Kutztown University President Doubles Down on Austerity in Face of Bunsis Report

Last week’s release of the “Bunsis Report,” an independent analysis of the financial situation of PASSHE and Kutztown University, presented an opportunity for renewing collaboration between faculty and the administration – if, that is, you read the official statement from the Executive Council of APSCUF-KU. The local chapter of the faculty union said that the release of the Bunsis Report can…

…provide a starting point where meaningful collaboration…can occur. It is time for a new paradigm in shared governance of our institutions, where no one is shut out from their legitimate role in collaborating to determine directions to be taken that work to everyone’s best interests, particularly those of our students. Getting it right the first time requires respectful consideration of all stakeholder input, and the faculty contends that Dr. Bunsis’s expertise provides a valuable frame of reference by which constructive dialogue might commence.  

It would seem the University administration is choosing a different path. In an email to Kutztown University faculty and staff the same day APSCUF-KU released its call for collaboration, university president Kenneth Hawkinson, dug in and recommitted the university to another round of shock doctrine fiscal strategy. “The University entered the 2017-18 academic year with a budget deficit of approximately $6 million,” Hawkinson warned. 

The University drew $5.25 million from its central discretionary reserves to satisfy the majority of this shortfall. This transfer has exhausted the central discretionary reserve balance. In addition, this past fall, the divisional vice presidents contributed $750,000 in a mid-year funds rescission program to satisfy the remaining amount needed to balance the budget. 

Because of this, it is anticipated that any one-time funds needed to off-set the 2018-19 budget deficit…will need to be drawn from monies held at the department level. As of June 30, 2017, funds held at the department/unit level totalled approximately $9 million. Unlike many universities, we do not sweep these funds each year but allow them to roll over for future department/unit use. 

There’s a lot to say about the claims being made here – especially since they fly in the face of most of the Bunsis Report’s key findings (see our previous article on the Bunsis Report for details). But there is one key that unlocks the whole logic of this “sky-is-falling” narrative: Hawkinson is referring to a “budget deficit,” which is fundamentally different from the actual financial situation as seen in the university’s independently audited reports. As we learned from the Bunsis Report, 

The audited statements, NOT THE BUDGET, report what actually happened, and is by far the most important source document to determine the financial performance of the system [PASSHE]. The same will be true when we analyze the performance of KU; we will examine budgets, but budgets do not tell the whole story – actuals are what matters. In the budget analysis for KU, we will demonstrate how the administration under-estimates revenues and over-estimates expenses in developing a budget, one of the many reasons budgets…are not the item we utilize to determine the financial performance of KU. 

A “budget” is essentially a plan for how an institution 1) covers essential and mandatory costs (e.g. payroll, interest payments, insurance); and, 2)  chooses to spend the remaining discretionary funds. As my eight-year-old son can tell you, the former are needs the latter are wants. But what we see in Hawkinson’s email is a conflation between wants and needs. That is, Hawkinson, like the university president before him, is following the lead of his administration and finance people who very badly want faculty, staff, and students to miss the slight-of-hand. Hawkinson and his administration need everyone to believe that a) the budget crisis is real; b) the cause of the crisis is like a force of nature, it is not the result of anyone’s choices; and, c) there is nothing we can do. We are forced to deal with the “reality” we now find ourselves in. 

In this story, Hawkinson and his administration are victims of external events. They might feel bad that they have to cut your job, increase your workload, increase your tuition, saddle you with more debt, or eliminate your program of study. It hurts them, too, you see. But, “the reality” dictates that they have no other choice, but to carry out the cuts and increases in tuition and fees. This story is especially pernicious in that it seeks to convince faculty, staff, and students to willingly accept their fate. After all, what else can you do after a hurricane but attempt to work together to save what’s left and find a new normal?  But as Raging Chicken has reported again and again and again, budgets are not forces of nature. They represent conscious decisions by individuals – university presidents, financial officers, and system chancellors – to do X as opposed to Y. In other words, budgets are moral or ethical documents that reveal what an institution values – and what it doesn’t. 

Let’s look at one very real choice that is buried in Hawkinson’s crisis story. In addition to warning that administrators are planning on more “budget reductions” and “funds recission,” they are also planning on introducing a new fee for students: the “Student Success Fee.” Don’t you love it? Who could be against student success? Well, in explaining in very general and abstract terms what the Student Success Fee will be used for (e.g. “safeguard access,” “protect and enhance the quality of programs offered outside the classroom,” “ensure that high-quality programs are available”), we get one concrete item:

Funds raised from this fee would pay for current students success initiatives such as the first year experience costs…

Sounds perfect, right? Well, let’s put this in context. The “first-year experience” is a brand new class that is part of a new General Education program that will be implemented for the first time in fall 2018. By Kutztown University standards, the new Gen Ed model will significantly change the way education happens at the university. The administration and the faculty union have been at odds over the process through which the administration has sought a new Gen Ed model. The university president has insisted on throwing away a well-established process for curricular reform (a move that has led to grievances claiming the administration is violating the faculty contract), which effectively reduces the faculty union’s role from a partner in shared governance to an outside advisor. In other words, the union could put their suggestions into the comment box, but the president is under no obligation to seriously consider them or read them at all. 

Unlike previous revisions of Gen Ed, the administration refused to sign an agreement with the faculty union saying that no jobs would be lost as a direct result of Gen Ed revisions. And, when asked on multiple occasions if the administration had done an impact analysis to understand the potential impact of a such a significant change in the university curriculum, administrators  said no impact study has been done and that everyone will have to “wait and see how things shake out.” Wow. 

Let’s get back to that first-year experience class. Conservatively, the university will have to offer between 60 and 80 sections of the first year experience class. That translates into 15 – 20 full-time faculty members just to teach those classes. Those numbers are based on the number of sections of College Composition and Speech Communication, the other two classes that are currently required of almost all students. Who will teach these classes? The administration is asking for volunteers. Where will the university get the funds to pay for this huge investment in faculty resources to teach a brand new course? Well, it looks like at least part of these funds will come from that wonderfully sounding “Student Success Fee” (interestingly enough, Hawkinson’s description of the fee sounds almost identical to the “student success fee” at Bloomsburg). I guess more will come from “budget reductions” and “funds recission,” too. The point is this: the administration made a choice find a way to pay for a new Gen Ed model all the while refusing to openly discuss the financial impacts of such a program. 

Get it now? Kutztown’s president just released a story – I mean a budget – that claims the sky is falling. Everyone needs to tighten their belts. Buckle up for a rough ride. There is nothing we can do but hold on and hope for the best. The reality is that a choice was made to budget for a new Gen Ed model and that choice costs real money. The budget reflects the administration’s choice to put money toward that first-year experience class at the expense of any number of other things. In this case, it appears the administration is perfectly fine with increasing the costs for students – and by extension, saddling those students with even more debt – in order to privilege a choice they made, largely outside of any recognizable, transparent process of shared governance. 

I give credit to the leadership of the faculty union for attempting to use the Bunsis Report as an opportunity to collaborate with the administration. I admit, however, that I was and remain deeply skeptical that the administration has any interest in real collaboration. Hawkinson’s email confirms my skepticism. 

The battle over Kutztown’s and PASSHE’s budget are poised to continue. Next week, faculty are bringing the author of the Bunsis report, Howard Bunsis, to Kutztown Univesity’s campus to discuss his findings. Bunsis will be speaking on Thursday, February 15 at 11:00 am in Room 101 of the Academic Forum. The faculty union has invited the university community – including administrators, elected officials, and other stakeholders to attend. Raging Chicken will be there too. 

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