Disclosure: Sayaka Matsuoka is a UNCG alumna and occasionally writes for UNCG Research Magazine.
On Oct. 3, Chancellor Frank Gilliam Jr. addressed a packed crowd in the Elliott University Center auditorium on UNCG’s campus. The topic on everyone’s minds? The university’s budget.
For the last few months, university administration has been publicly talking about budget cuts brought on by pandemic losses, changes in state funding and decreased enrollment numbers. It’s got faculty and staff on edge, and it’s something the students are aware of too. So on Oct. 3, Gilliam took the stage in an effort to assuage a lot of the fears and subsequent rumors that have been circling the community.
“Change makes you want to hustle,” Gilliam started.
And according to Gilliam, his and other administrators’ hustle is working to move the university in the right direction post-pandemic. This includes an increase in IT infrastructure, funding for the controversial Esports center and more money for athletics. But part of the equation also includes changes to the academic portfolio of the former women’s college, including possible cuts to longstanding departments. That led the university’s American Association of University Professors branch to hire an outside financial consultant to give a second opinion on the school’s financial situation. And on Oct. 5, just days after Gilliam gave his address to more than 400 people, Howard Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University, gave his own presentation, which spanned 117 slides, on a Zoom call to more than 160 participants.
“There is no need for cuts to the core mission of UNCG,” Bunsis said during his presentation. Instead Bunsis pointed out that the financial issues don’t have to do as much with falling enrollment numbers or changes to the state’s funding model. They have to do with how much administrators are getting paid and the amount the school is spending on athletics.
‘Our response can’t be, ‘Let’s not change’’
During his presentation, Chancellor Gilliam, who is currently in his ninth year at UNCG, stated the biggest reasons for UNCG’s financial woes: lower enrollment numbers and the new budget model at the state level.
According to the university’s numbers, the school enrolled a total of 17,743 students this fall, down slightly from 17,978 in fall 2022. But the number of first-time students, as well as in-state first-time students, rose this year. But that’s still a steady decline in overall enrollment compared to the last five years. In 2018, the university had 20,106 total students while in 2021, that number had dropped to 19,038.
Part of the reason for the decline has to do with population changes. According to data presented by Gilliam, the issue of less high school graduates seeking a college education is not a UNCG-specific issue. According to reporting by BestColleges.com, college enrollment has been declining nationally since 2010, with an almost 9-percent drop in total enrollment between spring 2019 and spring 2023. Varying factors, as Gilliam mentioned, contribute to this drop: falling birth rates, rising college tuition and the economic impact of the pandemic.
A factor that is unique to UNCG, however, is the population that the university serves. According to university statistics, about half of the student population at UNCG are first-generation college students, 53 percent are people of color and 46 percent of the undergraduates receive Pell grants, or federal need-based grants for low-income students. The university is also the state’s No. 1 institution for total percentage of Hispanic/Latino student enrollment, with 15 percent of the student body made up of that population. Additionally, the university has made efforts to not increase its tuition over the years.
In addition to the changes in enrollment and population numbers, Gilliam pointed to the larger issue at hand: the changes in the way the state funds universities. Last year, the UNC Board of Governors approved what they call a “performance-based funding model” for its universities. The goal, according to the board, is to matriculate more undergraduates on time with less debt. To do so, the state will now fund schools based on performance and student success metrics rather than based on enrollment numbers like it used to do. Specifically, the model will look at the four-year graduation rate, first-time student debt at graduation and education and related expenses per degree.
The model also underweights graduate programs in STEM and will overweight undergraduate programs, which is another blow to UNCG, which has a robust graduate portfolio.
At the time of the changes, Gilliam told WUNC that he was concerned about the big shift.
“I don’t know how we would absorb [that] reduction in our budget, and I don’t know how we do it in a year or two years, quite frankly,” Gilliam told WUNC.
As a former women’s college, most of the academic programs at UNCG are humanities-focused like English, education and art.
“The gendered nature of the university, if you think about our strongest programs, and they are programs that compete nationally, are so-called ‘helping professions,’” Gilliam said. “But we’re not going to be rewarded for that.”
Enrollment numbers by college that Bunsis shared in his presentation on Oct. 5 reflect some of Gilliam’s concerns.
While total enrollment has decreased by about 12 percent in the last five fiscal years, some departments were hit harder than others. For example, the nursing college had a 24.5 percent decrease in enrollment while enrollment in arts and sciences, the university’s largest college, fell 17.3 percent. On the other hand, enrollment in nanoscience and nanoengineering went up 35 percent.
That’s led the university’s administration to bring up the much-dreaded idea of academic program review. According to Gilliam, administration approved the portfolio review process earlier this year and will be establishing metrics for how to weigh different academic programs this fall and winter. In January, they’ll host campus-wide forums to discuss the administration’s decisions and next steps and by Spring 2024, they’ll bring in the portfolio review task force, which was formed earlier this year, to make final decisions.
It’s a tight timeline that has many professors and department heads worried. In an attempt to assuage their concerns, Gilliam left his post behind the podium and walked to the edge of the stage when he touched on the topic.
“I understand that program review is disconcerting; I understand that people may be vulnerable,” Gilliam said. “I get it; it’s not like we don’t understand; we do. We’re not out to get anybody, but the world has changed. And our response can’t be, ‘Let’s not change.’”
After the presentation, Jen Feather, the department head of the English Department told TCB that she thinks Gilliam has a point.
“I think we have to change,” she said. “And universities don’t like change.”
She noted national trends like the decline in enrollment and the need of more support for faculty. But the way that the administration is going about that change is something that Feather said she’s still considering, including the funding for Esports.
“There’s a question about the athletics piece of it,” Feather said, while fully admitting she didn’t know that much about Esports in general. “Will we invest in the academic aspect of it? And if we invest in the academic aspect of it and that’s grounding the other pieces, that’s the way forward. I think that about all of these initiatives.”
As far as the additional Zoom call that some faculty and staff helped organize, Feather said she believes the group is asking the right questions.
“I really hope that there’s a sense of transparency coming out of this process,” she said. “If we can’t get together where we have confidence in our administration and where the money is going, we’re going to be in trouble and we can’t succeed.”
‘It’s right there in front of you’
On Oct. 5, Howard Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University, did a speed-run through a detailed, 117-page presentation that gave an in-depth look at UNCG’s financial status. The reason why Bunsis was hired, according to Mark Ellion, an associate head of the history department and the president for UNCG’s Association of University Professors chapter, is because many faculty and staff have been left in the dark when it comes to the university’s budget.
“UNCG, during the pandemic years, experienced enrollment drop and… all academic programs across all colleges, there’s been repeated cuts over the last several years out of what we’ve been told is budget necessity,” Elliott said. “There’s been a number of particular areas that have had budget gaps like the IT department. And in this process over the last several years, a large number of staff have been let go, a large number of untenured faculty have not been renewed and we have seen a substantial number of tenured and tenured-faculty lines leave or retire in just the last year or two…. And all of that money has gone somewhere, but it’s a great mystery to all of us what’s being done with all of those salaries and benefits….”
Bunsis, who spoke with a slight New York accent, started the presentation with his main conclusions: UNCG is in solid financial condition, which means that cuts to the university’s core mission, like Chancellor Gilliam is forecasting, isn’t necessary. Bunsis also noted that faulty’s salaries at UNCG lag behind peer institutions and that the university spends too much on athletics.
On the note of financial condition, Bunsis pointed to the fact that the university has $1 billion in net assets which should give the university financial freedom and flexibility.
“The great news is that ‘22 and ‘21 were the best years ever,” Bunsis said, pointing out the university’s unrestricted net assets. “And I would predict… that ‘23 would be even up here …. But to claim that all of a sudden we have a crisis when we’re staring at this? I’m not buying.”
As explained by Bunsis during the presentation, a university’s unrestricted net assets means the university’s pot of cash that can be used flexibly. On the other hand, restricted assets are tied to certain expenditures like scholarships.
“The reserves are liquid, if they want to tap into them,” he said.
A closer look at the institution’s cash flow showed that the biggest source of funding for the university for 2022 was tuition, with state appropriations coming in at a close second. The highest expenditure was employees’ salaries. Still, every single year for the last decade, Bunsis noted that UNCG took in more than what they paid out.
“You can’t say you’re not generating the cash when it’s right there in front of you,” he said.
On enrollment numbers, Bunsis reiterated the fact that humanities-focused departments like art and theater have gone down, along with enrollment in nursing and health and human services, but he argued that those numbers are “self-inflicted” by the university.
“Universities, when they don’t want certain things to happen, they don’t happen,” Bunsis said. “So I think what’s happening in arts and sciences here is what’s going on in arts and sciences in many places around the country.”
Instead, Bunsis urged those on the call to focus their attention on how much the university spends on funding athletics. According to UNCG’s tuition data, the athletics fee, which totaled $811 for 2023-2024, makes up the largest percentage of student fees for those enrolled. Additionally, the university spent $17.1 million on athletics in 2022 while only raising about $3.3 million. That’s a more than $10 million deficit, Bunsis pointed out.
Lastly, Bunsis pointed out the average salaries for faculty and staff on campus compared to what administrators, including Chancellor Gilliam make.
According to Bunsis’ report, salaries for instructional staff increased 5.9 percent from 2017-22, but in the same time period, salaries and benefits for institutional support, otherwise known as administration, went up 51.5 percent.
“If you’re going to cut anything, it has to be administration,” Bunsis said.
A quick look at the top salaries on UNCG’s campus showed that Chancellor Gilliam made $434,544 in 2023, while the head men’s basketball coach made $344,784. The average salary for UNCG faculty? $83,447. When compared to 10 peer institutions, UNCG’s salaries for all ranks of faculty came in seventh place. The university’s ranking for full-time professors came in ninth.
“Your salaries are towards the bottom, I’m sorry but they are…,” Bunsis said. “I don’t know how to sugar coat this, I don’t know how else to say this.”
Still, Bunsis had some encouraging statistics to relay to those listening. He, like Gilliam, noted how UNCG has the highest at-risk population compared to its peers but also the highest graduation rate.
“It’s really impressive,” he said.
After the call, Lisa Levenstein, professor of history and the director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program told TCB that she’s “been concerned about the state of the university for some time.”
“The COVID crisis and the enrollment drop we have experienced has been used as an excuse to enact major budget cuts that are harming our ability to do our jobs (both faculty and staff) and compromising students’ education,” said Levenstein, an AAUP member and 20-year employee of UNCG.
In her response, Levenstein said that through program reviews, the university will use data that “will determine whether or not a program can survive… based only on the amount of money that the ‘data’ shows a given program/department to be bringing in and how much they ‘cost.’ Finances are driving decisions about the kind of education our students deserve.”
But Levenstein argued that Bunsis’ presentation showed that there is no need to cut programs and “it’s impossible to quantify the value of a program or department in terms of dollars and cents.”
Jennifer Feather, reached by email, said that after Bunsis’ presentation, she’s still hopeful.
“The budget situation is complicated and I think there is real value in multiple perspectives,” she said. “I was struck by the extent to which Bunsis indicated the broad nature of these strategies that damage liberal arts education. Challenges remain, especially as we try to analyze all the information, but my optimism remains pretty steady because it relies on the dedication and creativity of my colleagues in the faculty.”
At the end of his presentation one speaker asked Bunsis what has worked at other universities facing similar issues. He said that working with the students to raise concerns to administration is key, plus working across departments.
“It’s got to be everybody,” he said.
Additionally, he said collective action with many faculty who are AAUP members is also important.
“Faculty meetings that have AAUP members that are more than half the faculty, with a list of demands for administration, signed by over half the faculty,” he said. “You guys may not be ready for that kind of stuff. You want to know what works?… what does work is, ‘Here’s 20 things we want to see changed,’ and it’s signed by 180 AAUP members, 300 students, 200 grad student workers, other employees and everyone’s signature is on there. That’s what works. They have to pay attention to that.”
In a statement to TCB on Monday, Kimberly Osborn, interim vice chancellor for strategic communications, said that the university hasn’t gotten a copy of Bunsis’ report.
“We have always responded to AAUP’s letters and meeting requests,” Osborne wrote. “We have neither received this report nor a request to discuss it with faculty. In the creation of the report, Professor Bunsis nor AAUP asked to meet with administrators. We would have been happy to do so.”
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