Western Connecticut State University President John Clark is stepping down amid a financial crisis that has led to a 99% depletion of university reserves in recent years.
Clark, who has been president since 2015, will officially step down on July 14. His resignation follows a vote of no confidence over financial management issues brought against him by the teachers’ union in May. Earlier this year, a scathing external report found that the university “has a problem with spending control, not a problem with revenue”.
The report, commissioned by the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System, revealed a litany of financial missteps and no cohesive strategy for achieving financial sustainability. He recommended a number of changes, including a thorough review of current staffing levels. However, faculty members say the report ignores glaring problems, including years of declining state government funding, which have left public higher education institutions scrambling to survive.
The report by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, an education consulting firm, shows a steep drop in WCSU reserves over the past decade. It paints a picture of a university that failed to address financial issues as its reserves fell from $24 million in fiscal year 2012 to “almost depleted” in fiscal year 2021.
A spokesperson for the CSCU system did not have a current figure for reserves in western Connecticut.
“Western Connecticut State University is an institution in serious financial difficulty. It has a structural deficit that has caused the university to dip into its reserves almost every year for the past decade,” the NCHEMS report states. “This practice of relying on reserves to balance the operating budget over a long period of time has led to the current situation where reserves have been completely depleted. The university now has no choice but to address the underlying factors that led to this condition – operating within the limits of a balanced budget is now an imperative.
The report, delivered in January, notes that of the four state universities in the Connecticut State College and University System, only Western Connecticut has seen a complete collapse of its reserves. Two other state universities have seen their reserves rise since the end of the Great Recession, while Central Connecticut State University has seen its reserves decline by about a third.
Citing interviews with officials, NCHEMS described the administration’s approach to the financial crisis as follows: “We haven’t had a balanced budget in years; why start now?
High and rising spending levels have caused WCSU’s reserves to be depleted, with most of the costs related to staffing, declining enrollment and the coronavirus pandemic, according to NCHEMS, which noted that the problems of WCSU were not caused by underfunding but by overspending.
But faculty members — who note that no professors were interviewed by NCHEMS for its report — take issue with some of the findings, particularly the claim that WCSU is not underfunded. .
“The biggest problem is that the state of Connecticut has repeatedly cut our budget. State funding for public universities has declined, and Connecticut is unfortunately not unique. State divestment from the Public higher education is really the underlying problem,” said Rotua Lumbantobing, professor of economics at Western Connecticut and president of the WCSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
Connecticut has indeed cut funding in past years, according to data available in the State Higher Education Finance report compiled by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Figures from SHEEO show state appropriations have fallen 29.1% since 2001, from $18,660 per full-time student in 2001 to $13,232 in 2021.
Lumbantobing also disputes findings that suggest WCSU is spending too much on staff, arguing that staffing levels are already meager and have been “cut to the bone”.
She attributes the high personnel costs to WCSU’s administrative overload, which the report disputes.
Lumbantobing also sees the system’s leadership as partly responsible for the current crisis, arguing that it failed to financially rein in the Clark administration’s proposals as reserves dwindled.
“The school must submit a budget to the system office, the Board of Regents. Every year they approved it, which means they knew the reserves were going down every year. It is not only the bad decisions of the local administrators, but also the system office, the Board of Regents, they are largely to blame, because they have approved this budget every year,” Lumbantobing said.
Leigh Appleby, spokesperson for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System, said via email that system leadership has engaged NCHEMS to help understand western Connecticut’s financial issues and make recommendations that would bring the university back to financial health.
“The Board of Regents for Higher Education and CSCU have long recognized the significant financial pressures facing WCSU and have taken steps to stabilize the university’s budget, including the adoption of a pilot program allowing New York and New Jersey students to attend WCSU at an in-state rate, significantly bolstering college enrollment,” Appleby said. “However, the pandemic has exacerbated already significant enrollment and financial challenges Recognizing the need for further action, NCHEMS has been tasked to review the situation, recommend immediate actions to stabilize the university, and ultimately provide long-term solutions to the issues facing Western. NCHEMS has produced an initial report with immediate recommendations, and CSCU is currently working closely with the management team of the WCSU to ensure they are implemented. A second set of recommendations will be provided later this year by NCHEMS aimed at strengthening the institution’s long-term sustainability.
Although a more comprehensive NCHEMS plan is expected later this year, some recommendations were made in the initial report, including “the right size of the staff roster”. The cuts, according to the plan, are expected to come from faculty, academic support and student services employees. The report adds that labor agreements in place across the CSCU system make it difficult to control costs at the campus level and recommends cutting part-time faculty members.
One advantage for Western Connecticut is that it plans a balanced budget for fiscal year 2023, according to Appleby. Board documents show WCSU expects a balanced budget thanks to an injection of $18 million in one-time state funding and an additional $11 million in salary and benefits savings through a hiring freeze, which means leaving 73 full-time positions currently vacant. .
With Clark set to leave WCSU next month, the CSCU system has appointed an interim in his place. Paul Beran, currently a consultant and former president of Northwestern Oklahoma State University, will enter the presidency on July 15, facing the challenge of righting the ship financially.
“I look forward to being able to build relationships with all members of the community, especially the faculty and administration of the university,” Beran told a local newspaper, The News-Times, last week when announcing his interim appointment. “There are issues to overcome, but I think they are totally doable – and I need the help of the faculty and everyone else.”
Beran did not respond to a request for comment via LinkedIn from Inside Higher Education.
His appointment, however, is another source of concern for Lumbantobing, which points out that Beran is an outsider, unfamiliar with the state university system and campus needs.
“They replaced [Clark] with someone who doesn’t know anything about the system here, about Western, who doesn’t know our issues, our unique situation or our students,” Lumbantobing said. “And [CSCU system leadership] did not get input from faculty and staff.
Clark, who did not respond to an interview request sent to the university, said he would work to accommodate Beran and allow for a smooth transition as he takes over as WCSU president.
In an email to the campus community last week, Clark wrote, “I personally welcome Dr. Paul Beran as my successor and our new interim president. In my opinion, he comes at the right time in the history of the University, when we need a new leader with the vision, energy and ideas to lead the University towards financial stability. , enrollment growth and student success.