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Friday, December 4, 2020

COVID-19 disrupts Western’s proposed 2021 budget

Western Trustees approve budget cuts for FY 20-’21.

First-year enrollment is down by 20% as of Fall 2020. Tuition revenue funds about half of the operating budget for FY 2020-2021. // Graphic By Ryan Morris, Data From Western Board of Trustees.

By Ryan Morris

The Western Board of Trustees unanimously approved a fiscal year 2020-2021 budget during the Oct. 9 meeting that was sharply reduced from its draft form after the global pandemic and months of discussions.

The Legislature has warned all state institutions to brace for a $4 billion deficit this year, which trustees acknowledged alongside decreased tuition income and in preparation for state cuts for years to come.

Western Executive Director of Budget and Finance Planning Faye Gallant said the state Legislature predicts deficits through fiscal year 2022-2023. With this in mind, COVID-19 forced the Board of Trustees to update the budget at an unusual time. The official budget was approved at $193,173,936, according to the Board of Trustees’ budget breakdown, slightly more than the FY 2019-2020 budget.

“The theme of this year’s budget [is] … uncertainty, and flexibility in the face of this uncertainty, particularly around our major revenue sources: student tuition and fees, state funding, the administrative services assessment and federal stimulus,” Gallant said. 

Tuition revenue makes up half of Western’s operating budget, Gallant said. Enrollment of first-year students is down by 20%, according to a presentation by Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management Shelli Soto. 

Nationwide, colleges and universities have reported that first-year students have chosen to take gap years or spend more time at community colleges rather than start college on campuses that are stripped of many of the social and interpersonal opportunities associated with higher education. Western’s Enrollment Management tried to counteract this deficit by admitting students who wouldn’t typically make the cut.

“We did admit more aggressively,” Soto said. “In fact, we made up most of the ground from the loss of applicants through the offer of admissions this year.” 

There are plans to avoid further losses. Western can use up to half of the university’s reserves in 2021 — roughly $9.75 million, Gallant said. The state budget, which makes up most of the

university’s non-tuition income, will determine whether the university will be forced to tap its reserves, Gallant said. 

The Board of Trustees is also using the majority of Western’s federal stimulus funding, $7.9 million, to help with mitigation strategies such as avoiding layoffs, according to the budget breakdown

The university will freeze hiring, purchasing and travel in order to reduce overall spending by 3% this year, which will help prevent layoffs, furloughs or cuts to programs, Gallant said.

The freezes were put in place during spring quarter and may offset uncertainty about future state budgets, Gallant said. 

Western student Cody Zimmerman said he is worried about the hiring freeze’s impact on student services such as the bookstore and financial aid office. He began paying close attention to Western’s budget changes when COVID-19 raised questions about tuition and fees for spring quarter.

“[These services are an] important aspect of making sure the college experience for everyone is smooth and doesn’t have bumps in the road,” Zimmerman said.

Despite cuts to the budget, some new spending was approved — all one-time adjustments for  FY 2020-2021, according to the budget breakdown

Academic Affairs received $2 million to resolve its previous deficit. Academic Affairs has been working for years to balance its budget, Gallant said.

COVID-19 response received $3 million for services such as preventative testing, classroom adjustments and increased cleaning according to the budget breakdown.

A new package for diversity, equity and inclusion received $225,000 to fund an African-American counselor for academic success and retention, as well as curriculum development and delivery in Ethnic Studies, anti-racism training for faculty and staff and support and wellness initiatives for BIPOC employees according to the budget breakdown

Associated Students President Abdul Malik Ford, who has a non-voting presence on the Board of Trustees but did not attend the meeting, said in a letter to the trustees that he believes $225,000 to be too little. Ford asked the board not to vote on the budget. 

“Investing $225,000 into diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in a budget consisting of $190,000,000 (FY 20) feels like a slap in the face,” Ford wrote in the AS Students Report.

The $190 million Ford is referring to was the operating budget for fiscal year 2019-2020. Ford said Black students specifically asked for a mental health counselor, not a retention counselor.

“To retain is to protect an asset, not to heal the pain, trauma, and hurt that we face on a daily basis,” Ford wrote. 

Gallant said the board has asked the state to hire a Black mental health counselor.

Ford said he did not attend the meeting due to miscommunications with other AS members, and a series of personal crises. 

“I wanted to be there with all of my heart. I look forward to working with the Board of Trustees,” Ford said.

Those who want to support Black students should keep Black students involved in important conversations about the operating budget and other matters, Ford said. 

Anyone can submit a proposal to the Board of Trustees, Gallant said, by bringing it to any Western vice president. Gallant said the board is planning a more open request process for the 2021-2023 biennial budget.


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