YSU administrators are ‘comfortable’ with athletic spending, academic decisions. Here’s why

YOUNGSTOWN — If some Youngstown State University faculty and students thought cuts to athletic department spending were on the horizon, administrators put up a Penguin football team-like defense on Wednesday.

“Our athletic programs have distinguished [YSU], and have provided a national stage and exposure for the university,” said YSU Vice President for Finance and Business Operations Neal McNally. “I think we’re comfortable where we’re at in terms of our athletic programs.”

Speaking to Valley media, YSU administrators addressed concerns from the YSU community Wednesday morning on priorities of university spending and recent academic cuts.

The budget story so far

In June, 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 2022-2023 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 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. Faculty impacted by the process, known as retrenchment, must be notified by Monday.

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This graph shows declining fall semester enrollment between 2010 and 2021 at Youngstown State University. Source: Youngstown State University

The source of pitting academic spending versus athletic spending has roots in this year’s university budget. The university has budgeted $81,048,966 for academics, a cut of $1,673,597 from the previous year. Athletics, on the other hand, is budgeted to spend $13,835,654, an increase of $885,000 from the previous year.

The budget narrative notes the academic cuts are “mainly enrollment-driven.” Of the athletic increase, the budget narrative attributes the 6.8% increase to rising scholarship costs from the addition of women’s lacrosse, men’s swimming and women’s bowling and the expansion of cross country, all of which raised the total number of student athletes from 400 in 2019 to 533 today.

Below is Youngstown State University’s fiscal year 2022 operating budget:

YSU’s athletic programs

McNally said the university’s athletic programs, such as football and men’s and women’s basketball, have a positive impact on student enrollment numbers.

“[Athletics] fosters a type of college environment that resonates with students, and helps solidify the university with our local community,” he said.

YSU’s spokesperson Ron Cole said YSU athletic director Ron Strollo presented trustees an analysis of athletic spending which shows the university spends less than other universities.

“Our football and men’s basketball generate revenue higher than our competitors, and we spend ... $11,000 less per student athlete compared to the Missouri Valley Conference,” he said.

According to the university’s fiscal year 2021-22 budget, about one-third of the athletics budget is set aside for student scholarship funds, but McNally said funds set aside for academic scholarships are significantly higher.

“We spend more than double that amount on academic scholarships to recruit students to enroll in our academic programs,” he said.

McNally also pushed back against the notion that athletic programs are not subjected to scrutiny.

“None of our athletic programs are under-enrolled,” he said. “If YSU athletics can no longer find students to fill a team, whether that be football or women’s bowling, if we didn’t have enough athletes to complete a team, we would definitely be looking to sunset those athletics programs.”

Below are athletics expenditures provided by YSU athletic director Ron Strollo. These figures have not been independently verified:

Reviewing academic programs

YSU Provost Brien Smith said the Higher Learning Commission in 2018 suggested the university perform a review of all academic programs. The faculty review led to the creation of five categories to rate academic programs.

The academic programs categorized as “sunset” have few to no students enrolled, Smith said.

Although 26 academic programs will sunset starting fall 2022, Smith said students may still have an opportunity to take these courses as general education requirements, but not as a major.

“We just look at the number of majors in the programs,” he said. “The outlook for the sunset programs are not as high as we would like. … As we have shrunk overtime, some of those same programs continue to shrink with that.”

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Shown here is a list of 26 academic programs at Youngstown State University set to be deactivated by fall 2022 semester due to low enrollment, as a cost-saving measure. Source: Youngstown State University

What is retrenchment?

According to the YSU Ohio Education Association’s collective bargaining agreement, full-time faculty whose contracts are not renewed must be notified by YSU President Jim Tressel by Nov. 15, in a contracted act known as “retrenchment.”

Smith said along with 26 academic program cuts, he is expecting fewer than 20 faculty members will be notified of nonrenewal. According to the contract, faculty have the choice to appeal decisions or request to be transferred to another department at the university.

The faculty union also requested a non-academic performance audit to be done by university administrators. McNally said the call for an audit is a “stall tactic” by faculty.

“At the beginning of last fiscal year, we demonstrated our ability to reduce [administrative] staffing levels in as quickly as two weeks,” he said. That is because many of those positions do not require bargaining with a union.

“If we want to reduce faculty levels, even by a small amount, it’s a long process that takes nearly a year,” he said, referring to relations with the faculty union.

Smith said the university is still working with the students in sunset programs to make sure they graduate out of the program on time.

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