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Bradley University faculty warn of 'irreversible' damage to institution if academic cuts proceed

A statue of Bradley University founder Lydia Moss Bradley stands in the Founder's Circle on campus.
A statue of Bradley University founder Lydia Moss Bradley stands in the Founder's Circle on campus.

Bradley University faculty fear a tight deadline for spending cuts will irrevocably alter educational quality on the Hilltop for the worse.

Bradley University President Stephen Standifird this summer publicly announced the institution needs to permanently slash $13 million in spending to avoid future cost overruns. That marks a 10% reduction in overall operational spending. The program cuts will be determined by the end of 2023.

Bradley faculty say the process is moving far too quickly, and that academics will disproportionately shoulder an overwhelming majority of the cost-slashing to the permanent detriment of the institution. Bradley's American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter outlined its concerns in a September letter to the university's board of trustees.

The association claims that around $10 million of the cuts would come from academics, even though academic spending only represents about 37% of the overall budget. By their math, around a third of the total full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty would be laid off. That's around 100 people.

Ahmad Fakheri, president of the Bradley AAUP, said cuts that large would have an "irreversible" effect on the Hilltop institution.

"That would be in addition to what has happened. We have already let go of a large number of faculty. The class sizes have increased significantly and the resources are not as readily available as they used to be. And further cuts are going to significantly change the nature of Bradley," he said. "I don't believe it is going to be what we have promised the students who come here."

John Nielsen is vice president of the Bradley AAUP. He said the looming cuts already are impacting professors negatively.

"The faculty is very nervous. The faculty is terrified. I think for all the faculty that are tenure track right now, they are legitimately afraid for their jobs," Nielsen said. "I'm tenured; I'm afraid for my job. It's a really unpleasant situation. And we didn't need to come to this place."

Standifird declined an interview with WCBU, but university spokesperson Libby Derry provided written responses to most of the questions a reporter posed. She said no cost-cutting recommendations are made yet as it pertains to the $10 million number. When asked if a third of tenured and tenure-track faculty are facing potential job losses, Derry explained the process.

"A University Senate-elected faculty review committee, as well as the university deans and the provost, have been working with detailed data sets and conducting audits and inquiries to help inform both program and cost saving recommendations. Bradley University will share these recommendations after they are reviewed by the president and have been communicated to the campus community," Derry said.

The Bradley AAUP takes issue with both how the process is playing out, and much of the data used to justify it.

Nielsen said program assessments should be done in accordance with the faculty handbook.

"This is a blunt instrument being used to try to do some very delicate cutting, and again, AAUP acknowledges the need to make some cuts. That's indisputable. But there is a process in place for doing that," he said. "The handbook even lays that out. We can even eliminate departments and programs. But it should be done for educational considerations solely, and not for financial considerations."

The AAUP is urging the board of trustees to slow down the timeline for academic restructuring and cuts. Fakheri said the university can do that since it can lean on other financial lifelines that can buy the time needed to work out better solutions. That includes available cash surpluses, and if it were needed, tapping the university endowment. It was valued at more than $350 million in May 2022.

"We need to let the calmer heads prevail. We need to take our time and try to decide what exactly it is that we need to do before we do serious damage," Fakheri said.

In the September University Senate minutes, president Standifird said there's two reasons to get the academic program assessments done by the end of the semester: balancing the budget to improve relationships with bankers and bond covenants; and removing the cloud of uncertainty on campus that's creating stress and anxiety.

The covenants have been a particular topic of concern among faculty, who say they're largely in the dark as to what the issues may be there. Earlier this month, the Bradley AAUP chapter requested detailed explanations as to what happened with the covenants and what the bankers are demanding.

"There are some rumors as to what may have happened, but the university the administration needs to be a lot more transparent to try to explain to us why we are in the situation that we are, and why what is being proposed is necessary," Fakheri said.

In response to a question about whether problems with loan covenants or payments are contributing to Bradley's challenges, Derry attributed the current financial challenges to a variety of factors, including lower than expected enrollment, changes in the economic climate, and increasing operational costs. She noted these trends aren't unique to Bradley.

But Ahmed Fakheri said he's puzzled because things seemed to be okay as recently as this past spring.

"We were under the impression that we are doing financially fine. There are some enrollment issues, but by and large, we are fine," he said. "And then all of a sudden in summer and then in the fall we are faced with this new proposal."

The AAUP has suggested some next steps of its own to the university's board of trustees. Among other recommendations, the Bradley AAUP chapter in September asked for the adminisration to reaffirm its mission as a "predominantly undergraduate comprehensive residential university," and called for a collaborative effort between faculty and administration to figure out how online education fits into the university's broader mission.

Derry said internet-based education is a priority based on demand.

"Bradley will continue to invest in online offerings because that is what many of today's students want and ask for. These offerings work in concert with Bradley's portfolio of traditional (in person) undergraduate and graduate level offerings," Derry said.

Another AAUP ask was for an breakdown of the athletic department's finances that would include a cost/benefit analysis of maintaining Division I status with the NCAA, versus switching to Division III.

The university's fiscal year 2021 Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service indicated Bradley subsidized athletics by about $7.5 million, after subtracting scholarship expenses.

Derry said athletics aren't part of an academic assessment, but she noted the department goes through an annual review to assess operational costs, adding the NCAA division change isn't something that would be seriously considered.

Fakheri said the AAUP isn't necessarily calling for athletic or administrative cuts, but he believes everything needs to be on the table if academics are expected to face drastic reductions that would harm the university's educational mission.

"It doesn't make much financial sense or business sense to undermine your one product when the rest of the operations that are here basically to support that more or less seem to be immune from any cuts," he said.

Nielsen said the board of trustees hasn't formally acknowledged the letter, though some indications of sympathy have come through back channels.

"We have not received any official response. And that silence is telling," he said.

Fakheri has worked at Bradley for nearly four decades. He said he's seen many changes over his career, and many of them were for the better. But this latest discussion gives him reasons for pause.

"I am concerned about the future of Bradley. And so if I as a faculty am, I suspect that others who are interested in Bradley should also be concerned, that this is worth asking some questions (about)," he said.

Per the meeting minutes, Standifird told the University Senate in September he intends to follow the faculty review committee's program assessment recommendations, provided that they make $10 million in cuts. Derry said final decisions should be made by the end of the fall semester, in mid-December.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.
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