Shawn Alexander has taught at the University of Kansas for more than a decade but has never known a time without budget cuts.
Since he arrived in 2007, the professor says he’s watched salaries remain largely stagnant, not keeping pace with the cost of living. He’s listened to school officials blame the Legislature and flat student enrollment for financial strains, even as administrative salaries and new construction have steadily grown. He’s seen support for academic travel and research projects dwindle, and campus resources, such as library collections, compromised.
“The biggest problem that we’ve had my entire time at this university is being under a period of austerity,” said Alexander, who teaches African and African-American studies.
Last week, Alexander and hundreds of other university employees learned that faculty and staff will face yet another blow.
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KU’s interim provost and executive vice chancellor Carl Lejuez announced at a Dec. 5 town hall meeting that at least 30 staff members will lose their jobs as the university eliminates 150 staff and faculty positions. The move is part of a self-imposed $20 million budget cut to make up for university overspending. Otherwise, the university would face a massive budget deficit by 2023.
The news blindsided some faculty and staff members who learned earlier this year that faulty budgeting and overspending had led to a budget crisis that administrators planned to fix with a 6 percent cut across university departments, including administration. Employees told The Star that many faculty, staff and students were outraged by the news — some campus leaders told The Star they had been assured by administrators that layoffs would be minimal — as well as its timing — right before KU’s finals week and in the middle of the holiday season.
Alexander said a “greater sense of fear” and “confusion” has circulated through campus in the days following the announcement.
“It makes it very difficult to live here,” Alexander said of the burdens facing faculty and staff. “It makes it very difficult to survive. I’m a faculty member, and I do make a salary. But my concern is also for the staff members who are equally burdened if not more burdened.”
“You could feel stress coming from student leaders, our senators — a lot of people don’t know who is being affected,” said junior Tiara Floyd, a policy and development director for the Student Senate. “There’s a lot of stress about who is getting cut.”
“It’s frustrating,” said Staff Senate President Michelle Ginavan Hayes. “We’re left to pick up pieces and damage of prior leadership. And then it is presented by some that KU is not a good steward of funds, but that’s not true across most of campus.”
Unity is a ‘farce’
University Senate President Ruben Flores stood grimly at a podium last week and did not mince words as he moderated a Dec. 6 forum a day after Lejuez’s town hall.
He lamented that staff members will “go into the holiday break wondering who is on the chopping block” and said the university’s celebration of campus unity was a “farce.”
“Students, this means that despite all attempts by the administration to make it appear that you will not be hurt by the ongoing budget crisis that our previous administrators have created, you will in fact pay the direct price for the failure of our administrative teams,” Flores said.
Faculty leaders were told in several meetings with Chancellor Doug Girod and Lejuez that no more than a few individuals would be laid off as the university enacted other cost-saving measures, Flores said.
This year, departments were required to make one-time cash cuts from their reserves and will determine longer-term cuts later in the school year. The university will also eliminate 65 faculty positions in the next two years through voluntary buyouts, though those positions will ultimately be filled again.
In a similar move earlier this month, the University of Missouri System offered buyouts to its most senior professors. Earlier this year, the Columbia campus eliminated 185 positions, including 30 layoffs to staff — not faculty.
Flores also criticized KU’s “cruel” decision to announce the layoffs now, since many who will lose their job will not be informed until the spring or early summer.
“This is part of the secrecy, the condescension and the disrespect of the administrators,” Flores told The Star. “It was insensitive to the point of being tone deaf.”
For Hayes, who represents staff who lack protections such as tenure, the eliminations were less surprising, though she confirmed that some staff members were frustrated by the way the news was presented.
“From my take, I don’t know how you present that information,” she said. “There’s no soft or easy way to say it.”
Roughly 1,190 faculty and 3,528 academic, professional and support staff are employed at the Lawrence campus, Alexander said.
Lejuez has largely been the face of KU’s budget crisis since it was announced in May. He is KU’s dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and was named interim provost in April, following predecessor Neeli Bendapudi’s departure to Louisville, Kentucky.
He has held a series of town halls to break down a crisis he said was caused by previous administrators, who made investments based on best-case scenarios, without budgeting for declines in state funding, enrollment and other challenges.
Last week, he announced the university would develop a new budget model, one that prioritizes raises for faculty and staff, deferred maintenance and keeping tuition down for students.
“It is not fair to faculty,” Lujeuz said of KU’s current budgeting process at the most recent town hall. “It is not fair to staff. It is not part of what we want to do that would be consistent with all the other really thoughtful and positive things that we are doing.”
But some faculty and staff told The Star they don’t trust administrators to make good on promises. Others say they feel a range of emotions from reserved optimism to skepticism.
“I think people are hesitant and they are viewing it as more of a wait and see,” Hayes said about future raises. “However, I do feel confident that this is a priority with leadership. How they will do that is still up in the air.”
Others have been critical of administrators’ unwillingness to sacrifice funds from the top. Girod has been mostly absent from public budget meetings, prompting some to criticize the chancellor for not addressing his constituents publicly and question whether an interim leader should be handling a budget crisis.
“I think the provost and the chancellor should sacrifice some of their salaries,” Flores said. “They will be multimillionaires by the time they leave the University of Kansas. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for them to halve their salaries, if for no other reasons than to show us that symbolically they believe in our institution.”
This semester, the University Senate presented administrators with two other ideas for easing the burden on university departments: using funds from KU Endowment and redirecting a yearly $1.5 million allocation for Kansas Athletics.
It was a solution that student leadership also supported. But they say administrators shut down the ideas. KU Endowment’s funds are earmarked for certain purposes, Lejuez said at an October town hall. At the event, he gave no indication that KU intends to redirect support for KU Athletics, and said that cuts to administrative salaries would dampen the university’s ability to hire talented leaders.
Student Senate Vice President Charles Jetty said that after meetings with administrators this year, student leaders left with the impression that the university had no interest in examining alternative ways to make cuts.
“The actions of the administration haven’t really reflected that sentiment at all,” Jetty said. “When conversations about athletics did occur, it felt like we were getting lip service as opposed to actual engagement.”
Even the hope of future raises seems largely “aspirational,” Flores said. Administrators have floated the possibility of 1 to 3 percent merit raises sometime in the future — compensation that would not apply to all and would not begin to make up for salaries lagging behind inflation.
Meanwhile, KU’s American Association of University Professors chapter continues to share data that show KU faculty pay drags below peer institutions.
According to the group, KU ranks last in compensation when compared to universities including Texas A&M, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, Indiana University and Ohio State, among others. According to an analysis using state data, the average KU faculty salary is 9.1 percent below 2009 levels, adjusted for inflation. During the same time period, administrative salaries increased by a collective 12 percent.
“Given that a global marketplace exists for faculty talent, KU has in many areas simply become non-competitive with debilitating salary compressions and inversions,” a recent AAUP newsletter read. “While bad for faculty, such dynamics will in time adversely affect the earning power of students and alumni.”
Current employees say the cuts have fueled a flight from KU for those who can land other jobs. And it’s exacerbated a morale problem for those left behind. Alexander said starting a food pantry and clothing drive for staff frequently comes up in campus discussions. And students say that despite administrative claims that the budget cuts will have a minimal impact on students, the turmoil undoubtedly affects them.
“When you are seeing such a mass amount of talent leaving our campus, it’s undeniable that there will be a tremendous impact on students,” Jetty said.
Alexander said the university, and those who support KU, need to think about what it means to cut those “on the front lines” with students.
“What does that mean when a student has to call the registrar and they are down three people because of budget cuts?” Alexander asked. “I don’t think we’re talking about that.”
Alexander, who is the incoming faculty president, said he has another question.
At a town hall earlier this year, Lujuez was asked why administrative salaries could not be cut. His answer: High-level salaries “must be competitive to our peers or we will stop having good people here.”
“I think it was interesting that he said we needed to have competitive salaries (for administrators),” Alexander said. “Well, why do you not need a good salary to have good faculty and staff?”