Greetings Colleagues, Council Members, Senators, Alumni, Students, and friends of Buffalo State:
I have gathered us here today to share an update on the state of our beloved institution. Despite any challenges we face, I want to reassure you that the state of our university is strong, built on our rich history, unwavering commitment to academic excellence, and our aspirational vision as SUNY's flagship comprehensive university.
Our strength is not a matter of chance but a result of the deliberate decisions we make today, shaping not only our present but also our future. When I assumed the interim presidency, I identified three strategic priorities: increasing enrollment, diversifying our revenue sources beyond tuition, and fostering a vibrant and inclusive campus culture.
I truly believe that we have made substantial progress in these areas, laying a solid foundation for the next president to build upon. However, after attending a recent meeting of SUNY presidents, it has become abundantly clear that it is in Buffalo State’s best interests to reframe the three strategic priorities into two, which I will delineate after I layout, once again the issue that we are called to resolve.
Issue and Purpose: What We’re Facing
At the State of the University Address in September, I articulated the issue that many SUNY comprehensive institutions are facing, along with Buffalo State. The financial issue that we are trying to address is right-sizing Buffalo State University as it is experiencing a structural deficit.
The structural deficit is calculated by comparing the total number of institution employees to the current number of enrolled students. In fall 2012, when enrollment was about 10,000 students, our total number of employees was about 1,400. By fall 2022, enrollment had dropped to about 5,900 and our employee base was 1,200. So, in essence, the employment numbers were not trending with enrollment numbers. As I stated before, there are many intricate reasons and explanations for this that I will not revisit today. But the bottom line is without being able to increase significant sources of other non-tuition revenue, we were forced into using reserves to cover our personnel expenses for several years.
Following this trend of declining enrollment and a static employee base, we had calculated a structural deficit of $24 million for the 2022–2023 academic year. However, after last year’s budget was reconciled, we are showing a $16.5 million structural deficit as of June 30, 2023. The mitigating circumstances that brought us to this number include:
- Collective bargaining contract negotiations not being completed in time to be included in the 2022-2023 budget;
- Utility payments that came in lower than the budgeted amounts; and
- Increases in revenue collections.
Now that collective bargaining negotiations have been completed, we will have additional expenses to cover the salary agreement for the next four years, totaling $11.4 million. Also, we are looking at less than two years of operating funds remaining in our reserves.
To address the structural deficit, SUNY has requested a deficit reduction plan from the campus that eliminates the deficit by the 2027-28 academic year. The development of this plan is a continuous work in progress and is reviewed with SUNY CFO on a regular basis. As it stands now, if everything remains constant, we can expect a structural deficit, upwards of $30 million by the 2027-2028 academic year.
In developing the sustainability deficit management plan, we benchmarked our institution against five other SUNY institutions with similar enrollment numbers. We learned that our expenses on average are running about 20% higher than others in the peer group. So, as I stated in September, we still have some work to do with addressing this structural deficit.
Research Design & Methodology: How We’re Going About Getting This Done
So as not to reinvent the wheel, I am reviewing with the cabinet all plans and research that has been conducted by you. These plans and analysis include, the Future Forward documents, the strategic enrollment plan, the academic review, the retention plan, the strategic plan, the financial sustainability plan, and the workforce reduction plan.
In addition, I have held meetings with key stakeholders, and will continue to do so on an ongoing basis to ensure that the decisions I make in the best interests of our institution are inclusive of the input of the people to whom they will ultimately impact. I have held focus groups with residential life to understand the perceived issues in the residence halls, I have met with the UPD, admissions and recruitment staff, EOP, and will continue to make my rounds to our faculty, student support offices, and operations units. I have also held a forum to hear from our students.
I have and will continue to speak with my fellow presidents at our sister institutions who are going through this process to elicit best practices, as well as with colleagues from other public institutions who have already successfully navigated this issue.
Taken as a whole, I am positive that we will develop and implement a plan that will help us significantly address the structural deficit through 2028, and beyond.
Action Plan: Reframed Strategic Priorities
In light of our evolving circumstances and recent insights, we are reframing our strategic priorities to better serve our mission and community.
Firstly, central to our actions is the enhancement of morale and our campus climate. We firmly believe that a positive and inclusive environment is the bedrock upon which academic and institutional excellence is built.
Secondly, we need to tackle the structural deficit that challenges our financial sustainability. This task can be broken down into three key areas:
- Increasing enrollment will be a vital component, focusing on recruitment and conversion, ensuring efficient revenue collection, and boosting our retention and graduation rates. By enhancing our student body, we not only improve our financial footing but also enrich our campus life and academic discourse.
- We need to expand our revenue sources beyond tuition. This will require a multifaceted approach, ranging from leveraging our Auxiliary Services, pursuing private and governmental research grants, intensifying fundraising efforts, and advocating for increased support from government entities.
- Simultaneously, we must implement a prudent budget reduction strategy. This will involve stabilizing our workforce, improving our service delivery, effecting structural changes where needed, and optimizing our academic offerings.
These steps are crucial in addressing our structural deficit, allowing us to continue offering a high-quality educational experience while ensuring our financial sustainability.
Our approach to right-sizing the institution involves a comprehensive stabilization and optimization plan that encompasses workforce, structural, service delivery, and academic facets. This adaptive change requires that we pursue these two strategic priorities in tandem, ensuring that HUMANITY remains at the center of our decision-making process.
In summary, by improving morale and campus climate, and addressing our structural deficit through increased enrollment, diversified revenue, and budget reduction, we are setting the stage for a more robust and resilient Buffalo State University.
For Immediate Action
For the remainder of this update, I will discuss the Budget Reduction prong of the Structural Deficit remediation.
We aim to strategically align our workforce with the needs of our institution. To ensure financial sustainability and preserve fiscal responsibility, I am implementing a hiring freeze, effective today, November 14, 2023.
The intention is to actively monitor and assess our workforce, while being conscientious of future organizational needs and budget constraints. This will require the consistent review and approval of all position requests and funding by using the annual position management review process and emerging needs request forms. This process has been reviewed and amended to increase efficiencies and fairness. For instance, the Office of Equity and Diversity has been reincorporated and strategically placed in the review of all these decisions.
To begin this process, a review of all open positions, which includes:
- Positions in an active recruitment process
- Pending positions
- Position in a draft state but not posted for active recruitment.
- Search waiver requests that are pending approval
- Requests for temporary service hires
This does not include student assistant, work-study, or graduate assistant positions.
The personnel sustainability position management guidelines include:
- Vacant lines due to any kind of separation of service (retirements, resignations, etc.).
- A minimum waiting period of one year (12-months) between the incumbent’s last paycheck and posting of the position will be required before that position can be refilled.
- The department should review departmental needs and may request backfilling up to 20% of the vacant line’s salary, to be used for temporary service support, also receives and/or extra service.
- The Position Management Emerging Needs form must be submitted, reviewed, and approved.
- Prior to initiating an action to a position, including but not limited to new positions, reclassifications, promotions, change in budget title, and/or salary increase, etc.
- This policy covers all full-time, part-time, and temporary appointments regardless of funding source used to support the position.
- Grant or SUNY funded positions are the only exception to this if proper documentation is provided. An example is the funding we are receiving from SUNY to hire a director and counselor for the ACE retention program.
- Academic Affairs, under the guidance of the Provost and the Deans, will continue to make decisions regarding the filling of part-time and adjunct lines, as well as the filling of full-time lines of faculty and staff who vacate their position. Academic Affairs will build upon the work that the division began back in 2019 and make these determinations with a critical lens.
As I stated earlier, our anticipated structural deficit has the potential to grow to upward of $30 million if we do not take aggressive action toward tackling this problem. The preliminary assessment is that the hiring freeze alone has the potential to bring that number down to around $3 million. Now—this is not going to be an easy road for the next five years. We will actively monitor and assess our workforce, considering future organizational needs and budget constraints. While we are reducing hiring, we will also explore opportunities for internal staff development and advancement.
Now—this is not a solution in and of itself, but rather a first step towards a comprehensive workforce stabilization strategy.
In addition to working toward workforce stabilization, we will also explore three other aspects of our budget reduction plan.
Service Delivery Optimization
We will conduct a thorough analysis of our service delivery mechanisms to identify potential areas for cost reduction. This may include considering the alteration of the current service delivery schedule, outsourcing certain services or sharing services with other SUNY campuses. Please be assured that the quality of our services will not be compromised; instead, we aim to leverage the collective strength of the SUNY system to bring down costs while maintaining or improving service quality. For example, when our FOIL officer retired, we had a half/time professional take on the responsibility, in concert with a colleague from SUNY Fredonia who provides assistance as needed.
Non-Academic Structural Optimization
To achieve greater effectiveness and efficiency, we will benchmark our non-academic organizational structure against our peer institutions. Identifying areas of redundancy and inefficiency will allow us to restructure our operations and redeploy staff from personnel-heavy divisions to those in need. By doing so, we will not only ensure a more balanced workforce distribution, but we will also create opportunities for advancement and professional growth for our employees.
You have heard me say several times, our core business as an institution of higher education is the academic enterprise, where the faculty and academic staff is at the center of designing, implementing, and supporting research, curriculum, and pedagogy. As such, it is my intent to leverage our uniqueness and strengthen our ability to deliver a high-quality academic experience.
Academic optimization was specifically identified by SUNY as a means for campuses to bring their budgets into alignment. Our academic offerings are the heart of Buffalo State University. Therefore, we will undertake a comprehensive review of these offerings to ensure they meet the evolving needs of higher education and the labor market, as well as the demands of the current and potential students. Our plan includes continuing the combining existing departments where synergies exist, updating courses to reflect current academic and industry trends, shifting suitable programs to online or hybrid modalities, discontinuing low-enrollment or low-demand majors, and creating new programs aligned with market trends and student interests.
Summation of Optimization Plan
These strategies reflect best practices in higher education and the public sector. They are not quick fixes, but strategic shifts designed to restore the fiscal health of our university, while preserving our commitment to provide a quality education and maintaining an optimal working, living, and learning environment for our faculty, staff, and students. This is a challenging time, but I am confident that together, we will emerge stronger.
Colleagues, we cannot avoid the reality of our situation any longer. Now is not the time to revisit history or lay blame. The time to act is now! I cannot stress this enough—the power to maintain control in shaping the destiny of our institution is in our hands. If we squander this time through denial, avoidance, or other delay tactics, we risk the autonomy to make these decisions and we inhibit the future success of Buffalo State University. By not taking proactive and decisive action, we invite the imposition of draconian solutions from external entities that may not fully understand our unique culture, strengths, and impact to this community. Let us not allow this to happen, for Buffalo State University is not just any institution – it is our institution, and its fate lies with us—unless we fail to seize this opportunity.
Contrary to the belief of some, this is not an old western movie, and John Wayne isn't about to ride in on his horse to save us. It is not happening! Yet, we do have our own champion in Chancellor John King, who has shown his commitment to Buffalo State. He has made several members of his chancellery available to me on a weekly basis to provide us with the best counsel and support we could ask for. In addition, he has allocated funds intended to help us boost our enrollment.
While the changes that we will have to make may be difficult, I assure you that they will be implemented with the utmost care, compassion, and empathy. We have the backing of SUNY and the College Council. I have initiated dialogue with the campus union leadership, university Senate leadership, and our elected state legislators regarding this strategic plan to address our structural deficit. Faculty, staff, and students, we will continue to work in a spirit of shared governance. I will continue to be as transparent as possible and welcome your guidance and support. But, let me be clear—the ultimate responsibility for the operation of this institution resides with the president, and for the interim, that authority is vested in me.
As your Interim President, my role is to guide us through these turbulent financial times and set a course for the permanent president to lead us toward. I am confident in our ability to navigate these waters and emerge stronger. The challenges we face today will only serve to forge a more prosperous future for Buffalo State University.
I am sure you have questions. As the end of the semester draws near and the holiday season is upon us, I have decided to use the university meetings and forums already scheduled to address your concerns, such as, the Provost’s Council Meeting, the December Senate meeting, etc. I am also asking each cabinet member to convene their division for discussion on the specific related to their area. I will attend as many of these meetings as I can.
Before I conclude, I’d like to read a poem by The Reverend Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, famed theologian, and college president, among many other titles.
It's titled “Life Is Just a Minute”
[We]’ve only just a minute,
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon [us], can’t refuse it,
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it,
But it’s up to [us] to use it.
[We] must suffer if [we] lose it,
Give an account if [we] abuse it,
Just a tiny little minute, But eternity is in it.
Colleagues we cannot squander the time that we have to address our structural deficit.
If we do not take the lead in beginning this work to shape our future, we risk hampering our ability to control our ultimate destiny. I hope you will stand with me as we take on some of the most important work we will ever have to do.
So, I end by saying, “Onward and upward for Buffalo State University!”