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WATCH | YSU provosts defend academic cuts in live interview; union responds

“Certainly, moving forward, every aspect of the institution will have to be looked at critically," Provost Brien Smith said in a live interview Monday with veteran journalist Bertram de Souza.
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Youngstown State University Provost Brien Smith, right, and Associate Provost Jen Pintar speak with Mahoning Valley journalist Bertram de Souza on recent academic cuts during a live interview Monday.

YOUNGSTOWN — Youngstown State University provosts on Monday discussed the university’s recent academic cuts and layoffs, as well as YSU’s future as a local institution, with longtime local journalist Bertram de Souza.

But it should have been the university’s numbers man, finance VP Neal McNally, in the seat, rather than those on the academic side, YSU faculty union leaders said when reached by Mahoning Matters following the interview.

De Souza’s Scribbler Publishing Group invited YSU Provost Brien Smith and Associate Provost Jen Pintar to discuss bubbling controversy surrounding the academic cuts, the university’s priorities and its goals for the future.

You can watch the full 1 hour and 20 minute interview below or on the Scribbler Publishing Group YouTube Channel. Read on for some highlights.

The background

In June, the YSU Board of Trustees approved a $172.6 million fiscal year 2022 operating budget. As the fall 2021 semester got underway, YSU reported a record-low student enrollment of 11,298, a decline of 1,398 students. If student enrollment continues to decline in the 2022-23 school year, the university could face a revenue shortfall of at least $10 million, McNally has previously told Mahoning Matters.

The university estimates a $5.6 million structural deficit this fiscal year and implemented cuts in response to student enrollment decline. Earlier this month, Smith released a list of 26 academic programs that will be cut by the fall 2022 semester. Seven faculty members impacted by the process — known as retrenchment — and two others whose positions were not renewed received their notices by Monday, per the union’s collective bargaining agreement.

On the faculty cuts

The provosts said the retrenchments are the unfortunate end result of years of discussions with faculty about unsustainable programs in the university, which included an 18-month review of the university’s more than 140 academic programs by all faculty members and administrators, based on data provided by analytical consulting firm Gray Associates of Boston.

“It’s not like the hammer fell this past week and out of nowhere and we’re laying off faculty,” Smith said Monday, pointing to other university-wide cuts officials made in “trying our best to save the academic unit and hold on as long as we can.

“I don’t know if it’s really fair to say the president and his inner circle don’t have the best interests of the institution at heart. Quite frankly, every effort was made in the beginning to spare the most important part of the institution, and that’s those that teach our students, that help our students graduate.”

The nine layoffs announced Monday might not be the last, Smith said. Another round of layoffs could include lecturers, he said, but administrators have until March 22 of next year to announce them.

Mark Vopat, spokesperson for the Ohio Education Association’s faculty union at YSU, said the union expects more cuts of full-time lecturers, but they will find out only when the university publicizes them.

As per the union’s contract, those who received a layoff notice have an opportunity to appeal the decision itself, or “bump” other union faculty members, based on their seniority. “We have to wait and see and let the process unfold,” Pintar said Monday.

Two programs whose leading faculty received layoff notices were Judaic and Islamic studies, though Smith said those programs weren’t “targeted” for disinvestment.

In fact, Judaic studies is under the history program, which the university’s analysis shows to be growing, Vopat said. Islamic studies falls under religious studies, which is one of the 26 programs to be sunset.

The two separate endowments funding both those programs pay for much of the instructors’ salaries and benefits, Vopat said. It would cost more to replace them from the outside.

“Some of these cuts just don’t make sense,” he said.

On administrative overhead

When asked whether YSU administrators are considering cuts at the top, Pintar pointed out that the university removed one deanship and cut its number of faculty chairpersons in half.

“Our bandwidth is completely full with jobs,” she said. “We’re not looking around to see if there’s any jobs we can do.”

When new state or federal requirements are established  — and Pintar said many of them “weren’t there years ago” — they often require an expansion of administrative pay or new administrative positions to comply. When faculty members made diversity, equity and inclusion a priority, the university made a new provost position to oversee it, she said.

For those wondering how more administrative spending can be justified: “Spend a day with us,” Pintar said. Those looking in from the outside see more administrative raises — but “what they don’t see is the additional work they got,” she said.

But faculty raises pale in comparison to administrative raises, the latter of which “always seem to account for inflation,” Vopat said. Many union contracts have included step-up raise schedules whose first year is 0%.

Meanwhile, “They’re increasing my class sizes. … They’re asking us to stack classes. They’re asking us to do more in the [student] retention area, calling students and monitoring their progress,” Vopat said. “Yeah, we’re all taking on extra work. I’m sorry if you’re feeling overworked, but we’re all feeling overworked.

“That means I think we deserve raises, too.”

On YSU athletics

Faculty union leaders have urged administrators to instead look elsewhere for cuts, including the athletics department. The university has budgeted $81 million for academics, a cut of $1.6 million from the previous year. Athletics, on the other hand, is budgeted to spend $13.8 million, an increase of $885,000 from the previous year.

Smith said some of the university’s about 500 athletes enrolled in other undiminished programs — like STEM or business — could consider leaving for another school if athletics shrinks too much.

“It’s important for us to continue to grow our demographics,” Pintar said. “We are doing our best as administrators to work on curricular efficiencies to try to keep as many faculty members as we can.

“When demand for your product declines over time, you have to change your product.”

Smith added neither the athletics department nor budget office report to his realm of academic affairs.

“It’s certainly reasonable that you have to put together a responsible budget that’s going to make sure we can afford everything, including athletics,” he said. “Certainly, moving forward, every aspect of the institution will have to be looked at critically.”

Vopat said he didn’t hear a satisfying answer from the provosts Monday on YSU’s spending priorities, and considered what could happen if athletics spending was redistributed.

“The real question is where the hell is all this money going? Where is the rest of this deficit coming from?” he said. “This is why I think Neal McNally really should have been sitting in that seat and really answered some hard questions on how these numbers add up. … It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The $1,000 each student spends per year to support the athletics department — about 10% of the average $10,000 annual tuition — could pay for a whole year of textbooks, he said. If the university were to reinvest its $13.8 million budget, the university could give out about 1,000 more tuition waivers, which is about double.

The union isn’t proposing an end to the university’s athletics program, he added.

“The minute you’re asking about how the return on investment comes from athletics, there’s silence,” Vopat said. “It might be that we have to go down to Division II or Division III athletics. A smaller school needs a smaller athletics department.”

On student retention

Smith said university officials reviewed 900 instances of students who left the university for their own reasons — none of them had flunked out and all of them had the funding to continue. That group accounted for an about $9 million loss in subsidies for the university, he said.

Administrators gave faculty members data showing when students left their programs, or whether they transferred to another institution, but nothing ever came of the workshops, Pintar said.

“We’re hoping the deans and the chairs and the faculty unearth that,” she said.

Vopat said he was involved in one such workshop. He said faculty members received simple documentation on each student — mainly their grades and academic transcripts, which were redacted to protect their identities. There was little scientific methodology. They could only guess at the real reasons why the students left, he said.

“We were supposed to somehow infer why these students left,” he said. “Literally, we looked at each other and said, ‘How am I supposed to draw any inferences from this?’ … If they have a greater study out there, they haven’t let us know that.”



Justin Dennis

About the Author: Justin Dennis

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and University of Pittsburgh.
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