EKU regents vote to reduce budget by $23 million through buyouts and retirements

jwarren@herald-leader.comMarch 19, 2013 

Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock announced Tuesday, March 29, 2011, that the school will submit a proposal to host a general-election debate during the 2012 presidential race. Centre College, a private school in Danville that hosted the 2000 vice presidential debate, will also submit a bid. The Commission on Presidential Debates will make the site selections. Photo by Greg Kocher | Staff gkocher1@herald-leader.com

GREG KOCHER | STAFF — Greg Kocher | Staff

RICHMOND — The Eastern Kentucky University Board of Regents unanimously approved plans Tuesday to reduce personnel and trim academic programs in a move to cut the school's 2013-2014 budget by about $23 million.

University officials have not specified how many faculty and staff positions might be cut. But it is anticipated that a large chunk of the $23 million in savings would come from personnel costs, which make up about 70 percent of Eastern's budget.

Tuesday's special board meeting went quickly, and regents approved all of the cutback proposals with few questions and no negative votes. Outgoing Eastern President Doug Whitlock attributed that to extensive advance work by administration officials.

EKU officials said they will launch a series of steps starting Wednesday, including campus meetings and online information sites, to explain the job reduction plans to faculty and staff members. Staffers and faulty members then would have about 45 days to decide whether they want to participate in either enhanced retirement or voluntary buyout. Forced layoffs would occur only after the two voluntary programs have been given a chance to work, according to Whitlock.

"I don't know that I would say most of it will come from personnel, but certainly a significant part of it would," Whitlock said after Tuesday's board meeting. "Concurrently with work on those (personnel) plans, work also will be going on as far as the examination of academic programs, institutional administrative services, athletics ... At some point it's all going to dovetail together. Everything will be on the table.

"That's why it was important to have this special meeting today, so that we could get these things in place and get them started," said Whitlock, who is retiring July 1.

The personnel reductions would be achieved through an enhanced retirement transition program for faculty, and a voluntary buyout program for staff. Provisions for involuntary staff layoffs also are included, but they would be used only if the retirement and buyout programs don't produce hoped-for savings, university officials said.

Eastern says it wants to "reinvest" the savings in program improvements, employee raises, and other initiatives to improve efficiency and strengthen the university's financial stability in uncertain budgetary times.

Whitlock told regents Tuesday there was "no way" EKU could achieve the needed "transformational change" without workforce reductions.

Plans outlining potential academic program reductions are to be ready around April 1. Work on that began shortly after Feb. 1 and is already well along, EKU Provost Janna Vice said.

According to Vice, EKU officials would look at many factors in determining which academic programs might be cut, including current enrollment, numbers of graduates, student credit hours generated, and enrollment trends to "see where the energy is."

They also will consider things such as costs, faculty-student ratios, and faculty workload per department, she said.

According to Vice, Eastern has an established process that requires any academic program to be reviewed by several groups before it can be recommended to the regents for discontinuation.

Vice said a report on academic programs probably will be submitted to Eastern's Strategic Budget Reallocation Task Force at the end of next week, after which the proposal could be submitted to the Board of Regents for consideration at its April meeting.

"It's important for our students to understand that any program that we select to be suspended will be taught out for the students in that program," Vice said. "Normally, you give maybe six years to teach it out. What it really means is we wouldn't be admitting any new students into that program."

Vice noted that simply suspending an academic program wouldn't always necessarily produce immediate savings. But it will help EKU plan and use faculty resources more efficiently, she said.

Tuesday's board decisions stem from repeated state funding reductions that Eastern and Kentucky's other public universities have endured over the past few years, plus recent enrollment declines. Enrollment at EKU has fallen by about 400 students, to about 15,300, over the past five years.

Under the enhanced retirement program approved Tuesday, eligible EKU faculty members could retire and continue teaching reduced hours for up to two years at 50 percent of base salary, depending on which option they choose.

Under the voluntary buyout, eligible staff members could receive up to six months' separation pay, or take less separation money and receive payment for each year they've served at Eastern.

The idea is to make retirement a smoother and more attractive transition, university officials said.

Whitlock said the steps approved Tuesday will provide "a good tool kit" to help Eastern move forward in a "fair and transparent way." But he admitted the changes won't be easy.

"There are some challenges in it, but if we are going to have the ability to move strategically, it's an exercise we have to go through," he said. "We are not the first to go through it, and we won't be the last."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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