On a Mission

Northern Kentucky U. had a disaster plan in place for a major budget cut. When the cut was smaller than expected, the plan went forward anyway in the interest of meeting state and regional goals.

November 6, 2008

When state budget cuts are less than expected, most university leaders breathe a sigh of relief and try their best to continue business as usual. At Northern Kentucky University, officials did quite the opposite.

The university, which had braced for a 12 percent budget cut, learned this summer that the cut would be only 6 percent, or about $7.3 million. By that time, however, a team of vice presidents had already been crunching numbers and looking for areas to reduce spending. Rather than abandoning those plans, the university used them to form a blueprint. Based on the vice presidents’ suggestions, Northern Kentucky took the 6 percent cut, and then reallocated $4.5 million into disciplines like science, math and nursing that are seen as central to the future of the university and the state.

Gail Wells, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the budget discussions forced the university to talk honestly about what was part of Northern Kentucky’s mission -- and what wasn’t.

“What you have to do is ask yourself the question: Is what we’re currently doing more important than the things we’re identifying we want to do?” Wells said.

Northern Kentucky is responding in part to statewide and regional mandates, known respectively as the Kentucky Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997 and “Vision 2015.” The 1997 act, passed by the state Legislature, sets college graduation benchmarks for the state to be met by 2020, and “Vision 2015” is a regional measure aimed at job creation.

In service to state and regional goals, Northern Kentucky officials anticipated the eventual need to move dollars into areas such as nursing and the technology-driven field of informatics. But the anticipated budget cut provided the university with the opportunity to accelerate the reallocation, which was accomplished in part by closing several units devoted to faculty development. The university also cut 25 staff positions.

The Professional and Organizational Development Center, which was created in 2005 to help faculty members integrate technology into the classroom, was among the units closed in the reallocation process. Doug Robertson, the assistant provost who helped run the center, said he anticipated many of the functions of the center could still be successfully carried out in other areas of the university.

“Kentucky’s going through some tough times financially, and state institutions are needing to cut,” he said. “And the provost made the decision, which I think is probably a very good one, to protect faculty lines and departmental budgets -- so the obvious places to look were academic support centers.”

Transparency of Decisions Questioned

While Northern Kentucky’s budgetary decisions can be viewed as forward-thinking and strategic, administrators acknowledge that there was a risk to going ahead with reallocations even after the university’s fiscal picture brightened. Moving money around is always controversial on a university campus, particularly when it’s not absolutely necessary. But Sue Hodges Moore, vice president for planning, policy and budget, said she’s heard little criticism from faculty.

“I think it’s because we laid out the case and were very transparent about the decisions that were made and why they were made,” she said.

Indeed, university officials have provided “budget highlights” that show some of the details of cuts and reallocations. But administrators have not been completely forthcoming about one of the key facets of the reallocation: the movement of faculty lines. Wells, the university’s provost, acknowledges that 20 new faculty lines were created in the reallocation process, in part by taking vacant faculty positions and moving them into other areas of the university. But she has never formally conveyed to the campus which lines where moved or where they ended up.

“I would rather not say [where faculty lines were cut], but they were departments that weren’t as productive or were the areas of study that were not as critically needed,” she said.

Wells said she asked department heads to put forward “data driven” requests, making the case for refilling vacant faculty positions based on expected teaching loads and other factors. While department chairs know whether those lines were filled or reallocated, the decisions made by Wells were not widely discussed across campus. Indeed, the chairman of the university’s Faculty Senate said Friday that he was not told about any vacant slots being transferred.

“Certainly if we were made aware of what reallocations were going on it potentially would be a real concern to faculty,” said David Hogan, the Senate chair and an associate professor of psychology. “We might have been working under the belief that there just aren’t positions being offered anywhere … and not aware that there are reallocations of these positions.”

“This information, it’s not shared too much,” he added. “Administrative decisions are usually made first and faculty learn about them later.”

Wells defended the administration’s decisions, which she said were necessary to meet regional and statewide goals.

“I think faculty members and deans and so forth understood that it had to be done,” she said. “We were under a mandate to do this. I do think people realized we were faced with bleak realities, and I think there was recognition that we did protect the core mission of the university and that was important.

“Nobody liked it. Nobody actually enjoys going through the process. Even those units that got positions were sorry other units lost positions.”


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