by Kyla Guilfoil, Asst. News Editor
The Manhattan College Senate reconvened on Sept. 21, with President O’Donnell outlining a new strategy for rebuilding the college’s budget and revenue. The plan aroused concern from many faculty members present, especially on the basis of representation and of restoring salary and retirement benefits cuts.
Before the meeting, O’Donnell had addressed the community by sending the senate members a document on Sept. 17, outlining the updates and plan established by the president’s office. O’Donnell told the senate that this was part of an attempt to make the meetings more conversational, rather than a focus on presenting information for the majority of the meeting.
The strategy outlined by O’Donnell is essentially a motion to redirect the college’s budget from cuts to investments.
“I want to emphasize what I think sort of is the main message of this in regard to where we are financially at the college, and that is that we’re at a point now that we recognize that we really can’t cut any more from this budget,” O’Donnell said at the meeting. “And in fact, we need to start pivoting towards a view of our budget and finances which emphasizes investment in where we need to invest in order to get back on a pattern of growth and increased revenue. So we’re moving towards that.”
In turn, the president’s office listed a specific eight working groups in the Sept. 17 address that O’Donnell intends will quickly and effectively address issues around campus. These groups included those titled, “Building external partnerships and improving structures to strengthen and diversify student recruitment, including transfer students” and “Enhancing the on-campus student experience for residents and commuters.”
Sarah Wacker, Ph.D., senate member and professor of chemistry, believes that these groups are necessary for the college’s regrowth.
“The last year and a half have been particularly challenging for the college and I believe there is a lot of work that needs to be done,” Wacker told The Quadrangle. “Some of this work, such as the work of the Diversity Council and Shared Governance are overdue, and other jobs, like rebuilding financial capacity are a direct response to the past year and a half.”
O’Donnell asserts that the working groups will achieve this work as described by Wacker.
“These are problem-solving groups meant to be small and agile, and able to take a look at the specific ways that we can make this pivot to be more efficient, more effective and more able to invest in growth in the institution and to move forward by diversifying revenue, by being smarter in the alignment of our programs for undergraduates, by being stronger in retention, and for a financial aid model that is just as effective and powerful as possible,” O’Donnell added at the meeting.
The president also explained that while some of these groups are already in the process of researching and discussing issues, the actual census for this year has not yet been released. Until the census is released, there is no way for administrators to finalize a budget for this academic year.
“At this time of year we’re still in an uncertain position with the budget revenue,” O’Donnell said. “Until we get the census until we get the official lists of students who are actually attending classes, and we get the census of who’s in our residence halls, it’s really hard for us to have any specificity with regards to the actual number that we’re dealing with for the year.
As of Sept. 20, however, O’Donnell reported that there were 753 new students attending classes and 106 transfer students. This means that as of last week, the enrollment is right around the June budget goal of 750 new students and slightly below its goal of 125 transfer students.
In terms of on-campus housing occupancy projections, the college reports a rise from 1,200 students in June to 1,319 students in September. While housing is a major revenue source for the college, O’Donnell also addressed a retention rate of returning students to be about 69 students below its goal.
In terms of finance regarding the recent damages caused by Tropical Storm Henri and Hurricane Ida, the president seems optimistic.
“We made claims in a timely manner and those funds seem to be flowing back right into the institution,” O’Donnell said in regards to the damages caused by Tropical Storm Henri.
While the college has not yet reported receiving funds for damages caused by Hurricane Ida, O’Donnell told the senate that claims had been made and the administration is awaiting a similar response.
The working groups remained an essential topic for the meeting, with specific attention from faculty on the “Shared Governance” group.
Maeve Adams, Ph.D., senate member and professor of English, raised questions about the forming of this group and why she and other senate members hadn’t heard of the groups have begun work.
“Some of [the working groups] are already up and running and producing results and producing changes, some of [the working groups] are still being populated and staffed and charged,” O’Donnell said in response. “But definitely those teams will be a matter of public knowledge to all, and we’ll be inviting people to be engaged in the process.”
Provost Steven Schreiner, who is also a member of the senate, added that the groups had already been informed so that there could be some kind of foundation built and a message crafted for the community, so the community would hear a clearer version of the groups’ purpose and mission.
“There will be a broad discussion about that among all constituents, that’s coming so stay tuned,” Schreiner said at the meeting.
Richard Gustavson, Ph.D., senate member and professor of mathematics, expressed concern about the way groups had begun work.
“My concern is the lack of transparency in the creation and inner workings of these groups,” Gustavson wrote to The Quadrangle. “While faculty were consulted in the creation of the Shared Governance working group, it was not clear if any other campus constituencies, including faculty, staff, and students, were involved in the creation and staffing of any of the others. In order for these groups to be successful, they need voices from the entire campus community, and that does not seem to be what is actually happening at this point.”
Wacker adds to this sentiment, and told The Quadrangle, “I believe the success of these working groups will very much depend on who is on them and hope to see that the membership reflects the diversity of the college and all committees have representation from key stakeholders (including faculty, students, and staff).”
O’Donnell emphasized that he intends for these groups to be fluid so that there are constantly groups ending and beginning. He explained that the groups should address specific issues, create plans and find solutions in an efficient and effective way.
“I was concerned that those committees were formed with fairly limited input from faculty but am hopeful that, given what he said about those focus groups being “fluid” that more robust principles of co-governance will be allowed to inform the recomposition of those groups going forward,” Adams wrote via email.
O’Donnell told The Quadrangle that these initial groups, such as Shared Governance, were formed by having conversations with vice presidents, directors, deans, and “those who work on the ground.”
At the meeting, O’Donnell reported that Amy Handfield, senate speaker for faculty and assistant director for the library, and Margaret Groarke, Ph.D., chair of the Council of Faculty Affairs and political science professor, were brought in to establish the Shared Governance group.
O’Donnell cited Handfield and Groarke as “people with a big vision of the college and people to help us understand the shared vision of governance.”
O’Donnell emphasized again the importance of these working groups to help invest in ways that would grow revenue for the college, and also for there to be an effort to further diversify the alumni activity at the college.
Groarke agreed, saying at the meeting that the alumni pool should extend beyond older generations and those that attended the engineering school.
Faculty at the meeting expressed concern in regards to the actual budgeting of proposed revenue, specifically in regards to restoring salary and benefits that had been cut in the last year.
“There have been no decisions made on whether the money would be applied to benefits, or towards salary,” O’Donnell told the senate. “I think everybody that is in the conversation is looking for guidance from the community so that we make these decisions in a way that we’re as attentive as possible
to the various needs of individuals. That’s very much under consideration and no decisions have been made. And hearing opinions on that is very important.”
O’Donnell and Schreiner expressed that there was no set timeline for the restorations to be announced or decided and that the restorations would happen over time, rather than complete restoration at once.
“There should be careful consideration of how to distribute limited funds,” Wacker wrote via email. “The Faculty Welfare Committee, which has already given their guidance to the president on this topic, has done an excellent job of representing the best interests of faculty throughout the entire process of budget constraints and I appreciate their hard work and advocacy for faculty. At the senate meeting, the president indicated he wanted more groups, including the senate, to weigh in on this matter and thus I am happy to reach out to my constituents, gather their feedback, and represent their interests.”
The census is reported to be discussed at the Oct. 21 Board of Trustees meeting, and a conversation with the community will then come to discuss a revised budget.
At the senate meeting, O’Donnell did agree to have the administration create a document that outlines possible options and tradeoffs that the senate members can bring to their constituents and provide feedback.
“It’s really crucial that we ensure that our voices are being heard, something that has been challenging during a pandemic that made it difficult to connect meaningfully with one another,” Adams told The Quadrangle. “It’s an opportunity to reaffirm and clarify what we mean by co-governance and how we can genuinely pursue it.”