As the director of Salem State’s chapter of the librarian and faculty union (MSCA), I read the July 2 article Salem State furloughs proposed with interest. In that article, Salem State President John Keenan identified the current budget problems as being due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I have a significantly different perspective: Salem State’s budgetary problems are rooted in a long history of short-sighted management decisions, which continues to the present day.
Since I was hired in 2008, Salem State has had multiple presidents and provosts, along with a bevy of other upper management positions created and staffed. The College of Arts & Sciences, where my department is housed, has had at least five deans or interim deans. Other colleges and schools within SSU have had a similar amount of turnover in leadership during that time – and our short-term leaders made short-sighted decisions time and again, unchecked by our Board of Trustees.
Many of these questionable decisions involved a costly building boom — a fitness center, multiple dormitories, and a new parking garage — that lasted a full decade. The Board of Trustees and the commonwealth approved these structures despite demographic data indicating that, due to lower birth rates 20 years ago, we would soon face a decline of traditional-aged college students nationwide. Regardless of student enrollment numbers, we will be paying for these new structures for years to come.
Despite the building boom resulting in an increase in available university space, the current Salem State administration entered into a costly 25-year lease agreement for the upper two floors of 331 Lafayette St. This new building houses the president and other administrative offices, and places physical distance between the campus community and members of the upper administration, who now enjoy office space superior to those found anywhere else on campus.
As our building expenses grew and our enrollment declined, SSU faced increasing budgetary pressure. Management responded by slashing funds across most departments, including those that play an important role in drawing students (and much-needed tuition revenue) to campus, such as marketing.
Despite multi-year faculty and staff hiring freezes, voluntary separation agreements, and other challenging reductions, employees across campus have taken on increasing responsibilities. While watching management continue to hire and promote from among its own ranks (a practice that has proceeded unabated throughout the hiring freeze), we have done more with less, working hard to provide top-quality education and support services to our students.
Now, on the heels of all this building and spending on upper administrators, President Keenan says we face a $26 million deficit due to COVID-19. It is unclear, however, what the true shortfall will be. Fall 2020 student enrollment won’t be known until September, and the allocated funds and potential debt restructuring from the commonwealth budget also won’t be known until later this year, making that number uncertain.
Whatever the number, it’s important to note that Salem State has a reserve fund designed to mitigate such a crisis. Peer institutions such as Bridgewater State are wisely using small portions of their reserve funds to weather their anticipated 2020-2021 financial woes -- exactly the kind of “rainy day” these funds are earmarked for. But our Board of Trustees refuses to use that fund. Instead, they prefer to hold it hostage to secure bond rating for yet more construction (dubbed “Project BOLD”) that will saddle our campus with millions more dollars of debt.
To request furloughs equal to 10% to 15% of employee salaries to close the gap created by prior management decisions, with an undetermined budget and plan for additional construction debt, is fiscally irresponsible. Furthermore, asking student-facing employees to suffer consecutive weeks of no pay and be unavailable to the students who need them during a pandemic is morally irresponsible – a decision that will cause harm on many levels.
As a regional, comprehensive state university, SSU is a resource in our community. With so many in the region facing job loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SSU will be at the fore for retraining, continuing education, and other educational needs in our community.
Given these factors, we need to use a portion of the reserves for their designated purpose in the upcoming academic year and seek other avenues of funding. Furthermore, Salem State needs a reconstituted leadership team that prioritizes the needs of students, manages resources responsibly, and is realistic about planned growth. Now is the time to invest, not divest, in state higher education.
Amy M. Smith is an associate professor and director, MSCA/Salem.