October 1, 2016

Webster University expecting budget shortfall of around $7 million

Webster University expects a budget shortfall of around $7 million, President Elizabeth Stroble told faculty Tuesday. She said the university will have to make budget cuts during the remainder of the spring semester.

This is the fourth consecutive year Webster’s budget has come up short. Stroble attributes the university’s latest shortfall to decreasing enrollment, a trend that has been present in each year of shortfalls since 2012.

Stroble said the university’s loss of students came primarily from outside of the Webster Groves campus at extended campuses. She said recultivating declining enrollment at some locations would be difficult.

At a 2014 faculty assembly, Provost Julian Schuster said 75 percent of Webster’s tuition revenue comes from graduate enrollment, while undergraduate students make up the remaining 25 percent. He said 95 percent of Webster’s total revenue  comes from tuition dollars.

In December, a preliminary enrollment report showed Webster’s total student head count dropped by more than 1,600 students this academic year compared to last year. The drop marked a continuation of a five-year decline in enrollment, according to preliminary enrollment data at the time.

Graduate and undergraduate enrollment dropped by 9.5 percent and 6.2 percent respectively this year, compared to the previous year. Graduate enrollment fell by 1,348 students, and undergraduate enrollment dropped by 305 students, according to a publicly-available disclosure to Webster’s bondholders.

In the past five years, Webster’s combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment has declined by 4,166, or 23 percent. Graduate enrollment has fallen by 3,904 students while undergraduate enrollment has dropped by 262.

Stroble and Schuster discussed several concerns at a meeting of the faculty assembly. Stroble and Schuster also did a question-and-answer with faculty to respond to their concerns they may not have gotten to during their initial discussion.

The faculty assembly provided a handout with seven areas of concerns and 39 specific topics the faculty asked Stroble and Schuster to touch on at the meeting.

Stroble said the university will be taking a close look at its budget in the next month and needs to do strategic restructuring of its academic programs.

After announcing shortfalls in previous years, the university listed areas where it would tighten budgets. In late 2014, during a $12.2 million shortfall, the university made several cuts which included:

Vacant positions would not be automatically filled. Future vacant positions would have their funding put into a central budget pool.

Reevaluated and restructured extended campuses to make them more financially viable.

Looked at long term changes as opposed to balancing that year’s budget.

All units within the university were expected to finish the year on funds already distributed

The university has not released any official information on specific budget cuts for the spring semester. In fiscal year 2013 – 2014, after a projected shortfall,  Webster was able to balance its budget by making cuts and avoiding a shortfall by the end of its fiscal year.

A faculty member raised concerns about several “risky investments” Webster has made, including the Interdisciplinary Science Building (IDS)  and the Arcade renovation in downtown St. Louis. Stroble assured faculty these investments were important for attracting new students. She said the Webster way is to take intelligent risks, rather than to stay stagnant.

Stroble said without the IDS, Webster would be turning away students wishing to study science and technologies due to Webster’s current facilities. The Arcade Building, she added, was essential to the downtown campus because the university did not see the value of extending its lease in the Old Post Office for another 20 years after 2019. The Arcade Building’s renovation was completed in early January and is the university’s newest edition to the downtown Gateway campus.

During Tuesday’s meeting, faculty also questioned Webster’s spending decisions regarding the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence. One of the faculty’s concerns about the team was how it balanced in comparison to the university’s athletics program. It was listed under the strategic spending category at the meeting.

Stroble said the chess team’s operational cost was well under the operational cost for Webster’s athletic programs.

Editor’s note: At Faculty Assembly Meetings, The Journal is allowed to attend as long as reporters agree not to directly quote speakers without their consent. President Elizabeth Stroble told a Journal reporter she did not want to be directly quoted at this meeting. The Journal will update this story as it develops.

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