Bracing for financial fallout amid the coronavirus pandemic, Western Kentucky University will make more than $27 million in spending cuts in its looming fiscal year budget, including faculty and staff salary reductions.
On Friday, WKU’s Board of Regents authorized a campus budget that totals more than $353 million.
During the special meeting, which was broadcast online, the board also approved tiered salary cuts for faculty and staff. The cuts vary in size based on income, and the university’s top earners will shoulder a larger share of the belt-tightening.
Tuition and fee revenue from students contributes to nearly half of the university’s budget revenue, a factor executive vice president Susan Howarth said WKU had to account for post COVID-19.
“Prior to COVID-19, as a campus, we were poised to navigate through a modest decline in tuition and fees. That was primarily due to smaller class sizes working through the enrollment pipeline,” Howarth said. “However, once the pandemic hit, we had to be conservative.”
That said, campus leaders are holding out hope that WKU will be buoyed by steady enrollment figures in the fall. In-person classes are slated to begin Aug. 24, albeit with widespread mask use and physical distancing measures.
“All of our current yield indicators for the first-time freshman class continue to remain strong,” Howarth said.
“WKU is on track to welcome the largest increase to our freshman class in 18 years. Currently, our freshman class appears to be up over 300 students, which is just incredible.”
Although the university is planning for a 5 percent decline in tuition revenue, Howarth said, “right now overall enrollments are holding pretty steady.”
In March, WKU made the decision to send most students home and move toward remote instruction, a decision that was later extended throughout the remainder of the spring semester.
The university is now cementing plans to “virtualize” classrooms and will consider converting nearly 190 in-person courses with a capacity of 50 or more students to a distance learning format. Doing so would help free up more than 10,000 seats and help ease congestion on campus, according to WKU’s Big Red Restart Plan.
Last month, WKU’s Board of Regents held off on raising tuition rates, opting instead to keep the rate for full-time, residential students at $5,401 per semester, for example. At the same time, the board also waived for one year the fee associated with online courses. That fee totaled $150 per credit hour.
Under the plan to cut $27 million in the coming fiscal year’s budget, tiered salary reductions for faculty and staff would contribute $2.4 million toward that total. The plan was developed in conjunction with faculty and staff governance groups on campus.
Employees with salaries of $100,000 to $148,000, for example, would see an across-the-board cut of at least 4 percent, while those making more than $148,000 annually would take a 10 percent cut. Those paid $50,000 or less would see no pay cuts at all.
Other tactics for reaching that $27 million in cuts include an ongoing pause on hiring, slashed travel budgets and funds carried forward from the previous fiscal year. Another $8.2 million would be taken from campus divisions.
While he acknowledged the university budget as the most viable one possible given the circumstances, WKU Faculty Regent Claus Ernst voiced a set of concerns from faculty.
“(The) faculty overall is willing to do whatever it takes to make the accommodations for these courses, but there’s a lot of anxiety,” Ernst said, adding that for some faculty members the anxiety is being transmuted into anger. “A lot of faculty feel like that they will be bearing the brunt of these adjustments. Why? Well, because they have to use the summer to prepare for this teaching. They are asked to do things differently. Some of the faculty will have additional courses to teach. …
“The feeling is that academics bears the brunt,” Ernst said.
WKU Provost Cheryl Stevens responded to Ernst, noting that faculty have had a voice in shaping budget talks and campus restart plans all along.
“I do recognize how hard this is on faculty,” Stevens said.
At the same time, she advocated for a holistic understanding of the grim stakes the university is facing. That includes offering a mix of in-person, online and hybrid courses.
“The worst thing that can happen to us is, if we don’t assure students that when they come they’re going to get the experience that they’re expecting, that they’re anticipating and that we’ve said in the Big Red Restart that we’re going to provide – is that they won’t come,” Stevens said. “If they decide to take that gap year, and they don’t come, financially it’s going to be devastating for us.”
Stevens’ comments came just one day after two campus governance groups representing faculty issued a list of demands, including job protections and flexibility in teaching their classes online.
“Honestly, if people would just say ‘These are our concerns’ we will respond and try and work it out,” Stevens said. “I think this has to be a conversation that involves all parties, and it’s feeling like it’s becoming a little adversarial.”