In USF budget dispute, faculty appeals directly to board of trustees

Their six-page letter says the budget-cutting process is moving too fast, and without cohesive plan for the future.
Students hang out near the bronze bull statue at USF's St. Petersburg campus. The USF Faculty Senate on Wednesday sent a letter to the university's board of trustees saying the administration was moving too fast with budget cuts.
Students hang out near the bronze bull statue at USF's St. Petersburg campus. The USF Faculty Senate on Wednesday sent a letter to the university's board of trustees saying the administration was moving too fast with budget cuts. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times (2013) ]
Published Dec. 3, 2020|Updated Dec. 3, 2020

Frustrated by what they described as a “lack of transparency” or a “strategic plan” from University of South Florida administrators, Faculty Senate leaders expressed deep concerns about budget cuts Wednesday in a six-page letter sent directly to the university’s board of trustees.

The letter urges the USF trustees, a 13-member board, to direct president Steve Currall and his administration to pause their budget cutting efforts until their strategy is clearer. It also asks that faculty members be included more fully in decision-making, in accordance with the university’s policy of shared governance.

“We want to work with President Currall to build a stronger, comprehensive university that serves its community and is better recognized for its research and teaching nationally and internationally,” the letter said. “A pause and slow down will head off the potential long-term damage that could follow from rushed balancing of the budget being implemented in the absence of a shared strategic plan.”

In an interview Wednesday, Board of Trustees chairman Jordan Zimmerman said he believed university leaders were doing all they could in light of challenging circumstances brought on by the pandemic.

“The president and the provost and the team have brought everyone into the process to make sure it’s inclusive and they’re making the best decisions they have to make,” he said.

Earlier this year, the university announced it planned to streamline its budget by $93 million over two years. The State University System asked each of its 12 schools to plan for the possibility of an 8.5 percent budget reduction during the coming year. At USF, that would be $36.7 million.

But the letter contends USF is making cuts far more drastic than other schools in the system, and says the university has not laid out a rationale for them.

“I appreciate the constructive and thoughtful letter submitted by the USF Faculty Senate Executive Committee,” Currall said in a statement Wednesday. “They raise a number of important points and I look forward to further discussion at the appropriate time during future meetings with the Faculty Senate and Board of Trustees.”

Senate president Tim Boaz said the senate endorsed the letter with a 63-3 vote Wednesday and that he sent a copy to Currall before sending it to the trustees. The two had a good conversation about it, he said.

”The biggest concern we have is the magnitude of the cuts and the extremely short deadline,” Boaz said. “We felt we were getting the cart before the horse. ... Decisions of this magnitude need to be made with a strategic plan.”

The trustees are expected to take up the issue at their meeting Tuesday.

Last month, the senators wrote to administrators with a long list of questions, including if the deadlines for making budget decisions were self-imposed and flexible.

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The university’s response, posted on its strategic realignment website, said that the board of trustees had set the financial deadlines and that, while they were flexible, it would not be prudent to extend them.

“Additionally, USF leadership has deemed it most advantageous to our strategic priorities to expedite our financial realignment,” the response stated. “Delaying realignment only creates additional challenges.”

But faculty members asked the trustees to hold university administrators accountable.

“How the administration determined the amount of this reduction during this timeframe is unknown to the faculty despite several requests for this information,” the letter said. “In light of this lack of transparency, the Faculty Senate has located and reviewed the operating budget summaries that have been provided to the Board of Trustees Finance Committee over the past several years.”

The senators said they found that sums left over from previous budgets, known as carryforward cash balances, have been increasing the last three years. Also increasing were funding from contracts and grants, the letter said, adding that USF has ignored faculty requests for more information on revenue and expenses.

The letter warns that the administration’s budget-cutting proposals could hurt USF’s aspirations to rise in the national rankings and gain membership to the Association of American Universities, an elite group of 65 U.S. research universities.

It cites proposed cuts to the library budget, which is one area the association looks at when considering new members. The letter also argues that cuts have attracted negative attention from media including the New York Times, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“These national reports damage USF’s ability to recruit high-caliber faculty because they imply institutional instability and they send clear messages to the AAU that USF is out of touch with the community,” the letter said.

In addition, it said the administration has violated the “Principles of Community” guidelines instituted by Currall shortly after he became president last year.

The guidelines call for transparency, accountability and a “culture of caring” that are not evident in the administration’s decisions on the budget, the letter said.

“USF is abandoning a commitment to the kinds of robust curriculum and visionary planning that are hallmarks of the best public universities,” it said. “That this is being done at the expense of peoples’ careers and livelihoods is unconscionable.”