Good people are working on tough issues

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 20, 2010

University presidents frequently become targets of criticism, never more so than when deep state budget cuts are the order of the day. There are tough decisions to be made and most of them occasion pain for programs and people on the campus. One must assume judgments will be called into question and negativity will suffuse the environment.

Lately the criticism has become quite personal. It is generally my practice to overlook pokes in the eye coming my way, but I feel compelled to speak for others who don’t deserve the accusations leveled at them. These are the folks whom critics lump as “administration.” The charge generally has been that administrators are plotting in secret, intending to harm the academic quality of Delta State University.

Who are these administrators? They are your neighbors and friends. Usually the targets include the vice presidents; collectively these individuals have served Delta State for 168 years.

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All of these senior administrators value higher education enough to have earned graduate degrees — nearly all at the doctoral level. All have dedicated their careers to higher education. Most have been teaching faculty in the past. No group of experienced professionals is more concerned about the quality of academic programs. To make the charge these people intend to harm the university is not only offensive, it is silly. Over $3.5 million in cuts have hit the institution’s budget this year with nearly 50 positions negatively affected, but there have been no reductions to academic programs.

So the question arises, if these are such good people, why are they doing their budget cutting in secret? Again, the facts prove this charge false. Beginning in August 2008, a University Budget Committee has been at work assessing all areas of Delta State’s programming and spending, looking for efficiencies and opportunities to save dollars. This group of 16 people includes four faculty appointed by the Faculty Senate and four academic administrators. In other words, half of the committee members are from the Academic Division. Last year the UBC analyzed all administrative areas of the university and made recommendations. This year the assignment shifted to a review of all academic programs and intercollegiate athletics. (Note that athletic programs have sustained six-figure budget cuts even before their review has begun.)

Our institutional research team provided the UBC and the academic departments with data on each program. Department chairs answered several questions related to the data, as well as priorities within the curriculum, accreditation, student demand, benchmarks of quality, faculty productivity and the like. Committee members reviewed and evaluated the programs according to the various factors.

The plan of the UBC was to interview selected programs about which the evaluation exercise raised questions. These conversations would have provided additional information prior to any recommendations. At this point, several faculty sought greater participation, and we asked the Faculty Senate, the provost, and the academic deans to create a solution honoring their request. However, faculty senate voted by more than a three-to-one majority to return the process to the UBC. When another group of faculty subsequently suggested deeper involvement by the major units — arts and sciences, business, education and nursing — the UBC again modified its plan.

The committee will develop narrative findings and recommendations for each program and send them to the individual departments and divisions for a month of review. Each unit will make a report to the UBC. In turn, the committee will submit the unit reports and final recommendations to the Academic Council and the President’s Cabinet. This revised process will allow programs an expanded opportunity to address concerns and those of us responsible for the budget to make timely decisions.

I recognize this explanation is exhaustive and tedious. Perhaps many readers gave up long before reaching this point. Charges are easily leveled with a few words, and misunderstandings grow as a result. Telling the real story can take much longer. The University Budget Committee process was built on the principle of inclusiveness. As questions and concerns emerged, administrators and the UBC modified processes in response.

Everyone acknowledges there are no painless ways to cut budgets and admits there are no perfect decisions. However, good people are working hard to make choices that will keep Delta State University strong.

John M. Hilpert is the president of Delta State University.