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Budget Town Hall raises difficult questions about faculty and programs

LOWER enrollment has led to budget concerns and worries over the future. Graphic BY Meghan Holloran | photo editor

On Oct. 23, Drake University employees gathered in the Olmsted Center for the Budget Town Hall to hear the latest on the university’s budget. The Times-Delphic asked about attending the event and was told the town hall is intended for faculty and staff only.

Much of what will be done to address the university’s budget issues is not clear yet. Drake might reduce the number of academic programs it offers. Professor Sandy Henry of the School of Journalism attended the town hall, and it was clear to her that the number of faculty at Drake is expected to decline. It’s unclear whether some faculty members will be laid off, or whether Drake will solely eliminate positions when they become vacant. 

“We don’t know if they’re just gonna try to hire [fewer] adjuncts…or if they’re going to try to cut majors,” said a professor who asked to remain anonymous. “We just don’t know. Still, even now, after the town hall, we have no idea what’s coming.” 

At the town hall, faculty attendees learned there weren’t plans for across-the-board cuts to faculty salaries or retirement contributions, according to Henry. 

Chief Financial Officer Adam Voigts said over email that various factors have caused fewer students to attend Drake and most four-year public and private institutions.

“Due to the nature of how higher education finances work, we can’t make changes all at once in a short period of time,” Voigts said. “It will take a few years to return to a healthy operating statement.”

In an interview with The Times-Delphic, President Marty Martin discussed goals for Drake’s financial future. The Board of Trustees approved a budget for the current year with a $4,350,000 deficit. The goal is to have a smaller deficit next year and a balanced budget in the 2026 financial year. After that, the next goal is a net two percent surplus.

“We’ll present to the board at its January retreat, January of 2024, a macro presentation of [financial years 2025, 2026 and 2027],” Martin said. 

Martin said Drake needs to align its budget to its economic reality. This will allow Drake to have the resources to support professional development, necessary travel and an annual compensation pool. 

“We’re planning on the foundation of a strong fiscal condition,” Martin said. “But we’ve just got to bring these two things into balance, [our revenue and expenses].”

A plan to review academic spending 

Plans that involve changes to academic programs and faculty require complex and lengthy processes, Chief of Staff Nate Reagen said over email. He said Drake is in “the very early stages of that evaluation.” 

“We do know we need to make changes and will have generalities by the January 2024 [Board of Trustees] meeting, but we will not have specifics by then,” Reagen said.  

Half of the university’s $130 million operating budget is in academics, Martin said. While he said Drake will determine how to be more efficient and effective, he left open the possibility that the university will reduce the number of academic programs it offers. 

Provost Sue Mattison will lead the effort to propose a plan to manage the academic side of the budget, Martin said. She will have support from Voigts, and she will work with the Faculty Senate, the Faculty Senate Executive Committee and the Faculty Senate Budget Committee.

In the end, Martin has the final say over what recommendation is made to the Board of Trustees. 

“I may take what is pushed up to me entirely, or I may modify that dependent upon what I believe is the necessary and best program to present to the board,” Martin said. “And it’s the board that has the final authority on this.”

‘It just feels so chaotic’

This is Professor Sandy Henry’s 17th year of full-time teaching at Drake, and this period of financial uncertainty is the fourth she’s lived through at the university. This isn’t her “first time to the rodeo,” she said.

Henry said the current situation is unfolding rapidly. She said there’s an unusual lack of specific plans for budget cuts, and “it just feels so chaotic.” It’s “horrifying,” she said, “that there isn’t any plan, really, for how this is gonna happen.”

“I would think at this point in time that there would be something, if all of this had to be figured out by January. That there would at least be a suggestion of what we should be doing,” Henry said. “Even if it’s saying, ‘Okay, we’re going back to each of the units and you all have to do ‘X’ [thing].’” 

The anonymous professor said attendees of the town hall kept asking questions about what budget cuts will look like, and that Martin didn’t give specifics. 

“There’s also no way that they haven’t had conversations already about what should be in the proposal, and debating back and forth about things that we should do or not do,” the professor said. “So, we don’t believe that.”

In the interview with the TD, Martin said Drake’s understanding of its financial future has changed over time. Last October, Martin said, Drake would have projected better enrollment numbers going forward than this October. He also said the university saw a huge decline in entering first-year students in August.

Martin said 2023, 2024 and 2025 were supposed to be good years for college and university enrollment. 

“There were going to be more eligible students to go to college in these years than what was happening the years prior, and what’s certainly going to happen in 2026,” Martin said. “But that’s all been erased by this decline in the college-going percentage.”

Drake’s understanding of the future has become clearer, Martin said. 

“We have to act on the assumption that what we’re seeing across the marketplace is the new normal,” Martin said. “We can’t [bank on] a rebound in this college-going rate anytime soon. That’s what’s become clear over the last nine months.”

Drake expects to have fewer employees

Because Drake has fewer students than it did five, 10 or 20 years ago, “our number of personnel supporting those students needs to reflect that,” according to Martin. 

Over 60% of Drake’s budget is “on the personnel side,” Martin said. Since the “non-personnel operating side” of the budget “is about as lean as it can get now,” he sees a need for changes on the personnel side. 

“So when a vacancy comes open, not only delay the rehiring of that [position], but [we] really have to make sure that it’s absolutely necessary that that position get replaced,” Martin said. “…Can we just distribute that work elsewhere? Can we digitize some of this so that it’s more streamlined? …So that’s been a part of the discipline, but that has to become even more of a part of the discipline.”

However, Drake is not necessarily only going to eliminate a position once that person has left the university. Martin said a proposed plan for the academic side of the budget could include actively reducing the number of faculty. 

One question asked during the town hall was about whether budget cuts would lead to people leaving the university, Henry said, “and the response was, ‘Yep, we know.’”

“Attrition is a very attractive fiscal option,” said the anonymous professor. “It isn’t attractive because…you get these good quality people that leave you, that are doing all aspects of their job, usually. He said he obviously is worried. But how can they stop it, basically?”

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