Convocation Message: Bright promise despite dim budget
By Jeanning Manning Hutson
ECU News Services
With storm clouds from Hurricane Irene looming outside Wright Auditorium, the annual Faculty Convocation held Aug. 26 formally marked the beginning of the academic year at East Carolina University.
Chancellor Steve Ballard’s remarks noted the continued economic crisis in the state and its effects on the university’s state appropriations. The tone seemed to fit with the ominous clouds outside.
“The times and the past five years mandate, I believe, demand that I address the budget which is on everybody’s mind,” he said.
“North Carolina is like virtually every other state in the country; all but seven have had cut backs. Forty-one out of 50 have had severe cutbacks in state support for higher education. This has been an ongoing trend and the reductions this year have been higher than we have seen in our lifetime,” he said.
Even though budget cuts have been hard in North Carolina, other states have fared even worse.
“We can be thankful, I guess, that we’re not in New Hampshire that had a 48 percent cut to state appropriations for higher education. Twenty-four percent cuts in Arizona. Twenty-three percent cuts in California. So our 16 percent cut, while no fun, we could say I guess, that it could be worse. Not sure it could be much worse; other states are experiencing the exact same kind of things we are,” Ballard said.
The 16.1 percent state budget cut represents about $49 million, Ballard said. “More importantly, I think over the last four years, this institution has lost $129 million in spending power. That’s not base cuts; that’s a combination of base cuts and reversions and the other monies that the state has taken back. It also factors in the new money that we receive for enrollment growth and for new colleges like the school of dentistry,” he said.
This year’s state budget cut was $13 million more than had been anticipated in the spring, Ballard said. “What we thought would be a $35 to 37 million cut ended up being over $49 million and that frankly was a shock. And it certainly was a shock to the colleges which absorbed around half of the 16 percent cut on average,” he said.
Ballard noted that the state cuts were spread among the UNC-system schools are varying rates with UNC-Chapel Hill taking the largest cut, 19 percent, with other larger schools being in the 16 percent range and smaller schools taking smaller cuts, such as the School of Science and Math, which had a 8.5 percent budget cut.
“For us among the impacts was the loss of 196 positions and certainly the loss of our ability to retain and reward our faculty,” he said.
Deans have lost flexibility across a range of functions especially in distance education, which has fueled much of ECU’s growth over the last several years, Ballard said.
“All of the things we were told to invest in, we were good in and wanted to invest in most of them were either reduced or eliminated this year with close to catastrophic implications for all of us and for our students,” he said.
Ballard congratulated the faculty for continuing to meet the needs of more students in more classes with fewer resources. “I don’t know how much longer we can ask you to do more with less, but you’ve certainly done an A-plus job with very little resources this past year and I’m greatly appreciatively of your willingness to not just hang in there but to keep your commitment to our students,” he said.
One of the “good news” items that Ballard mentioned was the 82 percent retention rate for first-year students returning to ECU. “Retention happens best when the students and the faculty connect,” he said.
Ballard also spoke of his concern about losing “brain power” to other institutions because “we’re highly constrained in North Carolina in terms of how we compensate and respond to the market conditions. I’ve never seen in 32 years in this business the level of restraints that currently exist in North Carolina to the extent in which nearly all of the normal management tools we would have to keep you here are been severely restrained or have been taken away from us.”
Not being able to compete with offers from other states’ institutions is bad for North Carolina because many of the faculty members making a difference are being recruited, Ballard said.
One bright note, the chancellor said, is the addition of four endowed chairs in July; two were added in the College of Business and two at the Brody School of Medicine. In the past five years, the university has gone from 17 endowed chairs to 33 this year.
He also noted the progress of the Honors College, adding its second class with more than 100 students this semester. “It’s not just meeting our promise but having a positive impact on our students,” he said.
The chancellor’s agenda for the coming academic year includes the following objectives:
Faculty compensation and retention is No. 1, Ballard said. “At the very foundation of what we do is the quality of our classrooms. Without some flexibility to address this, we will not be able to retain that quality,” he said.
Planning funds for a new Biosciences building. It continues to be the top capital project for the East Campus.
Integration of athletics in our academic structure. “As much as I enjoy the entertainment function, as much it is important to the image and reputation of East Carolina, and as much as we fill up the stadium on a regular basis, that entertainment function must not ever start to determine how we do the academic side of our business,” he said.
Working toward re-accreditation and the visit of the SACS team in 2012.
Finally, the chancellor noted that this is his eighth year at East Carolina. “This university has a great soul. It’s authentic. It does what it says it will do. And it makes a huge impact on North Carolina.”