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American College Health Association guidelines; the university develop and implement a program of regular COVID-19 testing for those physically present on campus; the request of daily updates on the status of campus virus transmission and quarantine status; and that the university communicate the aforementioned policies to faculty. The petition can be found at tinyurl.com/y55lcdz6.
More than 200 faculty members have signed a recent public letter pleading with the university community to “stay online and stay home.” Signatures from faculty can be found at tinyurl.com/FacultyLetterSignatures.
“We all look forward to a full return to campus, but the current environment does not allow this,” the letter stated. “We are aware of an economic impact of remaining online. We are aware of the much greater impact an outbreak in Boone would have. Some risks are worth taking. A full return of the student body in August is not one of those.”
Two other separate webpages with the letter were created — one for community signatures and another for students and staff who are not faculty members at App State. The community signatures page — with roughly 230 signatures as of July 21 — can be found at tinyurl.com/CommunitySignatures. The letter and signatures page for students and staff had 127 signatures as of July 21, and can be found at tinyurl.com/StaffStudentSignatures.