SUNY Fredonia budget process continues without program cuts

This week, SUNY Fredonia President Virginia Horvath, Ph.D., announced that the PEPRE (Procedures for Emergency Program Reduction/Elimination) plan has been stopped. “PEPRE is stopping at this point, but it doesn’t mean we’re stopping the budget work,” Horvath told the OBSERVER in a phone interview.

In a Nov. 20, 2018 OBSERVER article, Horvath explained that PEPRE was a plan that the college formed in 2011-2012, when other SUNY colleges were reducing or eliminating programs. “We hoped never to use it,” she explained. “I was vice president for academic affairs at the time, and we thought, ‘What would the criteria be if we were to reduce the number of academic programs?'”

Just before Thanksgiving break, the college announced that 20 undergraduate and graduate degree programs were being considered for reduction or elimination, along with three administrative and support services and eight administrative offices. Importantly, the plan emphasized that departments or subjects of study were not being eliminated. Rather, department heads were called upon to evaluate their programs, especially those with only a handful of students, and identify ways in which costs could be reduced or students’ interests could be accommodated in another way.

Department heads were given the opportunity to provide a written response to the potential elimination or reduction by Feb. 15 to be reviewed by members of the Cabinet and Senate-designated representatives in the next step of the PEPRE process. Final decisions regarding reductions or eliminations were planned to be announced by the end of April.

On Friday, Horvath told the OBSERVER that this timeline has not been suspended, but canceled, altogether. “Thousands of pages of text were being generated,” she said of communication not only from department heads, but other faculty, students and the public. “It would take all the time between now and the end of April to review, when we really want to be focusing on our students and the budget work we need to do. Cutting the academic programs was not going to have an impact right now. We still have to do that budget work, and we are still looking to see what happens at the state level.”

Indeed, Horvath stated in the initial announcement regarding PEPRE in November that program reduction or elimination savings would benefit the college’s budget down the road, due to the lengthy process of eliminating a program. “If the campus makes a decision to deactivate a particular program, it still has to be decided at the SUNY level,” she explained. Any reductions or eliminations likely would not have gone into effect until the 2020-2021 academic year.

Horvath pointed out that as of Friday, there are only 100 days between now and commencement. “Now, we need to be focusing on the 2019-2020 budget,” she said. “We’re also looking at the governor’s budget, the enacted budget, to see what the numbers will be, the tuition rate and the impact of Excelsior.”

She explained that administration continues to examine fixed costs and focus on what can be controlled, as tuition rates and salaries are determined by the state. Aside from capital, maintenance and construction costs, which have separate funds from SUNY, “Eighty-five percent of our operation (costs) is salary,” Horvath explained. “In academic affairs, it’s 95 percent.”

One way administration is addressing this expense is looking at the number of employees. “When a position is vacated due to retirement, moving, or what have you, we review the position very carefully and see if it can be addressed in another area,” she explained. Another way the college has reduced costs is reorganizing departments. For example, the current office of Advancement, Engagement and Economic Development was once two separate departments, each with its own vice president. A $400,000 cost savings resulted from that merger, from the elimination of the position and other expenses. Marketing and Communication is now one department, as well.

“Last year, we made $3.6 million in permanent cuts,” Horvath said. “Savings with utilities, vacant positions and areas where we don’t need to go about things in the same way, were considered.” She said similar work will continue to be done for next year’s budget. “Now, we’re taking the PEPRE committee out of it so they can focus on what comes out of Albany and stabilize us by July 1. We also want to make sure our students are having a great experience. I want to reassure them that we support them as we continue to do our budget work, which we do every year.”

Horvath told the OBSERVER that while the PEPRE plan has been stopped, the college is still in a loan position for next year, but she is optimistic that the work the college has already done to reduce expenses — and increase recruitment and retention — will continue moving forward. “Over the past six years, we’ve cut $9 million in salary savings,” she said. “In the past 15 years, we saved more than $50 million in one-time funds. We want to avoid borrowing, but we knew that this year, we wouldn’t be able to do this without borrowing. The less we have to borrow, the stronger we will be.” Horvath stated that the college would have been in a loan position for next year, regardless of whether or not the PEPRE plan was still in place.

In Friday’s announcement sent to the entire campus, Horvath said of the PEPRE plan, “…the good intention was to outline criteria and processes for potential program/office reduction or elimination and provide ways for faculty and staff to respond. The unintended, although understandable, consequences have been a focus on preservation of the status quo and high levels of anxiety and frustration. In short, the process is not working and has become a distraction from essential work that must continue, especially the teaching, learning and student success that are at the heart of the campus and the planning for the next fiscal year.”

Importantly, she stated, the hard work that went into the rationales already submitted by faculty members whose programs were proposed for elimination/reduction will not go to waste, despite the halt to PEPRE. Rather, the information can be used to strengthen programs and make them more efficient in the future.