Some faculty complain of secrecy as EKU reallocates 10 percent of its budget

Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock on campus in Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., on April 2, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock on campus in Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., on April 2, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

In February, Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock made a startling announcement: The Richmond university would set aside $23 million, or 10 percent of its budget, to fund new programs and raise salaries.

This "reallocation" meant cuts for many existing programs, raising plenty of concerns and questions among faculty and staff.

Whitlock appointed a Strategic Budget Reallocation Task Force, made up of administrators and the chairwoman of the faculty senate, to recommend what should get cut. It has met behind closed doors for the past three months.

Blocking the press and public from listening to the group's debate has increased anxiety on campus, some faculty say.

"This has been a strange process from my point of view," said Matthew Winslow, a psychology professor who has been at EKU for 15 years. "It seems to me it was sort of thrust upon us without any of our input and without much of an explanation, and it was never explained to us why it had to be done."

The Board of Regents also met behind closed doors on April 30 to discuss possible layoffs due to the reallocation, Chairman Craig Turner said Wednesday in an interview. The closed-door session was allowed under the Open Meetings Act because they were talking about specific people who might lose their jobs, Turner said.

First Amendment lawyer Jon Fleischaker disagreed with that interpretation of the law.

"You can't talk about general personnel matters under the guise of talking about individuals, and that appears to be what they're doing," he said.

Secrecy is often a problem when publicly funded universities must make painful financial decisions, he said.

"I think the idea that a public university can treat itself like a private corporation when they're dealing with public dollars is inappropriate and it's against the law," Fleischaker said. "When you're talking about a process and the need to cut dollars, that deals with all sorts of policy issues that deal with public education and that should be done publicly. Everything they're doing affects the public education process and to suggest it is a private matter ... suggests they don't understand their function."

Turner defended the university's process, saying "it's all about transparency."

"All we're trying to do is to figure out how we can be proactive in meeting the needs of the students as education changes," he said.

The 22-member task force is made up mostly of deans and at least two faculty members. They have gathered information from their units, Turner said, and together with the president they will make recommendations to the Board of Regents at its June 14 meeting. No public forums or other public discussions of the recommendations are planned.

Some faculty were able to communicate concerns through colleagues on the committee, said Richard Day, a professor in the College of Education.

"It was the kind of situation where people had to comment without knowing what was on the radar screen, other than everything," Day said.

Faculty Senate Chairwoman Sheila Pressley, a member of the task force, did not respond to requests for comment from the Herald-Leader.

A few of the group's early proposals were announced by incoming President Michael Benson on May 10, the night before first lady Michelle Obama made a commencement speech at EKU.

Benson will replace Whitlock, who is retiring, on Aug. 1. He has been kept aware of the committee's decisions and signs off on them, said EKU spokesman Marc Whitt.

Among other things, Benson said EKU was considering reorganizing its offerings at regional satellite campuses; increasing tuition at Model Laboratory School, the K-12 school on EKU's campus; cutting athletics spending by 10 percent; and instituting a parking fee for faculty and staff.

On Tuesday, officials announced that 127 people had been approved for voluntary buyouts, although officials would not say whether the move would save enough money to avoid layoffs.

Many of the vacated positions will be filled, creating a net loss of fewer than 10 positions out of 3,800 employees, Turner said Wednesday.

When asked why that information had not previously been made public to assuage fears on campus, Turner said the task force report was still in draft form.

"This is the first time we've done it," Turner said of the reallocation. "The first time probably creates more questions."

Turner said the ultimate goal is to "get everybody going in one direction in a vision that says the key is for Eastern to get better." Improving, Turner said, would probably involve upgrading Eastern's core schools, such as nursing, education, and justice and safety.

Broadcasting professor John Taylor, a former faculty senate chairman who has worked on past strategic planning and budget committees at EKU, said it's not evident to him what if any new mission EKU will have moving forward. "The mission has not been clearly communicated," he said.

Taylor called the slow release of information about the reallocation "tortuous."

Still, most faculty will probably judge the reallocation process and Benson based on the final outcome, said Richard Day.

"There is some anxiety about what will happen," Day said, but if Benson can boost salaries and start major fundraising, "I think all will be forgiven."