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Commentary: Tough choices ahead at SUNY

The State University of New York at Fredonia appears to be standing at the crossroads.

First, the school’s enrollment is dropping. The school currently has roughly 3,800 students. By way of contrast, it had roughly 5,800 students in 2010. According to the Democrat & Chronicle, from 2011 to 2021, Fredonia’s enrollment fell 33%. In general, during this period, SUNY enrollment fell by 20%. Still, with the exception of Potsdam, Fredonia’s enrollment fell noticeably more than its comprehensive-college peers. In addition, SUNY’s elite (non-specialized) research universities did not lose enrollment. Some significantly increased enrollments. Consider Binghamton (+26%), Stonybrook (+13%), Buffalo (+12%), and Albany (0%).

Second, in response to Fredonia’s shrinking enrollment, the school sharply increased the percentage of students accepted. In 2013, it accepted 53% of applicants in 2013. In 2020, it accepted 72%. Recently, it is alleged that the acceptance rate for first-time-first-year students is at roughly 90%, although this is likely a different category than the overall acceptance rates listed in the preceding sentence. The college is thus moving in the direction of open admission. Part of the reason for moving in this direction is that the yield rate – the number of students whom Fredonia accepts and who then accept Fredonia – dropped from 35% in 2013 to 18% in 2020.

A few years ago, President Virginia Horvath allegedly dropped the SAT floor by 100 points and made recruiting New York City students a priority. It is unclear how this affected the numbers.

Despite the increase in acceptance and decrease in yield, the reported average SAT score increased from 1080 in 2013 to 1110 in 2020.

The percentage of students in the top quarter decreased slightly (-9%) and the percentage of students in the top decile increased significantly (+46%). It is unclear how much, if any, of these reported changes result from the 35% of students for whom a class rank is not available (2020 number).

Despite the reported caliber of students holding steady or improving, the graduation rate is dropping. The four-year graduation rate decreased 10% between 2006 and 2016 (the latest available number). The above changes occurred even as the school diversified its student body. Over the last decade, the percentage of minority students more than doubled, going from 12% to 26% of the student body. This figure leaves out students whose race or ethnicity is unknown.

As a result of these changes in enrollment, the school has a $16.4 million structural deficit. The administration says that it expects to make up most of the structural deficit up with federal and state money but has called for $1.5 million in salary savings from unspecified sources. These problems are not new. A few years ago, Horvath said that the school had a $12 million structural deficit and largely exhausted its reserves, and, so, things would have to change. Note that a structural deficit is not an actual deficit and so we should be wary of putting too much weight on these deficit-numbers.

Fredonia College Council President Frank Pagano said, “We had the same amount of people working when we had 5,700 (students) as we do when we have 3,700 students.” He also said, “[S]ome programs will also have to be cut or eliminated. It will be tough to do with tenured professors, but it will have to be done if the campus wants to shore up its finances.”

President Stephen Kolison promptly contradicted Pagano’s statement. He said, “[T]here are no existing plans for reducing programs or eliminating tenured faculty positions.” In addition, the administration recently approved a plan to hire 11 new, tenure-track faculty next academic year. Hiring these faculty will likely eat up 40% of the planned $1.5 million in salary savings. The statement and approval are hard to square with the supposedly dire financial state of the college. Last year, Kolison announced the college would hire 9 new permanent administrators. This also suggests that the financial situation is not terrible. So far no one has publicly explained the conflict between Pagano’s and Kolison’s statements.

The tension between the administration and faculty is building. A few years ago, some faculty proposed a no-confidence vote in President Ginny Horvath. The university senate never voted on the proposal, but there was a good chance it would have passed. The UUP recently filed suit against the college because it allegedly used an improper procedure to increase the humanities faculty’s yearly teaching load from six to seven classes.

Problems arise if the federal government does not give millions of dollars to the college and its students as it did last year. The problems can be addressed in a few ways: retiring faculty and staff might not be replaced, programs with low enrollment might be cut, or programs unrelated to the campus’ identity – its identity includes the arts, education, and science – might be cut.

The first option – refrain from replacing retirees — would avoid the loss of morale that would accompany program elimination and layoffs. On the other hand, it would make faculty and staffing shortfalls depend on who retired rather than prioritizing what is important to the campus. It would also likely result in some programs heavily relying on non-tenure-track faculty. These faculty are on average, less competitive than their tenure-track peers, although their lower salaries make them cost effective.

The second option – eliminate programs with low enrollment – aims at selling programs students want similar to how Walmart sells products customers want. The third option – promote programs tied to the campus’ identity – would allow the college to develop a clearer identity in the competition for students. The third option would lessen the need to compete with the larger, more prestigious university centers – for example, Buffalo – and some comprehensive-college competitors – for example, Geneseo. These last two options come at a cost. They would involve fewer programs, lowered morale, and, perhaps, a fight over the college’s identity.

In deciding how to proceed with program cuts and layoffs – if in fact they must be made – the college will have to balance market niche, student preferences, and faculty morale. It thus faces the crossroads.

Disclosure: I am a tenured faculty member at Fredonia.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. His views do not represent those of the university. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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