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Henderson State University proposes timeline for program cuts, works to head off $12M shortfall

by Jaime Adame | February 10, 2022 at 7:06 a.m.
FILE — Henderson State University is shown in this 2019 file photo.

A proposed spring timeline for program cuts at Henderson State University leaves uncertainty about how courses of study will be affected this fall, Chancellor Chuck Ambrose told faculty Wednesday.

But quick action is necessary given financial woes that include the Arkadelphia campus facing a projected shortfall of at least a $12 million in its fiscal year that ends June 30, Ambrose said.

The university last week announced cost-cutting measures that include one-day-per-week furloughs beginning Feb. 28, with staff, faculty and administrative positions all affected -- as well as athletic coaches -- according to the university's website.

Last week, in a letter and during a meeting held virtually with faculty and staff, Ambrose also described a strategy of program cuts in response to a cash crunch and depleted savings at a campus whose previous financial struggles led to a merger with the Arkansas State University System.

Ambrose, who took over as top campus administrator in November, has announced a plan to declare "financial exigency," a process outlined in the university's faculty handbook that could result in a hastening of program eliminations and reductions.

Henderson State University enrolled 2,919 students last fall, down 7.7% from the previous year, according to state data. Most other universities also saw enrollment declines, but among public universities only Arkansas Tech University saw a steeper drop by percentage.

Jonathan Barranco, the university's director of choral activities, on Wednesday asked Ambrose during a meeting of the university's faculty senate what answers could be given to potential students with questions regarding their college futures.

"I'm receiving questions that generic answers won't suffice for, things like, 'I want to audition for your program, but will that program be there?'" Barranco said.

Ambrose replied that "there is no way to, in the spirit of fairness and transparency, answer a question that we don't know the answer to."

Earlier in the meeting, which was held virtually, Ambrose said there will be a "high priority" on "how we bridge programs and students" so that students can complete their degrees should their courses of study be affected by the cuts.

"There's a high degree of willingness, both from all the ASU schools, but certainly ASU-Three Rivers, and Jonesboro, to assist us in meeting any instructional gaps that may be caused by this re-engineering of instruction and reallocating of resources," Ambrose said.

In a letter to the faculty senate Wednesday, Ambrose laid out a proposed timeline that involves a 30-day review process to determine program cuts.

According to the letter, action is required by the ASU System Board of Trustees to consider a decision regarding "financial exigency," which Ambrose said could at the earliest happen in late March given other steps set forth in the faculty handbook.

The letter stated that the week after Henderson State's spring break, set for March 21-25, Ambrose would provide "a specific financial target for the reduction of annualized costs through program and instructional line eliminations."

The 30 day review would follow, with the university's provost working with faculty, and "final steps" would include a recommendation from Ambrose to the ASU System Board of Trustees, who would consider the recommendation "hopefully in the late April/early May time period," letter states.

The university's faculty senate voted unanimously on Wednesday to agree with a declaration of "financial exigency."

But James Engman, a biology professor and president of the group, during the meeting told Ambrose that "the timeline that you've proposed does not follow the protocols in the handbook."

Engman said the handbook describes at least a year of planning to take place "involving the faculty in substantial ways" before cuts or reductions.

Last week, in announcing the long-term strategy of program cuts, the university on its website stated that "even under the financial exigency process, tenured faculty members whose positions are designated for elimination will be given at least twelve months' notice prior to the end of their employment."

Ambrose reaffirmed that commitment to give tenured faculty members 12 months notice should their positions be eliminated. But he said that the financial difficulties do not allow for an extended planning period to decide on program reductions and cuts.

"The financial position of the institution -- especially in restructuring our academic program, our academic spend -- and right-sizing the budget, would really not be able to sustain operations for a year of planning and then a year of notice," Ambrose said.

Ambrose in the meeting also described how the school's graduation and retention rates have contributed to the financial difficulties.

More than half of first-year Henderson State University students are considered eligible for Pell grants, federal financial aid reserved for those with exceptional need, according to documents presented to faculty and staff last week. The presentation last week stated that the university's six-year graduation rate for its 2014 cohort of students was 26% for Pell recipients and 45.7% for "non-Pell" students.

"I'll just be very direct. I mean, if our persistence rates and our completion rates were higher, you know, obviously, our financial stress would be lower and these programmatic decisions could probably be extended out for the kind of timeline that Jamie mentioned in terms of academic planning," Ambrose said, referring to Engman. "That's just not where we are as an institution in terms of our financial position."

Before the most recent year-over-year enrollment decline, the university's past financial woes included an operating loss of $6.1 million in fiscal 2019. University officials have previously linked financial difficulties in part to unpaid student accounts.

Ambrose told faculty Wednesday that "we have been paying you as a faculty and staff basically out of savings, and operating at a cash loss."

He also raised the issue of unpaid student accounts.

Nearly half of Henderson State students, or about 47%, who enrolled since 2016 "are no longer with us at all," Ambrose said, meaning they are not registered to attend classes nor have they earned their degrees.

"Here's the daunting figure that drives us basically to exigency," Ambrose said. "Of the $10 million that students owe us in student receivables, that 47% of students who are not longer here account for nearly $7 million of unpaid student accounts."

He said the unpaid student accounts are "dictated" by the loss of students who didn't continue their studies, and he said that of those students, "close to 70% have not paid their bills.

"It is not sustainable, in no way, shape or form," Ambrose said.

Print Headline: Cut in programs risky, necessary, HSU chief says


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