Faculty Senate discussion addresses pressing budget concerns

In a long and emotional discussion Wednesday evening, President Steven Currall and Provost Ralph Wilcox answered questions from senators about the future of the university and its employees. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/MICROSOFT TEAMS

On her computer screen, Associate Professor in the College of Education (COE) Deanna Michael had a recommendation letter for a faculty member who’s afraid of losing her job as a result of the recent budget cuts affecting the college’s undergraduate programs.

For Michael, many other faculty members are feeling the same, and are worried that their voices are “lost.”

“They’re going through a lot of emotional trauma, they’re going through a lot of planning that they think is an emergency,” she said. “And so there are going to be grants not applied for, articles not written or put off … and a lot of turning chaos because of the language used and the deadlines that may not be deadlines.”

Concerns ranging from future budget cuts to potential layoffs were the main focus of the Faculty Senate meeting Wednesday night, where more than 120 people engaged in a Q&A-style discussion with USF President Steven Currall and Provost Ralph Wilcox.

Michael urged Currall and senior leadership to address the concerns raised by faculty — especially those afraid their positions will be in jeopardy in the near future.  

“I’m leading a big group that’s very extensive and we’re trying to figure out what to do, and nobody wants to do it,” Michael said. “There are tears at faculty meetings. It’s hard. And from my notes, I am now going back to them and say, it is a done deal it’s not a done deal. I don’t know that the deal is done. I need to guide the people that I represent.”

In response, Currall said the university is “trying to strike the balance of being consultative and seeking input while acting expeditiously” by engaging in discussions with faculty. The meeting lasted three hours, during which faculty members and senators lined up to ask some of the most burning questions regarding the future of the university and its employees.

The fear of potential layoffs came to light after the university announced a significant cut from the COE budget while eliminating all of its undergraduate programs and transitioning the college to a Graduate School of Education.

The cut is under a reduction plan, approved by the Board of Trustees on Aug. 19, to cut 8.5%, or $36.7 million universitywide, in funding received from the state for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. 

The university is planning to reduce $13.4 million in funds from colleges across all three campuses and $6.8 million, or 35%, of the COE’s annual budget over a period of two years — $2.8 million in the first year and $4 million in the second.

As the university plans ahead for future cuts, Currall said no budget cuts have been made yet.

“We have now pulled those together and collated those, but that is just one step in a process and it continues to be ongoing,” he said. “We’re looking at the entire institutional framework for our budget and trying to be responsible stewards of ensuring that we are deploying financial resources that allow us to continue to advance and pursue our academic mission and enterprise. 

“Those decisions are absolutely not final and preliminary. And that’s part of the reason why I’m here with you today, is I want to further articulate with you about how this ongoing consultation process should unfold.”

Besides the 8.5% cut, Currall said the second component will focus on the alignment of recurring expenses and recurring revenues, which is about $55 million.

“If you add those two up, that’s the overall target that we need to plan to ensure that we stay on a solid footing as a university, that’s going to happen over a period of time,” Currall said. “And we’ve set an initial target of trying to reach that goal by the end of June of 2022.

“We’re still getting input and thinking about the target and the time frame. We’re still in the process of thinking about what’s feasible. And we’ll know more about that as we get into the details. Some more, but carry that that’s where those are the numbers. That’s the target for the institution.”

All colleges are required to submit their proposed plans to achieve their targeted resource realignment goals by Dec. 18, according to Wilcox.

With the short deadline, according to Michael, not all voices would be represented due to the insecurities around the issue.

“This is the season they have to apply for jobs now,” she said. “They can’t wait. So I appreciate that you’ve got the deadlines where they are, but she and others that are insecure can’t afford to contribute to their vision because they’ve got to write their grants, they got to do their articles and they can’t go to these intense meetings so their voice is lost.”

While Wilcox said the 60-day window is not “optimal,” he acknowledged the sense of urgency.

“We have tentative targets for colleges and other units to meet and prepare plans for submission no later than Dec. 18 at which time leadership will engage in evaluating those plans and ultimately making a recommendation to the Board of Trustees,” he said.

Considering the future budget cuts could potentially lead to faculty layoffs, biochemistry professor David Merkler took a different approach and inquired about possible furloughs and layoffs of USF administration rather than faculty members.

In response, Currall said one of his highest priorities is to “thin” the administrative structure. 

“What we’re trying to do is to make sure we preserve resources dedicated to those factors that are driving our academic success, and looking for ways to thin out other costs that we have to allow us to concentrate on those variables that are driving our academic success.”

Around a month ago, Currall announced that about 30 members of USF’s leadership team, ranging from senior vice president-level positions, vice presidents and deans, will be subject to a mandated salary cut of 6% to 10%, effective Oct. 2. 

In addition, Currall committed to take a voluntary 15% salary reduction, or $86,250, for the 2020-21 fiscal year, reducing his base salary from $575,000 to $488,750. The cuts will result in approximately $600,000 in savings for the remainder of the 2020-21 fiscal year, according to USF spokesperson Adam Freeman.

For Wilcox, there are more actions to come and “nothing is off the table.”

“What I can tell you is that the proportional share of the cut taken by university support units is higher than academic support units, which in turn is proportionally higher than the colleges,” he said.

While some colleges have already submitted their plans, others are still in the process. Wilcox emphasized how all colleges were given the same timeline and advised to consult with their faculty and staff before submitting it.

“I’ve been very, very strong in my insistence to the deans that they absolutely must consult with their faculty and staff,” Wilcox said.

As a way to address the rising concerns about future budget cuts, faculty members formed a subgroup to draft questions for the administration. President of the Faculty Senate Timothy Boaz said the questions focused on three main themes, including the nature of the issue around recurring expenses paid by nonrecurring revenues and the criteria behind the process to identify the budget cut targets for both the university as a whole as well as each college.

The questions were sent to administration, including Currall. They will be releasing a written response as well as developing a website to answer some of the faculty’s questions in the next few days.

As a way to address any questions or concerns, Currall will be hosting a Presidential Forum on Friday from 2:30 to 4 p.m. The virtual conversation and Q&A will be moderated by Boaz and livestreamed on USF’s website.

Currall said the website will be launched at the end of the forum at 4 p.m. The consultations, according to him, will serve as a way to ensure that the faculty’s thoughts and input are incorporated into the deliberations.

“[Boaz] and I are also discussing the possibility of a subsequent live Q&A session after you all have had a chance to see the answers that we post to your existing questions on the website,” Currall said. “So that will be an opportunity for you to digest the answers, and then have further discussion and dialogue with you.”

The release of the website and the Q&A session are part of the consultation process focused on strategic budgeting, according to Currall. He said the planning began in August 2019, however, due to COVID-19, the process has been significantly impacted in terms of academic enterprise as well as USF’s finances.

For Currall, he said he strives to strike a balance consulting with faculty members while also acting and addressing their concerns.

“These are challenging waters that we’re navigating right now, but we’re very committed to making decisions and deliberating in a spirit of partnership with you all,” Currall said.