Once cheered by alumni and professors, Roosevelt University’s ambitious expansion plans are coming back to bite the university now that reality isn’t lining up with the university’s projections for growth -- particularly expectations about enrollment that administrators now call "overly optimistic."
Over the past few years, a new 32-story "vertical campus" building in downtown Chicago, a reconstituted athletics program  and facilities, a new pharmacy program and ambitious enrollment targets supported by a marketing campaign were part of a concerted effort to raise the caliber of the university.
But lower-than-expected enrollment and higher-than-normal costs have created a $7.8 million budget hole for the 2011-12 fiscal year, and the administration’s decisions about how to patch that hole have upset numerous faculty members, particularly the adjunct union, which could see its membership cut in half as a result of lost jobs.
The budget hole and the ensuing debates are a rude awakening for the university, which, like many others, planned to fund academic and expansion goals primarily through enrollment growth. With that growth falling off, the university is now stuck with costs that far outpace revenue, and it will have to rethink how to fund the remainder of its current projects and continue on its growth trajectory.
"Our assumption has been that the overall environment in higher education would remain more or less the same as it has been over the past several decades,” said the university's president, Charles R. Middleton, in a forum with faculty members on May 23. “These are assumptions we now know did not hold true. It is clear that we were overly optimistic. We now face significant challenges both for this coming academic year and beyond."
For decades, Roosevelt, a private university with campuses in downtown Chicago and suburban Schaumburg, was mostly a commuter campus that served a nontraditional student body. But administrators have slowly changed the orientation of the university during the past decade, increasing enrollments and the number of full-time, residential, and traditional-age students.
From 2007 to 2009, the university saw its three largest classes of full-time, first-year students. The revenue from that enrollment growth, coupled with greater retention rates, helped the university grow its faculty ranks by 14 percent from 2002-03 to 2010-11 and plan several expansions to make it more of a traditional university.
But overall enrollment has not remained high. From a peak of 7,692 students in fall 2008, enrollment dropped by almost 1,000 students to 6,766 in 2010. Administration officials would not say specifically what the projected enrollment was for the coming year or what the actual enrollment will be for the fall, but projected a drop for all three semesters.
Thomas R. Karow, assistant vice president for public relations, said the economy played a large role in the enrollment declines. Because the college serves many nontraditional students who don't have deep pockets themselves or funds from their family, he said, many might have returned to work or might not have been able to afford to attend this year.
According to financial documents, $109 million of the university's $120 million in revenue came from tuition in 2009. In a letter to campus in January , before the budget situation became clear, Middleton wrote that "[m]oving forward, the attainment of our aspirations will depend upon acquiring new revenues. That can only come from enrollment growth."
Expenses for the upcoming year include $3.5 million in bond payments and operating expenses for the new building, a $1.2 million deficit for the first year of operating the pharmacy school, and $300,000 to continue to ramp up the athletics program. Those costs and the enrollment declines created the $7.8 million budget gap.
To patch that hole, a budget and planning committee made up of faculty members and administrators put forth a plan to Middleton that would cut 235 courses taught by adjuncts, increase full-time faculty members’ teaching loads by one course (to a seven-course load for most tenure-track faculty and a nine-course load for most adjuncts), and eliminate about $3 million worth of operating costs such as food at meetings, travel, and entertainment. In a recent e-mail to campus, Middleton outlined a different solution that he said he will propose to the university's Board of Trustees, eliminating the one-course increase but reducing contributions to faculty members' pensions on a progressive scale that would average out to cuts of about 10 percentage points.
"I made the above changes to protect, to the maximum extent possible, the take-home pay of our faculty, both full-time and adjunct, and our administrative staff, and to preserve particularly the take-home pay of those members of our community who are the most dependent on their paycheck," Middleton wrote in an e-mail to faculty members that outlined his changes. "Furthermore, in the spirit of equity, the cuts that I am making are taken in a progressive manner so that those individuals who earn more contribute far more than those who earn less."
The Board of Trustees will vote on the president’s budget recommendation Thursday.
The Roosevelt Adjunct Faculty Organization, the union that represents the college's more than 200 adjunct faculty members, objects to both budget plans. Members are particularly upset about the decision to eliminate 235 adjunct courses, which they predict will put about 75 of their members out of a job; others could lose some sections and the pay that goes with them. Beverly Stewart, the union's secretary, said administrators should bear more of the pain from the cuts, since they were the ones who messed up the projections.
"They made the mistake and they should pay for it," she said. "These cuts shouldn't be balanced on the backs of students and teachers."
They say the consultants the university uses should be dropped, that the athletic ambitions should be pared back or killed off, and that Middleton, who made $506,256 in 2009, should cut his own salary. The union has written letters to the board asking them to reject the cuts, but so far the response has been minimal, Stewart said.