Faculty call for transparency throughout budget cuts process during BOT roundtable discussion

A push for a pause in the university’s plan as well as more transparency during the strategic realignment process were among the key concerns brought up by faculty members during Tuesday’s Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting.

After the board went over its scheduled agenda items, faculty members were given an outlet to directly address their concerns regarding USF’s strategic realignment plan during a roundtable discussion. 

Richard Manning, philosophy professor and member of the Faculty Senate, said there hasn’t been any transparency at all from the university administration regarding budget cuts. He said that while faculty members have been informed of decisions being made, they haven’t been offered a seat at the table during the decision-making process.

“Respectfully, faculty do not feel that the administration has been transparent in this process at all, at any stage, and do not feel that opportunities for genuine shared governance have been provided,” Manning said. “We’ve been told, to some extent, what’s going to happen but not about the process by which these decisions were made, let alone invited in any meaningful way to participate in those processes.”

He emphasized how the faculty in previous years responded to pressures from the administration but now have been “kicked to the curb” throughout the strategic realignment process.

Faculty members pushed for a pause in the strategic realignment process until further developments regarding each college are made. Faculty Senate President Timothy Boaz said the university should consider “decoupling” the actions related to the financial impacts of COVID-19 as well as carefully analyzing the long-term impacts each decision might bring.

“I think it’s really critically important for us to a certain extent to decouple the choices that we have to make related to dealing with the COVID situation, and the choices that we are faced with making that are going to be more permanent in nature,” Boaz said. “I think it’s really critically important to recognize the differences with those because we don’t want to be making permanent cuts to solve a temporary problem.”

The roundtable was held as a direct response to the USF Faculty Senate Executive Committee’s six-page letter sent Dec. 2 to the BOT outlining its concerns regarding the strategic realignment process. In the letter, the committee urged the university to pause the process until an enhanced plan can be put into place as well as engage in shared governance with faculty in adherence to the USF Principles of Community.

“A pause and slowdown will head off the potential long-term damage that could follow from a rushed balancing of the budget being implemented in the absence of a shared strategic plan,” the statement read. 

“Such a pause and slowdown will also provide time for the USF administration to engage meaningfully with the whole USF community in the strategic realignment process while enhancing the prospects for protecting the employment of invaluable faculty and staff.”

BOT Co-Chair Stephanie Goforth referred to the letter and the faculty comments as a “wake-up call” for many of the trustees. 

“I understand your concerns and I hear you, and we hear you,” Goforth said. “There’s no excuse for us to not listen and to make sure that we understand something. So, a decision has to be made fast so we need to make an effort to make sure that the clarity is there, that the transparency is there and that everyone understands what page we’re on.”

The university has been advised by the Florida Board of Governors to plan for an 8.5% cut in state funding for the 2020-21 fiscal year as a result of the financial constraints caused by COVID-19. State universities have also been advised to plan for a 10% cut for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022.

For the 2020-21 fiscal year, USF is expected to lose $36.7 million in state funding. The university anticipates spending over $26 million in COVID-19 expenses by December, according to BOT Chair Jordan Zimmerman.

Housing and Residential Education on the Tampa campus is projected to lose around $16 million in revenue by the end of the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021. Dining Services also projects a loss in meal plan sales of approximately $3 million as a result of the financial hardships set by the coronavirus pandemic.

Retail sales in the Marshall Student Center are projected to decline by $10 million for the 2020-21 fiscal year. Zimmerman said that each foregoing revenue stream is not projected to be fully recovered by 2022.

With fewer students taking in-person classes, Parking and Transportation Services has also taken a hit from the decline in parking permit sales. The department is projected to lose $5 million for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

For Zimmerman, a big financial relief for the unexpected expenses was the distribution of CARES Act funding, of which USF was awarded over $34 million in total aid. 

Of the $34.8 million received from the CARES Act, $17.4 million is designated to students and the other half to the university’s institutional expenses caused by COVID-19. Zimmerman said the funds received from the CARES Act enabled the university to offset some of the COVID-19-related expenses.

USF President Steven Currall said he projects to have the preliminary draft strategic plan by the start of the spring semester before decisions regarding the 2021-22 fiscal year are made between May and June.

The goal is to have a balanced budget by the end of 2022, according to Zimmerman.

Vice President of the Faculty Senate Jennifer Schneider said the preliminary budget cuts will directly impact faculty across all colleges, which could then cause long-term impacts to the institution as a whole.

“One of the greatest challenges I see in making cuts is that in the last few years, we brought in spectacular faculty who are there in a position to take us up to the next level, but they have no protection of tenure,” she said. “And when we are looking at how we’re going to cut and where we’re going to cut, there are people that are essential to our future that we have to think really carefully about.

“Without the strategic plan, without a real focus on understanding where we’re going, these cuts can be very detrimental.”

The topic of transparency was key during the meeting after the university announced the budget changes within the College of Education (COE) without communicating it to the BOT and not involving faculty in the decision-making process.

In light of the community reaction following USF’s decision to eliminate undergraduate programs at the College of Education, Trustee Nancy Watkins said that planning and clear communication should be at the forefront of the strategic realignment process to avoid “leaving permanent scars” in the community.

“We have had communication problems whether it’s this instance or the College of Education, as a trustee, I found out about it in public communications,” Watkins said. “And these do create injuries that hopefully we can heal. But what I want all the trustees to acknowledge is that every time there’s a healed injury, it does leave a scar and we have got to stop some of these injuries before they occur.”

When it comes to the COE, Watkins said she is “not committed to getting rid at this time” until there’s more information available regarding the proposed budget cuts. Colleges and departments across the university are preparing to complete and submit their plans by mid-December. 

In response to the letter, Trustee Michael Griffin said it gave a sense of direction of which areas the university needs to work on to provide greater transparency to the community.

“I’m personally committed to making sure that you and your team and the faculty and beyond are getting greater amounts of information,” Griffin said. “Certainly expect to see a lot of that on Friday, and where we’re falling short, I’m committed to making sure that you’re getting that information.”

The BOT will meet Friday for a budget workshop to further analyze the projected budget cuts. At the end of the roundtable discussion, Zimmerman emphasized the university’s commitment toward transparency and shared governance between administration and the USF community.

“We’re looking at this holistically, but we also want you to know that we hear you and we want to make sure the decisions we’re making will not affect the students’ success today or in the future,” Zimmerman said. 

“We are never, ever going to be happy. When we have to do away, cut budgets, cutting budgets one of the hardest things we ever do … so I hope that as we come together as one, we understand that we will make decisions that will be better for this university and not only today but be better for this university in the future.”