Western Connecticut challenges reflect system tensions
Faculty demands for accountability continue at Western Connecticut State University, months after the president stepped down amid scrutiny over the depletion of the institution’s reserves. New leadership has been tasked with righting the ship, and faculty eagerly await answers.
For some, the answers aren’t coming fast enough—and they worry accountability won’t come at all.
WCSU administrators are urging patience while they build a plan for financial viability, in collaboration with Connecticut State Colleges & Universities System leaders. But critics argue that the system’s leadership bears some responsibility for the crisis at WCSU, suggesting that the system—and the state—could do more to help the struggling institution.
Calls for Accountability
In fiscal year 2012, WCSU had $24 million in its reserves. By fiscal year 2021, those funds were largely depleted, according to a report commissioned by the system and conducted by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, an education consulting agency.
The report found that WCSU tapped its reserves too often to balance its operating budget, ultimately draining those funds, which prompted President John Clark to resign in July. (Clark continues to draw a salary from WCSU, and though a 12-month off-ramp is common for presidential exits, he also received a raise over the summer, which system officials said was mandated by a state statute for all public managerial employees.)
WCSU’s new leaders say the financial crisis stems largely from missed enrollment targets.
“What caused the problem was bad projections about what enrollment was going to be and then consistently, over a number of years, missing that number. And by missing that number [WCSU] built a budget that has too much money going out and not enough money coming in and that is what used up the reserves,” said interim president Paul Beran, who stepped into the role in July. “So what has to happen is we have to adjust the institution for the number of students it has, and that’s going to come through the evaluation of programs and services.”
But faculty members say it isn’t that simple and there is plenty of blame to go around.
“The Board of Regents is as much to blame, because they have to approve the budget at every [college in the system] every single year, and they approved our budget every single year during those 10 years,” said Rotua Lumbantobing, an economics professor and president of the WCSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
A system spokesperson said by email that Lumbantobing’s claim “does not comport with reality.”
Lumbantobing added that system leaders told WCSU administrators that no financial help will be forthcoming, and she questions why the system hasn’t tapped its reserves to aid the university, arguing that should be a benefit of system membership. She also questioned the state’s commitment to higher education, given a projected budget surplus on the horizon for next year.
“This statement is categorically false,” CSCU system spokesperson Leigh Appleby said in an emailed response to questions from Inside Higher Ed. “President [Terrence] Cheng and system leaders have been very clear about their strong commitment to ensuring the long-term success of WestConn. In actuality, the working relationship between Dr. Beran and the majority of faculty members has been encouraging, with [a shared commitment] to making necessary changes.”
A rare point of agreement for Lumbantobing and system leadership is that the state needs to do more. Connecticut has cut higher education funding over the years. Numbers from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association show state appropriations have declined by 29.1 percent since 2001, falling from $18,660 per full-time student in 2001 to $13,232 in 2021.
Cheng spoke briefly about the need for more state support at a Board of Regents meeting earlier this month, touching on the various financial challenges that the system is juggling.
“Of course, there are challenges; we’re going to face them today, we’re going to face them into the future,” Cheng said. “There are budget concerns, no doubt—enrollment drops are real, unfunded pension liability, and our contractual obligations are real. The need for more state investment and support from our industry and community partners—that is real. So we’ve said it publicly, we’ve said it privately, our institutions and our system will not be able to cut our way out of this. We need more state and extramural support, to strengthen and sharpen the academic enterprise and address our infrastructure needs. We are in constant communication with the Legislature and the governor’s office to try to generate more support. The more we do this together as faculty, staff, administration and students, the more we’re going to achieve.”
Cheng added that the system over all must also “gain efficiencies and develop new ways of doing business,” in addition to increasing enrollment and developing new academic programs.
Broader System Tensions
Tensions between CSCU’s leaders and individual campus employees are a familiar story for the 17-member system comprised of four state universities, 12 community colleges and the online Charter Oak State College.
Starting in fall 2023, the 12 community colleges in the system will become a single institution—an idea faculty resisted and accreditors initially shot down before approving the plan this spring.
Tensions over system challenges were visible at this month’s Board of Regents meeting, with one union official noting in the public comments portion that some employees haven’t been paid on time, blaming consolidation for decimating human resources departments at various colleges.
Multiple written complaints submitted for September’s board meeting also stated that faculty members at community colleges were required to take a mandatory, unpaid 35-hour training session on online instruction, which was not required of professors at state universities.
In the public comment period, John O’Connor, a sociology professor at Central Connecticut State University, challenged the Board of Regents to be more transparent about potential budget cuts, questioning the board’s leadership. With “underperforming” programs at WCSU likely on the chopping block, O’Connor suggested regents are the ones underperforming.
“Rather than bold leadership, a vision of where we are going, we get the tired old song of ‘do more with less.’ The tyranny of deficits once more dictates that we live within our means. My students deserve better than that from this board,” O’Connor said. “As campus administrations make decisions about what stays and what goes, this board needs to tell the students and the people of Connecticut what parts of the system office are underperforming and going to be cut. Before any college or university department or program is touched, this board needs to take a look at its own bureaucracy. We would like to be presented with a number of scenarios where cost savings come from the system office. We don’t want to be told that the system office is too big to fail and that students and our institutions must pay the costs of the crisis. Students and faculty members want to know where this board is taking this system.”
Reaching Financial Viability at WCSU
While the system grapples with a broad range of issues and fields complaints from employees, WCSU faculty members worry their ideas aren’t being considered.
Lumbantobing suggests those tasked with fixing WCSU’s finances aren’t listening to faculty members and don’t have a plan to turn things around. She believes that leaders have no clear plans to execute any of the strategies proposed by working groups to fix the issues at WCSU.
But administrators urge patience in the face of the financial crisis and ongoing uncertainty.
Beran said a plan is coming but still under development and likely a month or two out. He added that the plan will evaluate the campus from top to bottom to identify issues and inefficiencies.
“My job is to help Western Connecticut State University evaluate and work with the system office as well as with everyone on campus to get past the fiscal crisis that it’s currently in and to do that by evaluating all parts of the institution. And that really involves everyone here,” Beran said. “This is not something … I’ve come into with preconceived ideas or preconceived notions about what needs to happen. I’ve come here to evaluate, to work with President Cheng—the system president—and the board, as well as everyone here on campus.”
Beran said it is too early to name specific actions but noted the plan won’t please everyone.
“We’re not going to have complete consensus. This is going to be a somewhat painful issue in some cases, there’s no doubt about that. But this institution can’t keep doing business as usual and maintain viability. System leadership and the Board [of Regents] understand that,” he said.
But the fate of WCSU is largely in the hands of the system, which Beran suggests has provided adequate support, particularly with regard to budget analysis and predictive analysis on state funding. And even though he’s tasked with guiding the plan to save WCSU, it’s up to the system to approve and enact it.
“I actually think the system is doing everything that they can do to give us information and to help to provide direction. And when it comes time for the final decision making, they will certainly be the ones who make the final decisions and approve anything that we recommend,” Beran said.