Budget transparency at private universities: Some thoughts about SCU

A few days ago, the Santa Clara University campus recreation unit sent an email to faculty and staff announcing that starting in the next academic year fees of $200 per year would be charged for use of the recreation facilities (gym, exercise room, courts, pool). These had been a free benefit of university employment. Faculty and staff were upset, and 100s of emails were shared, until 12 hours later when the university chief operating officer sent an email suspending the change.

The event was a lesson in poor management communication. Not lost on faculty and staff was the constant rhetoric of the university as an institution committed to the health and wellness of employees!

The action also tapped into a frustration with budget opacity.  I served in 2018-19 on an entity called the University Budget Council (UBC), part of our university’s shared governance system. The UBC in the past year did not discuss the recreation facility fee change. Should it have? The way the UBC worked ( it seemed from my first year of experience, and from talking with an earlier faculty representative) was to quickly vet modest changes from the previous year’s budget. Certain major unit heads (Provost for all academic units, IT, residence life, admissions, development) made a “pitch” for why they should get a possibly small increase (i.e. instead of 3% merit pool for salaries, a small increase to a 3.5% merit pool; or instead of 0% increase in budget for IT, a 1% increase). After 30 minutes of discussion in the UBC, these “pitches” were then adjudicated by Vice President for Finance Michael Crowley and his team, and a “compromise” was presented in followup meeting (about six meetings over the Fall quarter).

Informal practice has been to have no voting or UBC resolution of competing requests, instead the administration did that behind the scenes. I guess if major department heads really wanted to fight an allocation, they could push for a “constitutional crisis” and ask UBC to formally vote on their proposal. The UBC has no bylaws, though, so the mechanisms by which requests would be adjudicated have not been established (secret vote? who decides on wording of vote?). In any case UBC is part of the shared governance institution that in the end is advisory in that the Trustees ultimately decide on this “macro” budget.

I feel that my role in coming year as a member of UBC is to advocate within UBC and faculty senate for greater budget participation and transparency. Faculty and staff, for example, know next to nothing about the Athletics budget, for example. The administration will not, apparently, generate and share a university-wide report on adjunct salary structures, information that is crucial to addressing policy on compensation and unionization. The administration has embarked on extensive borrowing to fund large campus construction projects, but does not share “bad case” scenarios that might require drastic expenditure reductions.

The Faculty Senate voted a resolution several years ago to establish a long-term budget priorities committee. For three years the administration has contrived a variety of excuses for why this committee could not undertake its charge, even after agreeing in principle to the committee.  (Incidentally, want a model of what budget transparency can produce? See this white paper on football at San Jose State University.)

I also think the transparency issue was not so salient for faculty when university priorities seemed fully aligned with faculty priorities (during the 1990-2010 period?). As the administration has increasingly committed to a different path (increasing reliance on non-tenure track faculty, increased emphasis on elite athletics, greater investment in physical plant and student amenities over scholarship, gradual decline in “real” faculty salaries- that is, adjusted for Bay Area living costs) the questions about transparency become more important.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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