Faculty fret $4M budget deficit, while Texas A&M-SA says financial position is ‘strong’

Provost called causes of deficit a ‘comedy of errors’ in a recorded town hall with faculty

SAN ANTONIO – In the face of a reported $4 million hole in the current year’s budget, the administration at Texas A&M University-San Antonio claims all is well.

Faculty, though, have been left wondering about the university’s financial health and are skeptical of its budgeting practices.

Provost Michael O’Brien told professors and lecturers during a Nov. 22 faculty town hall the university had a budget shortfall of $4 million “as of today.” O’Brien attributed the shortfall to a “comedy of errors” during the town hall, which was recorded on Zoom.

“The shortfall came all over the place -- not put in the right categories. Monies were spent twice. That’s the big problem that we have,” O’Brien said.

In a Nov. 10 email ahead of the meeting, O’Brien reassured staff “that although we’re in a deficit right now, we are not planning ANY (sic) reduction in force. None—although we might not fill vacant faculty lines in the timeframe that we collectively might like.”

However, during the Nov. 22 town hall, O’Brien warned of the loss of positions that had been funded through Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) -- one-time federal dollars from the various pandemic relief bills.

“We’ve got a lot of personnel that we’re going to end up losing because normally we would say, ‘Alright, let’s create a line and put them on it.’ We don’t have any money for lines,” O’Brien said.

Faculty Senate President Joe Simpson, an associate professor of sociology, said he had learned of several contributing factors to the deficit through his role on the University Resources Commission, which oversees budgetary items for the university.

The state’s mandated budget cuts, mistakes in budgeting for positions, and overestimating enrollment growth all played a part, Simpson said.

While the faculty town hall did not include a line-by-line explanation of where revenues fell short or where cuts might be made, there was mention of “professional development” funds, which are used to pay for trips to conferences and research fellowships. Each professor typically gets $2,000, though a portion of the money goes to their department.

At one point, that money was going to be cut drastically, Simpson said, but it was later restored with the use of reserve funds.

That money would only amount to a portion of the entire $4 million deficit, though, and Simpson was unaware of what other cuts may have been made, which concerned him.

“So the last URC meeting, I said, basically, we asked for a full budget review. I think that all of the departments’ budgets need to be looked through. If we can find cost savings to help with -- I mean, we have to have some plan, some, you know, agreed upon plan,” Simpson said.

Scott Gage, an associate professor of English and the chapter president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said the return of the professional development funds didn’t assuage his concerns over the budget either.

“Not even a little bit,” he told KSAT.

Gage said his time at another university had taught him that issues with smaller pools of money are potential warning signs of larger problems ahead.

“At my previous institution, it went from professional development funds to cutting programs to firing faculty,” Gage said.

LACK OF OVERSIGHT?

Gage also said the budget process is “opaque,” and there’s minimal faculty oversight, saying the URC’s work is done “largely in the dark.”

“They don’t share minutes. They don’t share agendas. They don’t communicate with the campus community about their decisions. And so there’s no faculty oversight, and that leaves us without administrative accountability,” Gage said, though he noted there are faculty members on the commission.

During the faculty town hall, O’Brien went so far as to call the URC, of which he is co-chair, a “rubber stamp.” He told the audience he had had dinner with university President Cynthia Teniente-Matson and Vice President for Business Affairs Kathy Funk-Baxter, his URC co-chair, and had told them “we’re going to restructure the URC.”

But what we’re going to do is the next meeting, for the hour, is no slides. No nothing,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to talk about what the URC should do.”

UNIVERSITY RESPONSE

Funk-Baxter down-played the budget concerns in an emailed statement provided through a university spokeswoman. It reads:

“Texas A&M University-San Antonio’s financial position is strong. During the past two years, the university embarked on a comprehensive budget review and planning process that included building reserves to invest in the university’s future. This year, a portion of the university’s expenses associated with strategic priorities in support of our growth was funded from reserves as a bridge funding mechanism. The strategy moving forward is to move such expenses into our base budget. Additionally, some expenses funded from reserves were of a one-time nature and necessary. Additional revenue is being driven from an even more robust and diverse enrollment investment strategy recently launched focused on transfer and graduate students. Overall, we have experienced a pattern of enrollment growth and anticipate continuing this pattern.”

MORE PROBLEMS?

Enrollment still seems to be an issue, though.

Faculty at the College of Arts & Sciences received an email from Dean Debra Feakes on Monday warning that 1,800 students had not yet registered for spring semester classes. That’s more than a quarter of the “nearly 6,500 students” the Texas A&M University-San Antonio website says the university currently serves.

Though Gage and Simpson both said registering later is a trend among the university’s students. Being asked to encourage students to register, as Feakes did in her email, though, is not.

“Nobody believes that there will be a huge exodus of these students from the university; however, it is difficult to plan without accurate enrollment data,” Feakes wrote. “I am concerned that we may be asked to reduce the numbers of sections.”

Should enough students fail to register, it could cause a further wrinkle in the university’s budget.

It’s not entirely tuition dependent, but we are dependent enough on tuition that like, yes, if enrollment drops, it creates a budgetary problem,” Gage said.


About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.