How profound budget deficits are forcing schools to make unpopular decisions

SUNY Potsdam's grave announcement comes just four days after West Virginia University's Board of Governors approved axing 143 faculty positions and closing or merging at least a dozen academic programs across the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

President Suzanne Smith paused at the podium in SUNY Potsdam’s Snell Music Theatre, holding back tears. University community members convened on Tuesday to hear her speak about its planned program and faculty cuts amid the institution’s 43% enrollment decline in 13 years and $9 million budget deficit.

SUNY Potsdam plans to cut up to 14 degrees from its academic catalog, including 11 bachelor’s programs. It will also be trimming its faculty and staff positions to parallel its enrollment losses more accurately, and considering how great the number of students SUNY Potsdam has lost in the past decade, its staff cuts will not be light.

“I’m sorry,” Smith said as she collected herself, according to Times Union. “This is hard.”

SUNY Potsdam’s grave announcement comes just four days after West Virginia University’s Board of Governors approved axing 143 faculty positions and closing or merging at least a dozen academic programs across the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Ultimately, community efforts to overturn the decision, such as faculty members taking a vote of no confidence in President Gordon Gee, couldn’t hold a candle to WVU’s $45 million budget deficit.

Institutions everywhere are struggling with excessive budget deficits, and with no help in sight from state funding, the decision for more drastic cuts across other institutions peers on the horizon.

“There will be no bailout,” said President Smith.

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Academic cuts at WVU and SUNY Potsdam cast a broader light on higher ed’s budget deficit problem

While the quick succession of academic cuts at SUNY Potsdam and WVU may take the higher ed landscape by surprise, institutions have recently embraced other decisions that sparked incendiary reactions from the community.

Last week, the University of California state system’s Board of Trustees approved hiking tuition by 6% each year for the next five years. CSU faces an astounding $1.5 billion deficit; its current revenue only covers 86% of its expenses, AP News reports.

The decision drew dissent from CSU’s faculty union and students already struggling with their current expenses. Still, university officials defended the decision, stating that the tuition raise will help CSU continue supporting student financial aid and academic success programs.

However, not all institutions can rely on a tuition raise to solve budgetary issues. Pennsylvania is one of the most expensive states for higher education while also suffering from an abnormally high level of enrollment declines. The vicious cycle prices out low- and middle-income students from being able to afford a Pennsylvania education, in turn plummeting enrollment and perpetuating financial hardship.

Both public and private institutions are trying to keep their head above water by laying off staff and cutting benefits. Pennsylvania State University faces a $140 million deficit, and internal university documents recovered by Spotlight PA illustrate the administration’s steps to lay off staff. Similarly, Chatham University, facing a $6 million deficit, laid off four vice presidents in July and 20 staff members in August. To secure remaining employees’ jobs, the university is significantly reducing its maximum retirement match for faculty and staff and cutting salaries, Public Source reports.

The consequence of letting faculty take the hit from budget deficits is lower levels of job satisfaction and a higher likelihood of employee turnover.

“I cannot emphasize enough how low the morale is. People are just devastated and feel so victimized by all of it,” said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor of political science. “How do you get up in the morning and put in a 12-hour day instead of an eight-hour day when your retirement’s been cut and your benefits have been cut?”

How much are institutions to blame for this?

Precipitous enrollment declines nationwide are the most recognizable culprit for institutions’ budget deficits. But are institutions’ drastic decisions to cut academic programs, lay off faculty and reduce faculty benefits the symptom of an institutional failure to plan accordingly?

Chatham University’s undergraduate enrollment nearly doubled between 2012 and 2022, Public Source reports. Bill Campbell, a spokesperson for the university, partially blamed the deficit on the university’s “aging financial system and reporting infrastructure.” Additionally, Chatham’s Board of Trustees was reportedly unaware of the mounting deficit ahead of a meeting this past June, which may demonstrate a failure of proper financial oversight.

Similarly, critics of West Virginia University believe the institution has not planned accordingly on a financial and strategic level in the years the state’s population has declined, AP News reports. In light of West Virginia’s $1.8 billion surplus in the 2023 fiscal year that ended in June, state Gov. Jim Justice takes a different perspective on the institution’s financial predicament and his rationale for not helping them.

“What we really need to do is let WVU have the time to get their house in order,” Justice said.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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