Administrators discuss university’s financial struggles at town hall

As revenue and enrollment trends in higher education fall nationwide, administrators discussed solutions for DePaul’s stagnant revenue and low enrollment with faculty and staff at a near-full town hall in Cortelyou Commons on Friday, Sept. 20.

The forum aimed to increase transparency between administrators, faculty and staff and to encourage collaboration between the groups in hopes of increasing the overall well-being of DePaul as an institution. It was hosted by Salma Ghanem, interim provost, and Jeff Bethke, executive vice president and chief financial officer.

The event began with a joint presentation by Ghanem and Bethke, which explained the challenging outlook for higher education; DePaul’s revenue, expense and enrollment trends; the university’s 2020 priorities and an overview of the annual climate survey, which is given to faculty and staff to gauge their experience working for the university.

The trends in higher education are not encouraging. While enrollment in higher education is declining nationally at about 4 percent, Illinois is seeing a decline of nearly 17 percent. Ghanem and Bethke said this could be for many reasons, like ever-increasing student loans or the erosion of public trust in higher education.

DePaul’s situation is no different. While the university’s expenses are on a near-steady incline, its revenue is starting to flatline, while inflation continues to increase.

Between 2003 and 2011, DePaul’s revenue grew by 5.7 percent and its expenses by 5.4 percent. In those same years, inflation increased by 2.6 percent. Between 2011 and 2019, though, revenue has increased by only 1 percent, with expenses increasing by 1.5 percent and inflation by 1.6 percent.

Enrollment trends for the university are similar. While the university’s enrollment nearly doubled between the 1980s and early 2000s, it has been on the decline — roughly 12 percent, they said — since 2011.

They clarified that the decline is not unique to DePaul, which is true to an extent. Nationwide, postsecondary enrollment decreased about 1.7 percent between Spring 2018 and 2019, according to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

But, among other four-year not-for-profit universities like DePaul, enrollments increased 3.2 percent during the same time period, though the increase may be due to the recent conversion of large for-profit institutions to nonprofit status, according to the same study.

Both Ghanem and Bethke said that they thought DePaul would be fine in the long run, but did not want to minimize the need to make changes, fast.

“Some universities are not going to survive,” Ghanem said. “[…] but we have all the ingredients to make us stronger and survive these challenges.”

Bethke added that “it’s not just about surviving, it’s about thriving,” and said that while he fully recognizes that the last six years have been difficult, it’s most important to learn how to succeed and differentiate from competitors as time moves forward.

The university already has several initiatives in place intended to jumpstart enrollment and revenue in areas like recruitment, retention and reinvention.

Ghanem said that many of DePaul’s students are from out of state, specifically California and Texas, so they have increased marketing initiatives in those areas, in addition to hiring on-the-ground recruiters in those states.

Student affinity, which can be summed up as school spirit, is another area to which the university intends to shift focus. Ghanem said that the university is “trying to be purposeful” about engagement, and explained that both enrollment and retention happen at the student and professor-level as much as it does the administrative level.

The university also intends to hire new faculty and start more programs. This fall, 67 new faculty joined the university, Ghanem said, and over 40 new programs were signed off, like the recently unveiled applied diplomacy program. DePaul will continue to add faculty and programs, focusing on health care — both speech language pathology and occupational therapy programs are in the works, she added — and nontraditional offerings, like credentials and certificates.

“The work we’ve been doing over the last half-dozen years is in part about bridging the budget deficit, but also about making room for investment,” Bethke said. “Part of the problem we’re trying to solve isn’t just delivering an operating margin; it’s making the institution stronger over time.”

They then dove into the climate survey, which is taken every year by faculty and staff to determine their satisfaction with their jobs and the school.

From last year, there were increases in cooperation between colleagues, willingness to put in extra work and overall satisfaction with their respective deans.

The biggest decrease pertained to faculty and staff’s satisfaction with the university’s executive team, more commonly referred to as the administration. Ghanem speculated that this could have to do with the several changes that happened at the university last spring, like the restructuring of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies (formerly the School for New Learning), implementation of the ERIP program and staffing cuts.

Other declines included confidence in DePaul’s future and in average ratings for diversity.

The floor was then opened to faculty and staff to voice their input and concerns.

Winifred Curran, chair of the geography department, explained to Ghanem and Bethke that as chair of her department, she is spending so much time being trained on new systems and attending meetings that on top of teaching, she doesn’t have enough time to focus on other things she values. She asked how the university can relieve chairs of some of their more superfluous duties, so that the position is less “wildly unpleasant.”

Ghanem responded by saying that she too has gotten busier— starting earlier, ending later and stretching work into the weekends. She urged the room to find ways to be more efficient and to bring them to administrators, noting that it is “probably going to get rougher.”

Valerie Johnson, chair of the political science department, jumped in, adding that the notion that things will get worse means that it will likely impede on the quality of both the professors’ teaching and job positions. Ghanem said that “it is what it is,” and reiterated the need for faculty and staff to be engaged in the process of finding a sustainable solution despite the external factors working against them.

Other professors addressed their specific programs, confirmed the decision to remain on the quarter system as opposed to semesters and addressed plans to increase diversity within the university’s student body, faculty and staff.

“We need to work together,” Bethke said. “It doesn’t mean we always have to agree, but together we can craft a path that’s better for students.”

Ghanem and Bethke will be holding another town hall Tuesday, Oct. 8, at the Loop campus.