To borrow a phrase from Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago, Salem State University’s long-term goal is not simply to survive, but to thrive.
Setting our institution up for success in the decades ahead required extreme fiscal discipline even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the region, colleges were closing their doors or merging as demographic trends brought lower enrollments. With the number of college-aged students expected to continue declining, these institutions likely saw little relief on the horizon.
Salem State took needed steps to weather these headwinds and ensure our ongoing strength. We did this through limited and strategic hiring, along with a voluntary separation program that offered buyouts to reduce our long-term compensation costs. Little did we know how crucial this prudence would continue to be amid the financial challenges brought by COVID-19.
Along with the deep sorrow of loss that this pandemic has caused for so many, it has also brought pain through financial hardship for families, businesses, nonprofits, states and municipalities. Salem State is not immune. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, our university had a balanced budget going into the next fiscal year. When the pandemic hit, we had much work to do to evaluate its financial impact and return our budget to the balanced position it was in earlier in the year. In addition to reimbursing students for housing, meals, and parking for the rest of the spring semester, we have projected that COVID-19 will bring decreases in funding from the commonwealth, fewer tuition and fee dollars, and added costs of keeping our campus safe as we partially repopulate this fall.
As a result, we have proposed temporary furloughs, an approach being taken or considered by many other institutions of higher learning across the country. Like many organizations and households, the pandemic has left a number of unattractive options that leave us choosing which will be the least disruptive. Our furlough proposal is across all union and non-union employees and is subject to bargaining. We are hopeful that there is still an opportunity to work together with our faculty and librarian union, MSCA, to find a solution.
Furloughs are not something any organizational leader wants, and they are definitely not how we hoped to thank faculty and staff for their exceptional efforts to keep our students safe by shifting to remote learning this spring. We firmly believe, however, that this is the best way to ensure the short- and long-term strength of Salem State while preserving jobs.
Certainly, this pandemic has highlighted how crucial Salem State is to the region, as our alumni continue to see us through in their roles as health care workers, public safety officers, educators, community leaders, social workers and more.
Our commitment to the regional workforce, equal opportunity, and long-term financial sustainability form the bedrock of our proposal to update our science and healthcare laboratories and sell South Campus through the SSU Bold project. While the commonwealth has understandably delayed decisions about funding such projects until revenue projections can be more certain, it remains a necessity. SSU Bold will produce savings by modernizing and right-sizing our campus in a way that eliminates more than $80 million in deferred maintenance and decreases our footprint by some quarter of a million square feet. Most importantly, while our biology, chemistry, nursing and occupational therapy programs are strong, our facilities are cramped and beyond repair. Salem State must ensure that students have access to laboratory experiences that match what they will find in the current and future biotech, life science and healthcare sectors in which they wish to succeed.
Student success, after all, is why we are all here. Our graduation rate has increased steadily over more than a decade. Through partnerships with area public schools and North Shore Community College, we have found ways to make our comparatively affordable tuition an even better value through early college programs and easing transfer pathways. Even during these financial challenges, we launched the Salem Scholars program in the past year where the city of Salem’s high school residents will receive a $1,500 renewable scholarship when they enroll here.
Certainly, this fall will look like no other. While most of our courses will be online, about a third will take place in-seat. We are welcoming students to live on campus in single bedrooms only and have received much interest. At a time when enrollments are expected to be significantly down, our work to bring in a strong 2020-2021 class has paid off with solid enrollment numbers based on our post-COVID projections.
While most of our campus community will be physically separate this fall, we also must bring our community together more than ever as we reckon with the dire need to address anti-Black racism and all forms of racism. We will continue to hold dialogues, look inward, and take actions that will advance equity on our campus. Our students have advocated for campus reforms in the past and we have improved because of them. Being as inclusive as we are diverse is one of our university’s biggest challenges and top priorities, and we are committed to working on this together.
Since our 1854 founding, Salem State has navigated many challenging historical events — wars, economic uncertainties and even other pandemics and forms of civil unrest — and we have repeatedly demonstrated our strength, resilience and adaptability. This moment in time is no different. It will not be easy, but together, we will continue to deliver for our students, our region and beyond.
John D. Keenan is the 14th president of Salem State University. Rob Lutts is chair of Salem State University’s Board of Trustees.