Middle States Committee Recommends Improving Budget Transparency at FSU

Only 18 percent of faculty and 29 percent of staff have a clear understanding of how Frostburg State University’s budget is set, according to data released in a draft of the Middle States Accreditation Self Study.

As a result, the Middle States committee has recommended that the university develop “Strategic Plan priorities that fully address resource implications through a transparent process that invites engagement from the campus community.”

David Rose, vice president for administration and finance, said that the complex nature of the budget makes it difficult for faculty and staff to clearly understand. “There’s aspects that even my colleagues on [the executive committee] aren’t familiar with,” he said. “So, it’s not surprising at all [that faculty and staff are unfamiliar with the process].”

On the percentage of faculty and staff who clearly understand the budget process, Rose said, “There’s no benchmark to say what’s normal, so we don’t know if that’s normal, high, low, anything like that.”

Budget transparency is not perceived as a problem at Salisbury University (SU), a peer institution of FSU that is also going through the Middle States evaluation period. “SU didn’t have a question, as part of its working groups’ efforts, regarding the transparency of our budgeting process, so we never did a formal campus survey on that question,” said Richard Culver, Salisbury’s director of media relations. “It had not been expressed as a topic of concern.”

“The administration strives to be transparent in its Strategic Planning and Budgeting System and received compliments in that area from Middle States during SU’s 2011 Periodic Review Report, but there always will be room for improvement,” he added.

When Rose sets FSU’s budget, he distributes the money to the school’s four divisions: Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, Administration and Finance, and University Advancement. Each division is headed by a vice president, who allocates the money to the division’s various departments.

“How each vice president handles that is up to them,” Rose said. “I’m not in the rooms when they make those decisions. It’s their responsibility, then, to talk to their individual departments so that they understand how it was done.”

Transparency issues are most evident at the planning level, and not at the institutional level, according to the report. “Some individual planning units have easily aligned their goals and priorities with the institutional plan while other planning units still see their mission in an operational sense and do not reprioritize their work to be consistent with the University strategic plan,” the report said. Forty individual planning units were asked questions for the self study, and eight did not respond. Other units indicated that they did not consider “themselves as planning units with a need to align their efforts with the institutional plan,” according to the report.

The committee explained that budget troubles and last-minute budget cuts in recent years have hindered the university’s ability to “respond in a fully considered manner. Sometimes cuts were taken from funds not yet expended, rather than based on a careful strategic evaluation of the situation. Thus, the criteria for decisions are often not clear.”

While he was serving as provost, Dr. William Childs cut 100 course sections over two semesters, a decision that was not discussed with faculty members or deans. Faculty were concerned that this would “affect the central core of the mission.” In Spring 2015, faculty expressed concern over his decision to reduce the number of graduate assistantships while increasing graduate stipend.

Childs, who no longer serves as FSU’s provost, declined to comment. He was named interim provost in summer 2013 and served as the permanent provost from Spring 2014 until July 2015. Childs is currently a professor in the department of educational professions.

Cutting the 100 sections was proposed to Rose as part of the budget reduction for 2016.

“We have such a large number of courses that surely we could collapse a hundred courses and save some adjunct salaries,” said Rose. Adjunct instructors are often paid around $1,500-$3,000 for teaching a course, according to salary data provided by FSU, so cutting 100 courses could potentially save the university around $200,000.

“I think a lot of faculty were concerned with the size, how many courses were cut,” said Dr. Michael Murtagh, chair of the Faculty Senate. “Saving $200,000 is a good thing. The concern was that it might not have been done surgically, in terms really finding exact places to do it. I think people felt that [administration] should have talked to us more about this.”

University officials had an ongoing discussion over how to handle graduate assistantships. Rose said that graduate stipends hadn’t increased in a number of years, and officials debated whether to reduce the number of assistantships and increase pay. When the university learned of budget cuts for 2016, student affairs proposed that the university make this decision to decrease the number of assistantships and increase the stipend.

“I know Dr. Childs made a presentation to the [faculty] senate, I think, after the decision was made to do those cuts, and that’s where the rub comes in,” Rose said.

Murtagh said, “It was given as an announcement, and I, as chair of faculty, got concerned immediately. Faculty as a whole were getting pretty concerned and starting to feel like things were being dictated, like we weren’t a part of the process.”

“In terms of faculty as shared governance, there was not a conversation about the [graduate assistants],” Murtagh added. “That they should be paid more, there’s agreement. There was not any discussion of reducing the number of [graduate assistants].”

Graduate Council, a Faculty Senate Committee, is currently evaluating this plan. It will make a recommendation to the Faculty Senate’s committee for  Institutional Priorities and Resources, which will examine the fiscal aspects of the plan and then bring it to the Faculty Senate for a vote. If the senate approves the plan, the university president would have 30 days to approve or reject the plan.

Improving communication is a priority going forward, and the Middle States report said that the university is exploring new ways to engage the campus community. Rose said specifics are not yet known, and that these plans will likely be on the planning level.

One result of this was Murtagh’s placement on the Executive Council, which consists of the university president and vice presidents. Faculty members have not sat on that council before.

“I don’t think it’s an act of people trying to hide something,” Murtagh said. “It’s just a very complicated process.”

“We had some things happen that shouldn’t have happened the way they did,” he said. “But what tells me if a system works, is how it responds to problems. And I think FSU has responded well. There was tension. There was some unpleasantness. But, it led to sitting down, having conversations, coming up with a plan that might not have been some people’s first choice, but plans people could live with, and then move through the system.”

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