by, Gabriella DePinho, Editor-in-Chief
With hybrid classes, concerns of contracting the coronavirus and the threat that campuses across the country may shut down at any moment, many students at Manhattan College opted to stay home and learn entirely remotely, or even take a semester off, to save money and stress. With a number of other factors, such as canceled athletics and increased costs for COVID-19 safety measures, institutions of higher education, especially those without large endowments, are feeling the financial strain of the pandemic. Manhattan College, now facing an approximately $10 million budget deficit, is no exception.
As a result of the deficit, the college has had to make as many cuts as possible across campus, but even in doing so college leadership still had to move forward with 25 furloughs, scaled pay cuts and a temporary end to retirement fund contributions. While these may have been tough choices, some college employees are dissatisfied with the ways in which college leadership has handled communication and decision-making.
Employees were notified of the pay cuts and furloughs on Oct. 27 in an email from President Brennan O’Donnell. In a copy of the email obtained by The Quadrangle, O’Donnell wrote to the employees “to follow up on my update of October 21, in which I informed the community that the Board of Trustees would be reviewing the FY20-21 provisional budget and considering recommendations for closing a projected gap of $10 million, stemming from pandemic-related disruptions.” According to faculty, the Board of Trustees meeting occurred on Oct. 22.
In the email, O’Donnell wrote that approximately 8.2 million of the budget deficit stemmed from room and board and that “we expected as many as 1,650 students in residence this fall. As of census, that number is 1,106.” During the Nov. 17 senate meeting, Matthew McManness, the college’s chief financial officer, made a presentation confirming that 8.2 to 8.4 million of the deficit stemmed from a loss of room and board revenue.
In that same email, O’Donnell laid out the measures that were approved by the Board of Trustees in hopes of helping to alleviate the financial strain the college is under. Those measures are the furloughing of 25 employees, suspension of the college’s contribution to retirement funds starting with the first payroll in December, and scaled pay cuts also set to begin with the first payroll in December.
The Furloughs, The Pay Cuts, and The Pause on Contributions to Retirement Funds
The furloughs went into effect on Friday, October 30, just three days after employees were notified.
Bob Coleman, the coordinator of media technology and an adjunct in the communication department, was one of the 25 employees furloughed. The news came as a shock to him as he was in the middle of advising students in the communication department.
“I was in shock and disbelief,” he said. “I was in the middle of advising students … I was in the middle of working hard.”
Coleman, who has worked at the college for 11 years but been connected to the college’s payroll for about 30 years, is in charge of managing technology around campus, supplying equipment for remote learning, coordinating software licenses for Adobe Suite and Avid Media Composer — the latter of which he arranged a unique licensing agreement with over the summer to prepare for remote learning — and rolling over those licenses from students using them in the fall to students for the spring. In addition to these responsibilities, he advised a number of communication majors and minors and taught a course.
“I feel strongly, really strongly that I was often working harder than I would be if I was in my office,” Coleman said.
Coleman feels the college should have done their “due diligence” when deciding who to furlough, stating that “the college knew that they were in a financial crisis.”
The college’s current guidelines regarding furloughs were adopted on Aug. 24, 2020 and went into effect on Aug. 31. According to those guidelines, “Each Vice President shall prepare a list of employees whose positions are proposed for furlough within their division, specifying for each employee their job duties and justification for the recommended furlough” and a committee that comprises the vice president for finance, the vice president for human resources and the assistant vice president for human resources will review and present the final list to the college’s president and cabinet for final approval.
In addition to being furloughed, Coleman and other furloughed employees lost access to their email accounts the day the furlough went into effect and will be losing their health insurance.
“They cut off my email with no warning, gave me three days’ notice, killed my health insurance, asked me to turn my keys, my laptop, tell me I’m not allowed to do any more work basically like I was fired for some egregious act,” he said. “In terms of this is for financial reasons, how about being treated a little more humanely, and with some respect and collegiality?”
Another furloughed employee, who requested anonymity due to the hope she will be able to return to her role soon, was also shocked by the news of the furlough.
“We’re here because we care,” she said about why she and the other furloughed employees chose to work at the college in the first place.
Much like Coleman, she was upset about the timeline of communication and the sudden loss of access to her email account.
“Communication could have been a little bit better,” the employee said. “We were communicated with, received the letter and had a meeting. Overall, communicating everything about the furlough could have been better. If you email me, you won’t know that I’m furloughed. To my knowledge, there’s no away message. They did try, but they could have done better. These are our lives, our livelihoods.”
One department that saw multiple furloughs was the Office of Residence Life, according to Charles Clency, the director of residence life. The department lost four part-time staff members who all had other full-time jobs. However, those employees were still integral to supporting resident students and the day-to-day functioning of the department. Though there were plans to phase the part-time role out in the near future, the department was not planning to do so until they could bring on new full-time staff.
“It will hurt us significantly if we don’t get those people back in or not to be able to come back with additional full-time staff members in some form or fashion,” Clency said. “But we are rolling with it for as long as it needs to be … and so we want to continue to do our part to continue to be as viable and functional as possible with the people we do have.”
Clency confirmed that those employees, as part of their furlough, are allowed to remain in their on-campus housing even as they abstain from working in their part-time role.
Under the CARES Act, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) provided an additional $600 a week on top of any other unemployment benefits a person was entitled to, however, that additional support ended in July and is no longer available to the newly furloughed employees. Considering the campus was shut down from March until August, with only essential employees reporting to work, the college would have been able to engage in furloughs earlier with limited impact on operations. However, the college held back.
“As a guiding principle from the start of the pandemic, the College has sought to preserve jobs and minimize personal financial loss as we manage through a constantly shifting set of circumstances,” Pete McHugh, the college’s director of media relations and strategic communications, wrote in an email to The Quadrangle. “Based on early projections for fall 2020 housing, we held back on furloughs and pay adjustments, focusing on radically reducing operational and capital expenses, along with savings from natural employee attrition. After the annual census on October 1, the actual numbers in residence — along with financial aid costs and COVID-19 related costs — made it clear that we would need to employ those more personally painful measures.”
Though the furloughs are in isolated departments across campus, everyone should expect to be able to feel their effects.
“I think everybody is affected by the furloughs, especially since the furloughs — even a furlough of a residence director or a furlough that occurred in student life — is going to affect the students and that’s going to be brought into the class,” Ira Gerhardt, the chair of the council of faculty affairs (CFA) and an associate professor of mathematics, said. “The students are going to have a change in the resources available to them.”
While the number of furloughed employees is fairly low given the large staff it takes to run the college, a large portion of the employee population still took a personal hit from the measures approved by the Board of Trustees. The scale the Board of Trustees approved for pay cuts is such that employees making under $75,000 see no cut, those earning between $75,000 and $99,999 see a 2.5 percent cut, those earning between $100,000 and $174,999 see a 5 percent reduction and those earning $175,000 and above get a 7.5 percent reduction.
At that Nov. 17 senate meeting, O’Donnell admitted there are “contractual sorts of issues with some employees at the college and there are cases in which we have individual conversations going on” which he did not elaborate on any further. This response came after a question Heidi Fuery, an assistant professor of philosophy and faculty senator, asked about whether or not employees in the highest salary bracket would be able or willing to take further pay cuts.
These pay cuts come at the same time faculty are adjusting to life in the pandemic and at the same time they are being asked to engage in the accreditation process conducted by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
“People aren’t being able to go to their departments and see their colleagues and get into the classroom and greet their students,” Gerhardt said. “Everything’s changed. To then add additional responsibilities like middle states and then have ‘oh and by the way tomorrow you’re getting a pay cut,’ it’s a lot.”
According to Kathy Weld, a professor of mathematics and the co-chair for the faculty welfare committee under the CFA, coming up with a perfect solution would have been impossible.
“The problem with fairness is that mathematically it’s been studied, there’s sort of no good way to define fair, there just isn’t,” she said. “What I think is reasonable to say is that even if people aren’t uniformly happy, I think that the administration’s intent has been to find a system that’s fair and would impact the people that are being paid less as little as possible.”
Exacerbating Existing Issues in Communication and Shared Governance
Coleman felt the three days’ notice of the furlough and the lack of notification about the access to his email account was a significant issue.
“The way they went about this … was just unbelievable for a Lasallian Catholic institution,” he said. “And I just never thought they would treat us like this.”
Much like Coleman and the other furloughed employee, other college employees feel that the communication and decision making process could have been more transparent and inclusive. Faculty knew for months that pay cuts were a possibility.
“The possibility that there would be serious cuts had been broached as early as the spring,” Jeff Horn, a history professor and co-chair for the faculty welfare committee, said. “The issue is more along the lines of how likely those cuts would be so going from possibility to actuality is always the key moment.”
Despite the warning, the news still caught faculty off guard.
“The way that we understood it, there was a lot that would be required to trigger [pay cuts] and then to get to the point where in the next day or two the Board of Trustees is meeting and the budget is being proposed that will include it, that is what I think caught faculty the hardest,” Gerhardt said. “The reality of the situation is one you can’t deny.”
The faculty welfare committee functions as a liaison between administration and faculty at large and is concerned with issues regarding faculty salaries and benefits and occasionally institutional priorities. Faculty leadership from the CFA and the faculty welfare committee were not brought into conversations about the pay cut.
“Tough decisions need to be made but what’s always important is that when those decisions are made about people, they should have the opportunity to be part of the voice, to be sitting at the table in making those decisions,” Gerhardt said. “In this case what was felt by many of the faculty was that a difficult decision about us was handed to us.
“The reality of the finances are the reality of the finances,” Gerhardt said. “The world is kind of in a pandemic but if we had been part of the conversation and the faculty were understanding that it was coming with the budget meeting weeks ahead and we had talked and this is what we had come to the conclusion of then you would see the situation, you see what happened very differently because you feel you were part of it, you feel that you were able to advocate for yourself and you were able to help do what’s the best for those that you represent.”
Returning to the mathematics of fairness, Weld said, “I would say that the mathematics of fair division always involves a conversation, there’s always a conversation.”
Before posing a question at the senate meeting, Meg Toth, an English professor and a faculty senator, acknowledged that O’Donnell had opened the meeting thanking everyone for being there in a “spirit of shared governance” and stated her feelings on the matter.
“I just want to say for the record that what’s happening in this meeting is not shared governance,” Toth said. “What’s happening in this meeting is that administration has made decisions and they are presenting those decisions to us, so I just want to be clear and this has become a pattern, even prior to the pandemic hitting, that we are given decisions that have been made in a top-down matter, then maybe a particular body on campus is consulted, like the senate or CFA, or faculty welfare, but we’re not given a real voice.”
She went on to state that what was happening was communication, which is important, but not the same as what O’Donnell claimed was happening.
“The faculty has not been given a true voice in this process and I can only imagine that the students have had even less of a voice in this process so I just want to be clear on the official record that this is not shared governance that’s happening here,” Toth said. “It’s communication and I’m grateful for that communication and I know my colleagues are also grateful for it but I think we really need to make better strides in consulting and coming up with solutions together as a community versus administration making decisions and passing them onto us and maybe giving us a semblance of shared governance.”
Responding to the senate questions of communication and shared governance, O’Donnell offered the solution of an ad-hoc structure to make sure people are informed appropriately but he wants to take the opportunity “to be thinking about what we do on the other side of the crisis,” he said. “Let’s use the need to have these kinds of forums in the midst of the crisis in order to build the communication structures and frankly, the trust that we need in order to be able to have these conversations.”
Other Measures The College Has and Plans to Take
In the Oct. 27 email to the employees, O’Donnell wrote, “we deeply regret having to implement measures that will be personally painful to our community.” It was made clear during the senate meeting by both O’Donnell and McManness that these measures were certainly not the first savings.
College leadership renegotiated the college’s oil contract to save $70,000, eliminated a quarter of a million in spending on a real estate consultant contract, modified admissions’ external consultants to see savings, and has saved $130,000 in miscellaneous areas. They anticipate about $200,000 in student-athlete insurance savings and a total of $400,000 in savings on overtime, seeing $125,000 of that amount saved already. The salary cuts should generate about $1.1 million in savings and the halt in retirement contributions should generate $2.1 million in savings. The athletics department’s overall budget was cut by 30 percent.
McManness stressed throughout his financial presentation that the numbers, both in terms of loss and savings, continue to fluctuate daily.
However, with all of these measures taken, there are still some more avenues being pursued by college leadership in terms of financial savings. Leadership is in the process of adjusting the healthcare plan with hopes of seeing $1.265 million in savings.
Additionally, according to the Oct. 27 email, O’Donnell wrote that the college is exploring the options of “additional revenue generation through auxiliary services and fundraising; and Continued efforts to take advantage of any and all COVID relief programs for which we may qualify.”
The college has a $120 million endowment, but of that money only $4 million is unrestricted in usage and according to McManness, “the unrestricted endowment is something we can consider and something that will be part of our bigger discussions that we have in relationship to balancing the budget.”
According to Clency, the office of Residence Life is currently anticipating that approximately 150 to 200 students who studied remote in the fall will return to live on campus for the spring semester, which would increase room and board revenue.
Where Does the College Go From Here?
While college leadership works to continue to close the budget deficit, faculty, staff and administrators remain optimistic but know that further cuts and furloughs loom in the distance as unfortunate possibilities. The fact that a first round has gone into effect does not eliminate them in the future. However, there is hope as the managers of the college’s operating fund continue to work to resolve the budget gap.
“We’re bending but we’re trying not to break,” Provost Steven Schriener said.
Despite all of the challenges the college is facing, those still working, whether remotely or in person, have one goal in mind: support the students.
“We really are protecting critical functions and student-facing functions because we do not want to interrupt that,” Schreiner said. “I have some confidence that we’re doing okay with that.”
Coleman and the other furloughed employees will have to wait it out for now, and hope that they can return to their roles as soon as possible.
“I will be fine,” Coleman said. “It’s not a life or death thing. I certainly understand the financial situation of the college, I get it.”
And while there may have been mismanaged communication or a lack of shared governance, all faculty, staff and administrators are working towards the same goal of doing the best they can for their students.
“The administration’s goal, as I understand it, was to minimize to the absolute best of its ability the impact on students and I think that although it has hit faculty staff and administration I think that all of those people are also doing their best to minimize the impact on students, to not be focused on that but to be as focused as we can on instruction and on the needs of the students,” Horn said. “Obviously, it’s going to bleed in, particularly with all of the things going on, but the one thing you can hear in all of the conversations is ‘how can we do our best for all of the students?’ There’s lots of things that not everybody is so good at but that’s one of things that they are.”
Editor’s Note: Anna Woods contributed reporting.