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Bradley University faculty review committee questioned reasons for 'urgency and magnitude' of proposed academic cuts in final report

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The Bradley University faculty members tasked with recommending academic cost cuts raised misgivings about the process and the administration's actions leading up to the current financial crunch in their final report issued Monday.

The University Senate asked the Faculty Members of the Senate Executive Committee to evaluate programs for potential discontinuation in August. This came days after Bradley President Stephen Standifird announced the university was running a $13 million operational deficit and would need to cut costs by 10% by the end of the year.

The faculty review committee was skeptical about the "urgency and magnitude" of the directive to make $10 million in cuts to academics. Standifird told the University Senate in September the two main reasons to move quickly is to remove the cloud of uncertainty on campus, and to improve relationships with the banks. The faculty review committee echoed the questions voiced by the Bradley chapter of the American Association of University Professors about debt.

"President Standifird has suggested that a key factor forcing the short time frame for budget cuts is issues with our debt covenants and lines of credit. Although some information about these claims has been shared, the level of detail provided does not explain the relationship between the problems with the debt covenants, the line of credit, and the $10M deficit," the committee wrote.

The FSME noted the university has had four chief financial officers since 2020. The two CFOs in place from summer 2020 through spring of this year both lacked previous experience in university finances, and were reportedly both hired without an open search or search committee.

"President Standifird has mentioned that the COVID relief funds we received obscured the severity of the financial issues, but it is difficult to comprehend how leadership could have misunderstood our finances so significantly that a financial problem (the structural deficit) quickly morphed into a financial crisis that now, according to the Administration, requires immediate and draconian cuts to address," the committee wrote.

They noted 42 new tenure-track faculty were hired in the last year alone, including some over the summer of 2023 when the low enrollment for the upcoming semester should have been evident.

The FSME placed blame for the deficit not on instructional costs, but low tuitions that haven't kept pace with peer institutions, a high tuition discount rate, and missed enrollment targets.

The faculty handbook requires program discontinuations be based on academic rather than financial considerations. The review committee said none of the metrics the administration provided for assessments spoke directly to those concerns. The FSME said they received no qualitative data, and they also discovered multiple errors in provided data that they didn't have time to analyze and correct.

"The FMSE emphasizes that the compressed time frame severely hampered the ability of departments to prepare thorough reports and has limited our ability to make optimal cost saving recommendations that could benefit the university," the report read.

In a prepared statement on Monday, Standifird said the academic program assessement looked at programs that are an important part of the university's process, and those that are an important part of the legacy, but not for the process moving forward.

“Our approach from the very beginning has been really focusing on understanding the needs and interests of today's students. From the very beginning, one of the things we started doing is tracking the trend lines of our programs over the last five years," he said. "It's been a very data driven process from day one, but the fundamental question has always been, what best serves the students and Bradley University, and that has been the underlying, foundational aspect of everything we've done.”

The committee ultimately recommended $4.57 million in instructional cost reductions. Most of those savings were suggested by the departments themselves. They would come primarily by cutting 30 positions, mostly through leaving faculty vacancies unfilled over the next three years. They said they weren't able to identify additional cost savings based on educational considerations.

"If the Administration cuts additional programs and faculty lines beyond what we are recommending here, which it has indicated it plans to do to get to the $10M target,
we fear that the impacts on the University could be devastating," the report said.

The committee also recommended a pause on new academic programs that will require "significant start up costs and infrastructure." Those include three new undergraduate online engineering programs, an undergraduate online speech pathology program, and the graduate-level residential occupational therapy program. They suggested cost savings could also be found in the dean's office and other college units. The committee estimated those moves would save another $4.63 million.

They believe "significant savings" could also be found outside academics by reducing the athletic tuition subsidy, trimming the ranks of senior administration, and reducing the usage of outside consultants.

The committee noted that the number of vice presidents at Bradley is twice that of 15 years ago, "yet this expansion of upper administration has not led to increased enrollment and is concurrent with a worsening of our financial state, not improvement."

They also said vice president for enrollment, marketing, communication, and retention DJ Menifee should work closely with departments to align academic programs with the university's vision and recruitment strategy.

On Monday, Standifird announced 47 faculty positions are up for cuts, and an additional 21 to be eliminated through attrition. Seventeen programs are recommended for discontinuation, and another five would be dropped as majors or concentrations but continue as classes. The cuts are expected to impact about 3.5% of Bradley's current students. Those students will have the option to finish out their degrees on the Hilltop.

“At the core of everything we're doing today and moving forward is what's best for Bradley and what's best for Bradley students. So, while these adjustments are very painful as we go through it, I feel confident this is the way we best serve the students of today and tomorrow," Standifird said on Monday.

Department heads have 30 days to respond to the proposed program discontinuations. Standifird said he will have the final word on the cuts.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.