In a narrow chat box on the right side of the screen, faculty and staff summarized their concerns and anxieties in a few words, looking for answers to some of the most pressing issues around future budget cuts across the university.
President Steven Currall hosted a virtual presidential forum through Microsoft Teams on Friday afternoon for about 150 faculty and staff to ask about budget cuts for upcoming fiscal years, specifically the 8.5% cut in state funds for the 2020-21 fiscal year and the potential layoffs as a result.
Moderated by Faculty Senate President Timothy Boaz, the most frequently asked questions were about potential layoffs. Gerard Solis, general counsel of the Board of Trustees (BOT), said that any layoffs will be thoroughly planned before they are executed.
“I think in any kind of layoff, the university would look at a number of factors, not the least of which would be the potential of affected faculty to find alternate positions,” he said.
Solis said that layoffs are largely unconfirmed, as the university is still in the proposal phase of the cuts. Decisions will be reached after final plans are submitted by colleges, academic support units and university support units in mid-December, according to Senior Vice President for Business and Financial Strategy David Lechner.
“Decisions are going to have to be made, proposals are going to have to be put into place, although timing may vary,” he said. “There may be other layoffs that don’t have to occur until fiscal year 2022 which will provide those affected with a longer period of planning for it.”
If planning for future layoffs, Solis said the university would look at a “number of factors,” including the faculty members’ ability to find a new position, before making a final decision.
“The university also has obligations within the [collective bargaining agreement] to search for alternative positions within the university itself,” Solis said. “We would be working with the United Faculty of Florida as we develop those dates and we had to roll those programs out. But certainly that’s going to be a factor that we’ll be mindful of, not just for faculty, but to the extent that it is applicable to staff as well.”
One anonymous member proposed a salary reduction program in lieu of layoffs, but this type of savings would not be permanent, recurrent savings like they require, according to Lechner.
“We have done a program like that at the executive level,” he said. “From the president, 15% and through executive leadership, which kicks out, I believe about $600,000 in savings already.
“We have looked at doing it broader, but again, that only provides us with cash savings and doesn’t provide us with the permanent savings that we need.”
The panelists were hesitant to answer questions at times. Some questions were danced around or answered partly, and as many as 150 were avoided completely, many due to time constraints. The majority of questions were asked anonymously.
The cuts proposed by the panelists thus far are only preliminary, according to Currall.
“They are not set in stone,” Currall said. “It is very important that we are clear about that today. We are still in the process of deliberation and soliciting consultation input from all of those stakeholders.”
Provost Ralph Wilcox clarified Currall’s statement by explaining that plans put out as of now are only proposed targets of the budget cuts, and academic support and university support units must submit their proposals by mid-December.
“The targets are preliminary, based upon careful analysis of existing budgets available, sources of funds outside the ‘Education and General’ budget, analyses of performance data and evidence that is readily available for all members of the USF community,” Wilcox said.
“So, again, I’m not in a position today to suggest that any undergraduate or graduate programs are at greater risk than another across the university.”
One of the targets is the College of Education (COE), which drew many questions as well. One in particular asked if any other graduate or undergraduate programs would be at risk. Wilcox said that the decision to eliminate the current COE program is not finalized, but he made a case for the plan, citing its 63% decline in undergraduate enrollment in the last decade.
“The strategic directions that have been suggested to move towards a greater emphasis on graduate education doesn’t mean that USF is getting out of the business of teacher education,” he said. “On the contrary, we’ve, I think on a number of occasions over the past couple of weeks, reaffirmed our commitment as a university to teacher education.”
The question with the most likes, capping at 110, brought up the issue of “transparency with accountability” as listed in the Principles of Community, a set of creeds and goals set by the administration. This was in reference to the willingness of the administration to divulge plans for the distribution of cuts across colleges.
“The Principles of Community call for transparency,” an anonymous attendee asked. “There was no transparency in the decision to close the College of Education, violating the Principles of Community erodes trust. Can we be assured that going forward there will be transparency?”
To this question, Currall replied that the forum was an example of their initiatives for transparency as well as ongoing discussions with faculty and staff.
“We are redoubling our efforts to be even more transparent and accountable,” he said. “And I think that the community will be encouraged when they see the information on the website, which has very detailed analyses and financial and historical information.”
Currall’s administration launched USF’s Strategic Realignment website on Oct. 30, which includes a flowchart about the decision-making processes of the provost, regional chancellors, deans and other senior leaders in regard to budget cuts. It also contains a list of all the funds which will ultimately need to be cut.
“This website provides additional context about our current circumstances and the analyses behind our deliberation processes,” Currall said.
Back in July, the Board of Governors advised state universities to prepare for a cut in state funding of 8.5% for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021. This results in a loss of $36.7 million in funding for the university, according to the website. Universities also had to submit a 10% reduction plan for the following fiscal year ending June 30, 2022.
The overarching concern of the faculty who attended the forum was from where these cuts would ultimately be taken.
The opening question of the event had 60 likes, and asked if there would be cuts made to non-academic areas, including student support services like counseling centers and libraries as well as university support services like building maintenance and construction.
”What we’re doing in our plans and our targets is to try to make sure that we minimize the reductions in our academic units and yet push as much as possible on the other support units,” Currall said. “And yet always bearing in mind that those other units are vital to our operations as a university, so it’s a balancing act.”
The academic unit consists of 13 colleges, some of which will take part of the $13.4 million cut, according to Currall. “Academic support,” which includes student success services, will be cut by $4.9 million, and “university business support” will be cut by $6.5 million.
“Certainly, the academic colleges are at the heart of the university’s educational enterprise,” Wilcox said. “The proportional reductions to the colleges are significantly smaller than the proportional reductions to the academic support units.”
Lechner said the cuts make sense proportionally.
“The colleges are 57% of the budget,” he said. “They are taking 50% of the cuts.”
A similar question concerned whether the administration was considering a cut to USF Athletics, like football or basketball teams. The Athletics department eliminated 30 positions and furloughed or reduced the salaries of all other salaried employees earlier this month, according to an Oct. 1 Oracle article. As to further cuts, the response was a resounding “no.”
“It is a very important way for us to engage with our alumni and donors,” Currall said. “So no, we are not considering eliminating Athletics.”
Another question, garnering 19 likes, asked about how the cuts would affect each individual campus.
The panelists initially evaded an explanation, which ended up being that a “layoff unit” or a group of faculty who could potentially be removed, is based on the college, not the campus. Solis said faculty belong to their college more than their campus in this regard.
“If the layoff unit is the college, then that college may exist on three different campuses, so you would apply the layoff criteria to all of those faculty,” he said. “It wouldn’t just be Tampa, St. Pete or Sarasota-Manatee.”
The St. Pete campus will be receiving its own reduction of $3.1 million while the Sarasota-Manatee campus will receive a $1.9 million cut, according to the Strategic Realignment website. These statistics do not include any faculty cuts made across colleges, according to Solis.
A final question about the distribution of cuts asked what steps were being taken to ensure that gender and racial equity were being considered as the proposals for cuts were drafted.
They did not outline a specific plan, but Currall did advocate for diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the university.
Wilcox said the administration is paying attention to inclusion, but he did not list any plans in progress to ensure that cuts were equal.
“Suffice it to say that we are acutely aware of any plans that disproportionately impact underrepresented populations at the University of South Florida and therein threaten our commitment to diversity and inclusion,” he said.
Over the course of the 90-minute forum, fewer than 10 questions were posed, leaving approximately 150 unanswered, according to Boaz.
While the forum covered a wide range of topics, a lot of deliberation still remains for many of the faculty in attendance.
“We’ve had vigorous discussions and dialogues across campus and we’re going to continue to do that and even further to intensify our consultations on all of these topics,” Currall said.
More forums will be held in the future to further these dialogues, according to Currall.
“We are eager and open to have a dialogue about any and all [ideas].”