SALEM — Already tense relations between faculty and administrators at Salem State University have only further deteriorated after an unfinished planning document was accidentally released in a records request — a document that contained multiple scenarios to significantly reduce or eliminate staff that could save the university millions of dollars.
On Friday, university faculty received an internal planning spreadsheet that outlined three scenarios under which specifically named faculty members would be retrenched. The scenarios, if acted upon, would have saved the university between $1.8 and $3.3 million, according to Tiffany Chenault, president of Salem State's chapter of the Massachusetts State College Association, which represents university professors and librarians at Massachusetts' nine state universities.
"It was a detailed document that had three different scenarios. It had people's names, departments that would be retrenched, moved," Chenault said. "It was in-depth."
The document was accidentally released by the university as part of a public records request from a member of Salem State's faculty, according to Rita Colucci, Salem State's general counsel. The request, which was unrelated to retrenchment, turned up about 6,000 documents, of which about 1,000 were turned over after duplicates and privileged information was removed.
The spreadsheet, which was mistakenly included with those documents, was then shared by the faculty member in an unofficial online group that faculty are part of.
"The spreadsheet came about because it was an unfinished exercise. We were figuring out retrenchments and what they look like in real life. We looked at some scenarios but never finished the document," Colucci said. "It was an unfinished exercise — never meant to be shared, never meant to be distributed in any way."
University officials would not provide a copy of the spreadsheet to The Salem News or identify the faculty member who made the initial records request. Chenault likewise declined to furnish a copy of the document.
This latest twist comes after close to a year of tense relations between administrators and faculty. With a multimillion-dollar budget deficit expected last year, administrators unveiled a plan for all university employees to take unpaid furlough time, a move that is expected to save $3.3 million once all employees take their two weeks by the end of the current academic year.
The local MSCA chapter, following a legal dispute that resolved in the university's favor, took its first week of furloughs during spring break, March 14-20, with the second week set for May 23-29, the week after commencement.
Several weeks ago, the university had said retrenchment was no longer up for consideration and completely off the table in part because of furloughs. Still, faculty members referenced the existence of a plan under President John Keenan and opposed what they characterized as a threat to lay off faculty via retrenchment if they didn't take the furloughs.
"The faculty member has been given a delete and cease letter to stop, and he's been told, 'don't disseminate this information. Stop it,'" Chenault said. "But when he sent it to over 160 faculty... I don't know if we're all going to get delete and desist emails from counsel. But we've told our members, 'don't disseminate this information. Stop. Don't do anything with this.'"
The document was released to faculty on Friday, the second to final day of their first week of furlough. But university administrators didn't explain the circumstances around the document's release until after midnight on Sunday, which was effectively the earliest point they could contact faculty again.
In that email to faculty, Academic Vice President David Silva said they have "made no secret that retrenchments were under consideration this spring given that Salem State serves 3,000 fewer students than we did a decade ago."
"As part of these discussions, using the MSCA contract as a guide, an unfinished exercise in which potential departments and individuals that could possibly be impacted by a retrenchment program were identified," Silva wrote. "It is deeply unfortunate that an unfinished exercise was inadvertently shared with a university colleague in response to a public records request."
Silva said administrators "find it deeply troubling and insensitive that this unfinished information was shared with our faculty and librarians, and we regret the stress it has caused our community."
The stress is real, Chenault said, given that the plan was revealed after administrators said it was no longer on the table.
"It wasn't meant to be shared, but they got it nonetheless. It was put out there," Chenault said. "So how do you regain trust after that? How do you rebuild trust in faculty, and how do faculty know if this is an exercise? Is there going to be one that will be finalized?"
From the administration's perspective, the efforts to carry Salem State through the pandemic must continue as planned, Colucci said. That includes preserving a $14.5 million budget surplus, in addition to anticipated federal aid in the American Rescue Plan Act, to address a combined $20 million in projected deficits over the next two years.
In other words, faculty still need to furlough May 23 to 29, according to Colucci.
"We know this is a big issue for our faculty. We just hope they can accept our explanation, apology," she said. "We know there's a lot of challenges ahead. We know we have to work with the faculty and the rest of the employees to go forward. If we don't do it together, we won't be successful."