Webster University’s Faculty Senate sent a letter to the Board of Trustees to express concerns over the administration’s handling of Webster’s worsening financial picture.
“We, the Faculty Senate, fear that Webster’s finances are deteriorating so rapidly that, unless substantial changes are made soon, Webster’s future is in jeopardy,” the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Journal, read.
Faculty Senate President Gary Renz and all 16 members signed the letter and sent it on April 17. Webster’s annual revenue went down by $18 million between fiscal year (FY) 2011 and 2017, according to 990 tax documents.
The letter mentions Webster’s operating surpluses becoming deficits the past three years. Webster’s operating activities’ expenses for the FY 2016-2017 exceed the revenue by $13.9 million according to Webster’s 2016-2017 Audited Financial Statement.
Amid the worsening budget climate, Webster President Elizabeth Stroble received a 7.6 percent total compensation increase in the latest fiscal year (2015-16) for which tax documents are available. Stroble made $580,154, according to tax forms. University Provost Julian Schuster received a 3.1 percent total compensation increase in the same period. Schuster made $368,026 in total compensation, according to tax forms.
The letter, according to professor and Faculty Senate member Debbie Psihountas, is an invitation for the Board to work together with the faculty to find solutions for Webster’s financial crisis.
The letter begins, “As the elected representatives of the Webster University faculty, we feel it is our duty to convey our alarm to you, the Board of Trustees, because Webster’s administration has been unable to rectify the university’s financial problems … [We] urge you … to initiate collaboration.”
Psihountas, a professor of finance and the chair of the Faculty Salary and Fringe Committee, has been at Webster for 17 years. She said she never met anyone from the Board of Trustees and can only name a couple of them. She said all meetings and decisions are made between the administration and the Board, hence the letter calls for more collaboration with the faculty.
“This is the first time where Senate has ever reached out directly to the board of directors and they did so because we’re all very, very worried about the financial situation,” Psihountas said.
Public Relations Director Patrick Giblin gave a statement on behalf of the administration addressing the situation.
“These are challenging times for higher education with many institutions facing uncertain market conditions and the changing demographics of students we serve. These times require the entire community to work together to meet students’ evolving needs and to improve the University’s academic and financial position,” the statement read.
Professor Ted Green said the Faculty Senators researched, reflected, discussed, debated and spent months deciding how to save Webster. Green signed the letter.
“After several years of seeing Webster University in a downward spiral, the Faculty Senate had to finally voice the communities concerns,” Green said. “I can tell you it was not taken lightly, nor was it a knee jerk reaction.”
The letter also mentions the decline in the net cash flow provided by or used in operating activities. The net cash flow has been declining since the academic year 2012-2013 and reached negative $541,865 in the 2016-2017 academic year.
“The ongoing operating deficits have reduced Webster’s liquidity and, if not addressed, may lead to insolvency … Operating deficits and negative cash flows must stop if Webster is to survive, much less prosper,” the letter read.
English Professor Karla Armbruster has been at Webster for 20 years. She said the decline in revenue is a trend and every year the administration goes through a panic to try and fix it. However, Armbruster said the administration needs to revisit its strategic plan and think about a new structure to follow.
“Unless we have leadership willing and able to engage everybody in hard conversations, and I don’t mean putting a survey online, I mean real human beings, talking to each other and disagreeing and considering new ideas and coming to consensus, which is really hard,” Armbruster said. “I think we owe it to our students and to ourselves as an institution to have this conversation anyway.”
The letter pointed out two fundamental causes for the financial crisis; Webster’s operating expenses are high and Webster “is not adapting to the changing education environment, which has led to declining enrollments.”
Student enrollment at the United States campuses has declined by 28.3 percent from fall 2009 and fall 2016 according to the federal Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System. Lindenwood University’s enrollment increased by 4.3 percent and Maryville University’s enrollment increased by 67.5 percent during the same time period.
The decline in enrollment means a decline in the net tuition revenue. The total net revenue from tuition and fees declined by almost $21 million between academic years 2011 and 2016. “Webster’s operating revenues are largely driven by net tuition revenue,” the letter read.
“Crafting the letter to the Board of Trustees was just the first step in trying to get our university back on the right track,” Green said. “We look forward to meetings, open communication and a voice for all faculty, staff, students, administrators and the Board of Trustees to work together to achieve success. We voiced concerns and took action on behalf of the majority of the community.”