Wittenberg must cut and grow, president says

Springfield university seeks solutions to $7 million budget gap.

Staying with the story

Springfield News-Sun reporter Tom Stafford has covered Wittenberg’s financial problems for months, examining proposed cuts and the overall impact to the Springfield community.

Wittenberg University President Laurie M. Joyner hoped to close the university’s $7 million projected budget shortfall over the next four years by cutting $5 million in expenses and generating $2 million in new income.

The budget she’ll present to the board when it convenes Thursday has $4.5 million in cuts, which Joyner called “as much as we could at the moment.”

She said the half-million dollar gap underscores of the other piece of the university’s financial balancing plan: “We really do have to grow.”

Of the $4.5 million in savings by school year 2016-17, about $2.5 million will come from the elimination of 29 faculty positions and the benefits and operational expenses that go with them.

Joyner said that includes 15 empty positions, nine retirements, three visiting positions and two non-tenured faculty on tenured paths.

Of the other $2 million in savings over the next five years, $600,000 is expected to come from savings in the university’s contract for housekeeping services; $500,000 from dropping from 10 t0 7 percent the university’s contribution to employee retirement accounts; and the remainder from leaving administrative positions unfilled, trimming the costs of other contracts and reducing the cost of retiree health insurance while retaining a “similar level of coverage.”

Joyner said that on the revenue side, the university has added a May semester through the School of Community Education to supplement its usual summer terms; and the faculty has approved bachelor’s degree completion programs in nursing and criminology.

Although she expects the board to approve the general direction of the changes as it meets through noon Saturday, Joyner said she also expects it will ask the university community to do more.

She said she thinks it will.

“I sense a difference now on campus,” said the first-year president. “I think a lot of people had no clue about the financial challenges. I think most clearly understand them now, (although) it’s still not clear to me the vast majority understand the scope.”

Robin Inboden, who chairs the faculty executive committee, agrees with Joyner’s assessment.

Although faculty more involved in university governance “certainly had some concerns” about the budget, she said, “for some people, it was kind of a shock. And I think people have come a long way in understanding where we need to go.”

If the sobering cuts represent the “stick” side of motivation for the Wittenberg community, Joyner continues to try to rally the university to see the carrot involved in reshaping a Wittenberg that brings the pluses of a liberal arts approach to a future likely to include two things: a curriculum with programs that have more obvious career paths and signature programs that take advantage of Wittenberg’s existing strengths.

In the competition among liberal arts institutions, “I really do think distinctiveness is going to become decisive,” she said.

She said the issue is framed by asking the question: When you say Wittenberg, what pops out in your mind?

Joyner said Wittenberg has the potential for creating those programs in East Asian Studies or social entrepreneurship or by thinking differently about how it can get more mileage out of an already strong science program.

The potential ”has really energized some of the more senior faculty leaders” she said. Others on campus seem to be embracing the idea of an innovation group to come up with new strategies on how to make improvements and changes campus wide that can contribute to a leaner, smarter Wittenberg.

After a year she said has sometimes been daunting, Inboden says a new focus on change for the better is likely to be refreshing.

“I think we’re hoping the innovation group will be part of what will help us turn the page,” she said, and “some more positive ways of erasing the financial problems.”

When asked about the toll that news of Wittenberg’s struggles have had on the university’s reputation, Joyner was direct: “Anybody who thinks that Wittenberg is unique in this situation is simply not paying attention to schools like Wittenberg across the country.

“We are dealing with it proactively,” she added, “and I believe there are institutions who are not dealing with it. I think we’re ahead of the game in that regard, too.”

The benefit, she argued, is that while the cuts have not been painless, the process at Wittenberg has been different than at schools where that have been no-confidence votes or layoffs of faculty without proper process.

“We have challenges, but at least here — up to this point — we’re still together, recognizing that we’re all in it together,” Joyner said.

She also said Wittenberg is not without resources.

“Although we are certainly nowhere near a wealthy institution,” she said, “we still have nearly $90 million in our endowment, which is not insignificant.”

She said the university also “continues to be ranked” by national organizations on key measures like classroom experience and faculty-student contact.

“If you care about strong faculty-student experiences at an ideal size institution deeply interested in educating the whole person,” Joyner said, “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a place better than Wittenberg to send your student.”

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