Opening Meeting, Spring Semester 2010 - January 27, 2010

One of the purposes of our opening meetings is to chronicle some of the accomplishments we’ve made together here at WCSU over the past months – achievements of which we all can be proud. And all of us see examples of our progress every day.

I especially noticed it last fall in the engagement of students with the university—from participation in clubs and organizations to community service to attendance at athletic contests.  Let me give you two examples:  in December, hundreds of students came out for a holiday event in the Bill Williams gym that included indoor ice skating, preparation of cards for nursing homes and deployed military and the collection of clothing for the homeless.  In November, Ives Auditorium was filled for the annual Gay Straight Alliance drag show.  (I was a judge, not a participant!). 

These are very different events, but they demonstrate this student engagement.  At both, cheers of WC-SU echoed!  Old fashioned school spirit was evident.

While other public universities around the country are hunkering down, experiencing reductions in state student financial aid in Michigan, additional forced furloughs in Illinois and double-digit mid-year tuition increases in California, we are continuing to advance:

  • With no layoffs for members of our bargaining units (though management has been effected)
  • With sufficient faculty hiring to meet—barely-- student demand
  • With a level of state support (38% of our budget) that’s considerably above today’s national norm
  • With a tuition/fees increase for next year that is responsible and, if not welcomed, accepted by most stakeholders.

Our increasing enrollment demonstrates our attractiveness.  New enrollment for this Spring Semester is up more than 50% and applications for fall are running around 25% ahead of last year.  We should all be happy about this, for it’s yet another demonstration that the vision we have established for ourselves is becoming a reality. 

To return to the analogy I used in late August, we are continuing our advance in the spirit of the Apollo 13 astronauts; we are continuing, despite short staffing and constrained budgets, our work of creating the future.  We’re doing this:

  • Because we trust each other
  • Because we share a strategic vision
  • And because we put students first.

I’m terrifically proud of every colleague  in this university.  Because as I talk with other presidents around the country, I recognize that what is happening here by no means universal.  And I’m confident that we will continue this exciting progress in the semester and academic year ahead.

But, (and you probably guessed there’d be a “but”) let me continue my analogy.  Based on what I see, hear and read, I believe this space flight we’re on is going to be longer than we may have hoped.  The economy in this state is not turning around quickly, so instead of a jaunt around the backside of the moon like Apollo 13, we find ourselves on a longer voyage, maybe more like one of those of the starship Enterprise.  And, like time travelers, when we finally return we may find our world changed, what many observers of higher education are calling the “new normal.”  

The reality is that while the federal stimulus initiative, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is protecting us from serious reductions on our budget in FY10 and FY11, substantial financial challenges are likely to face us after that.  The conventional wisdom that Connecticut is historically late entering and late exiting economic downturns seems to be holding.

Let me refer to a November 2009 forecast made to the legislature’s Appropriation and Finance Committees by the Office of Fiscal Analysis. This analysis projected:

  • $385 million deficit for FY10
  • $286 million deficit for FY11
  • $3.2 billion deficit for FY12

What happens is that by FY 12, the federal stimulus money disappears and the cost of money borrowed to get the state through the crisis kicks in.  The state’s rainy day fund will be exhausted.  $2.27 billion of one-time funds will  gone. 

Under this scenario, to balance the state budget in FY12 (if nothing changed) would require an 18% decrease in expenditures or a 20% increase in revenues.  Difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish.

And, since this analysis was completed, there are troubling signs that the situation may be even more serious—with a $500 million deficit this year and a projected $4 billion in FY12.

Other than scaring us mightily, what does this mean for WCSU?

  1. I believe we must prepare for additional budget reductions to public higher education in Connecticut.  The state budget has simply too little money and too many legitimate demands upon it.  In addition, we have a political landscape characterized by gridlock in an election year.  Solutions to reduce our funding, maybe even crackpot ones, could be forthcoming.  We will need to continue to educate stakeholders and elected officials about the value of public higher education to this state.  (And Chancellor Carter and I will be hosting nine legislators at breakfast here tomorrow.) We may see attempts at reduction even in the upcoming legislative session; our support may become an issue in the fall elections; and in FY12, we may be tested as never before.  I can’t specifically predict these challenges today, but I don’t think we will come out of the next few years unscathed.    
  2.  We need to understand this reality as we go about our important work; and we need to prepare contingencies as best we can.  Given our insulation thanks to the ARRA, we have a little time do to this.
  3. We need to continue to practice austerity:
    • Look closely at all operations; look for additional efficiencies;
    • Look closely at every hire we propose or make;
    • Look closely at our enrollment projections; we cannot solve this with simply more students.
  4. I’ve asked each vice president to work with colleagues to come up with ideas to identify reductions equal to a 5% and a 10% reduction to our state allocation for next year.  If we don’t need this, great!  But heedlessness about the state’s financial future is flatly irresponsible.  There are simply too many variables, both economic and political, for us not be very careful.
  5. But as we evaluate any cuts we make, we must also assess their impact—on WCSU and, particularly, on our students’ educational experience. 

    We cannot just hunker down and place cost reductions above all else.  That’s not doing our job.  And we need also to look for new ideas to generate net revenues efficiently.

I continue to be confident we will be able to work our way through these challenges—in the spirit of Apollo 13 or MacGyver—but even more so in the spirit of the campus culture that has long existed here and has been strengthened over the past few years.  What our colleague Paul Hines once called “the miracle of WestConn.”

Let me be clear.  We are NOT talking about institutional survival here.  (And there are universities in some states that are!)  We are instead talking about maintaining the momentum we have built.  This coming semester, for example, we’ll hold an exciting symposium on the history and work of the Danbury-built Hubble Telescope, with a talk by a real NASA astronaut, not a metaphorical one; we’ll open the new Union Savings Bank Institute for Financial Literacy; and in May we’ll hear what I know will be an inspiring address by the artist and humanitarian Wyclef Jean, who has agreed to be our undergraduate commencement speaker.  Given what’s just happened in his homeland, this promises to be special.

Wyclef’s visit will be tied to another initiative in the community in the coming weeks, and I’d like Carolyn Lanier to tell you about it.

So, let me reiterate in closing.  We have not yet safely splashed down from the asteroid-filled economic space odyssey we are on.  But if we continue to trust each other, if we continue to work together no matter what our title, role or bargaining unit, if continue to pursue our strategic vision, if we continue to PUT STUDENTS FIRST, we will not just endure, but we will thrive. 

I look forward to working together with you to do just that.  Welcome to the first Spring semester of the 21st century’s second decade!

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