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Berea College's budget woes create debate

BEREA — For seven months, Berea College has been embroiled in debate over how to slash its budget by as much as 25 percent while still providing a rich education to promising low-income students at no charge.

The discussion has gotten loud.

It's been both academic and emotional.

And it's far from over, as administrators still must choose specific directions for Berea's road map to the future, which they hope to present to the board of trustees in February.

"I think the process has worked so far. (But) there will be some who disagree with me," said Berea College President Larry D. Shinn. "Regardless of what else you're hearing, this process could have been an administration-only, behind-closed-door process."

The budget normally is set by top administrators only. But Shinn opted to make this a broader exercise in self-examination.

Shinn last spring charged a task force of faculty, administrators, staff and a graduating senior to deconstruct every aspect of the college and suggest ways to sharpen its focus and, at the same time, reduce its operating budget from $43.5 million last year to the mid-$30 million range.

"I believe what we decide has the capacity to strengthen our institution in a budget-constrained environment," Shinn said.

Like most colleges across the country, Berea watched a quarter of its endowment value dissolve amid the tanking market over the last two years. It was far more crippling to Berea, however, because the school doesn't charge tuition to its more than 1,500 students and, instead, relies on investment income from the endowment to cover 75 percent to 80 percent of its budget.

"So the challenge was to be visionary, and inspirational, and to solve a budget problem," said Stephanie Browner, dean of the faculty, who led the scenario planning task force. "It was schizophrenic to do those two things."

After a summer's worth of daily meetings — which Browner described as "a graduate seminar in higher education, Berea's history and mission and Berea's budget and operations" — that group cranked out a 133-page report last month that contained three suggested scenarios.

Those recommendations were then combed over, chewed on and opined upon during a series of campus meetings and through an internal Web site. And last week, a committee of the college's top leaders released a rough sketch of what they liked using pieces from all three of the task force's scenarios.

Friction points

But, as those administrators noted in their draft plan, two specific recommendations have raised the hackles of faculty and students.

First, many professors pushed back against the suggested concept of condensing the 27 academic departments into six to eight larger units.

Faculty members have warned in their meetings with Shinn that such a move might de-emphasize majors or unfairly distribute workloads.

Shinn said it's a way to stress cross-discipline pollination while making the college more flexible with tenure spots. For instance, a history professor with a special interest in 19th century literature could teach English courses, too. It's a way to save the tenure system, Shinn said.

Students, meanwhile, have objected to the task force and administrative committee's recommendations to combine Berea's various centers, such as its Appalachian Center, International Student Center and Center for Excellence in Learning Through Service, under one roof.

The idea behind gathering the scattered centers is to reduce overhead and encourage "collaboration of programming," according to the plan.

But students fret about fewer jobs available through the new super-center. After all, students are required to hold jobs on campus to help earn their tuition-free education.

"This is our labor. If you take that away, where do we go?" said Kimbri Johnson, a senior science education major from Lexington, who runs the teen program through the Center for Excellence and Learning Through Service.

She said that move would be a hit to Berea's identity, which is rooted in its history of the being the first interracial and co-ed college in the South.

In addition, many students have come to think of their individual centers as "safe havens" where they can go and study or be with friends, Johnson said.

Still, administrators estimate the move would save about $500,000 a year.

Reducing costs

Initially, Shinn asked the task force to find ways to shrink Berea's annual budget to $34 million by 2011-12. It's already gone down $2 million in the last year.

Shinn said now that the stock market has perked back up, the college might only have to cut to $35.5 million.

Berea's endowment value had clawed its way back to nearly $872 million at the end of September. While that's far better than eight months ago, it's well off its highest perch of $1.1 billion.

Berea calculates how much to spend from its endowment each year based on a three-year average of its value.

Richard Meadows, an associate professor of French, said Berea wouldn't have to cut so drastically now and would have fewer peaks and valleys in its budget if it switched to a five-year average.

Despite his detailed pitches, Berea administrators have yet to make a decision.

Instead, they're focusing on cost savers.

Some proposals that will be fleshed out by the administrators, led by Shinn, over the next month, include:

■ Increasing enrollment to 1,800 students by 2013, which could bring Berea as much as $900,000 more in federal Pell grants and state financial aid.

■ Allowing the student-faculty ratio to increase from 10-1 to 12-1.

■ And requiring some of the college's auxiliary services, such as its child development laboratory, to become self-supporting.

Talking it out

Randy Burson, a sophomore from Ashland, Ohio, who serves as speaker of the student senate, remains skeptical of the exercise because, so far, he said it's been difficult to understand what the eventual effects will be.

"There's a lot of good language, but it's idealistic language," he said. "It's the language of ideas, not the language of plans."

Shinn said he and three other administrators hope to address such concerns Sunday at a student forum.

And he said he senses the campus has settled down from the emotional reactions that came immediately after the first proposals were released Oct. 1.

"There are people who feel the president has led the process very well and very appropriately. And then there are some very strong voices who are upset with the process and some think the president is the problem and perhaps would wish the president should not even be at the institution," Shinn said.

But he said it's time to move past that.

Jeta Rudi, a senior economics and mathematics major from Kosovo, said she attended one of the meetings with campus leaders about the plans and, while she shared other students' concerns, she said she felt reassured that Berea wouldn't alter its mission or charge tuition.

"I came here exactly because of that opportunity," Rudi said. "As long as they don't go away from that mission and their goal of providing interracial education, I'm OK with it."