DePaul leadership, SRAC work to minimize staff layoffs: Staff Council anticipates more cuts
April 16, 2023
“What if I don’t leave, would I then be someone who could potentially lose my job?”
This is one of many prominent questions Victoria Van Kirk, president of Staff Council and a representative on the Strategic Resource Allocation Committee (SRAC) says is on the minds of current staff members at DePaul in light of the $56.5 million budget gap between university revenue and expenses.
DePaul is a private, tuition-funded institution and currently faces a loss of funding due to the decline in enrollment numbers over the past 10 years among other factors. Since 2018, total enrollment fell 6.8% with even sharper declines in the graduate population.
“In graduate enrollment, for instance, we’re not seeing the same numbers we used to see [so] we have to adjust … and that’s the uncomfortable part and this is not unique [to DePaul],” Van Kirk said. “This is something many institutions in higher [education] are reckoning with.”
Van Kirk said one of the ways the university is trying to reduce this gap is through decreasing the number of staff and administrative positions at DePaul.
According to Van Kirk, DePaul is operating on a staffing model that worked well in the past when enrollment numbers were up, but the model no longer fits with the current decline in enrollment. She said because DePaul is a tuition-funded university, enrollment greatly impacts the number of staff and faculty positions.
One factor that contributed to the current state of the budget gap, according to Van Kirk, was DePaul’s decision not to lay off employees during the pandemic like many other institutions.
“It was really good at the time, but in a way, that doesn’t position us much better right now,” she said.
Of the 4,000 student employees at DePaul, many are also facing repercussions from the budget gap.
A former assistant in Facilities Operations at DePaul who requested anonymity from The DePaulia said she lost her job in December of 2022 and was told it was due to the university’s efforts to reduce the budget gap.
“They got rid of my job [and] combined it with the resident assistant position now, and they’ve cut back on hiring,” she said.
The former employee also said two of her coworkers were laid off, but she is unsure whether that was related to university budget cuts.
Matthew Krause, chair of the Fiscal Planning Advisory Committee and one of the representatives for Staff Council on SRAC, said he believes the methods SRAC identified to decrease the budget gap will have minimal impact on student jobs on both campuses because they identified untouched student employee budgets.
“As professional staffing levels decrease, whether it’s part time or full time, some areas may actually have a greater reliance on student employees,” Krause said. “On the other hand, as the level of services and building hours decrease with associated staffing reductions, there may simply be fewer hours available in shifts for students to work.”
According to the anonymous source, she said the entire housing team is being reformed and resident assistants are concerned over uncertainty about how next year will look with these sudden changes.
This is because according to Van Kirk, Housing and Residence Life recently merged to become one department.
This is because auxiliary student services are in the process of merging to become the “Department of Housing, Dining and Student Centers,” according to Van Kirk.
On April 4, DePaul President Robert Manuel sent an email to faculty and staff announcing university leadership’s decision to move forward with a Voluntary Separation Incentive Program (VSIP) for eligible full-time staff and administration.
This program offers one year of 2022 gross wages that will be paid in a lump sum to all eligible participants, full vacation accrual for 2023 and subsidized medical coverage for those currently enrolled in DePaul medical plans for the remainder of the year.
Non-instructional staff employed full-time by DePaul are those eligible for VSIP. Faculty and others who work at DePaul but are employed by outside organizations are not eligible for VSIP.
On Thursday, April 6, eligible staff and administration received personalized information packets sent to their home addresses.
According to Van Kirk, of the 1,389 full-time staff and administration, just 205 are eligible for VSIP. To be eligible, staff must meet certain criteria including that they are at least 55 years old with a minimum of 20 years full-time service, at least 62 years old with a minimum of 10 years full-time service, or the sum of their age and full-time service equals at least 75.
The deadline for staff to show interest in the VSIP program was Friday, April 14, however, employees do not have to make a final decision until June 8.
“The goal is to not get to a straight reduction in force,” Van Kirk said. “[VSIP] made it possible for more people to actually make that consideration, that maybe, this is a good time to retire.”
However, Krause said VSIP was not offered to faculty because of the essential role they play in teaching and learning on campus and the uncertainty of who would take the incentive.
“It could have an adverse and unintentional impact,” Krause said.
Six term faculty members learned that their contracts would not be renewed last Monday, according to Manuel in an interview with student media that same day.
Regarding staff at the university, he said the VSIP program was a way to avoid unnecessary termination.
“The mission-based approach here was to say, instead of just terminating people, let’s figure out how to make it as less [and] as little concern to folks’ life [so they can] sleep this weekend,” Manuel said. “So, we offered the voluntary separation program, which is a way to say somebody who is very close to retirement, here’s a soft landing into retirement. And we will compensate you for that that year, which is different than saying you’re terminated, and you have to leave.”
However, when asked how decreases in staff and administration will affect those who do not meet the age and service requirements to be eligible for VSIP, Van Kirk said, “unfortunately, the program has to have parameters [because] they want to make it manageable.”
According to Van Kirk, this is because the university could run the risk of too many taking the incentive for early retirement through VSIP, which could cause a substantial impact to student services going forward.
“It kind of gets us to what we need, but it also won’t gut areas,” she said.
While VSIP offered some staff and administration a choice in whether they will prematurely end their employment with DePaul, Van Kirk admits the decision process will be difficult as the university makes changes to combat the budget gap.
“I think staff are feeling the turbulence of this situation, you know, it’s not comfortable,” she said. “We’re trying to avoid scenarios that would be very unhealthy for DePaul, and in doing that, you got to do some things that are uncomfortable, and we need to get ourselves to a size, the whole university needs to get to a size that matches the enrollment we have now [and] the forecasting that we have for enrollment [going] forward.”
While Van Kirk and Krause did not provide the exact number of how many have volunteered for VSIP, they said it is highly unlikely that all 205 positions in the program will be filled.
However, Van Kirk said they need to reach a certain percentage for the program to be successful.
According to Van Kirk, in the past when DePaul has done early retirement programs, they have typically had a 35% take rate.
Krause said for those who take up the offer for early retirement, many of the positions may need to be refilled at a lower salary rate.
“[That] is where the savings come in for next year,” he said.
Another way the university plans to decrease costs is by leaving most vacant positions unfilled, and through the merging of departments where it is deemed necessary.
“It takes money to save money,” Van Kirk said. “There’s a range of emotion about this kind of stuff, but it’s like, it’s not an easy decision for the university either.”
According to Manuel, terminating DePaul employees is a last resort.
“In my office alone, I’ve held four or five different positions vacant, so that we’re not staffing that up to make sure we’re not terminating, like people in my positions, and only as a last resort, would that be the case,” Manuel said.
Still, according to Van Kirk, staff are going to be most impacted by the upcoming budget reductions.
“If you look at the percentages of this whole shortfall, and how we need to make up for it … over half of the amount is falling to staff,” she said.
Krause said SRAC’s next steps are to discuss how to look out for staff on the lower pay scale because they are most often marginalized in these types of decisions.
According to data collected by SRAC, DePaul saw a 7% decrease in net tuition revenue over the last 10 years, and comparatively, DePaul’s investment in staff or non-instructional roles has also seen a 7% decrease.
This margin has been consistent over the last 10 years, however, the total investment in faculty salary lines went up 2%.
University administrators will vote on the budget for the 2023-24 academic year next month. Van Kirk and Krause said they will continue to look out for the best interests of staff at DePaul.
“The students change over, but we’re [still] all here,” Van Kirk said.