By Zahra Ndirangu
A 3% tuition increase. Fees increase. Shrinking enrollment. A projected $25 million budget deficit. Reduced faculty positions. State mandated 7% merit increases. Temporary elimination of three-year contracts. Faculty protests. An unresolved statewide budget.
Virginia Commonwealth University has a number of challenges to navigate as it works through its budget process for the upcoming year.
VCU has approximately a $1.5 billion annual budget, according to Karol Kain Gray, the university’s senior vice president and CFO of finance and budget. But it does not have enough incoming money that can be spent on general education funds.
“There is a misconception unfortunately among our academic community that we have  million dollars of money sitting in the bank that we can use in support of these budget cuts and faculty salaries,” Gray said. “And we don’t.”
VCU actually has a bigger reserve of almost $650 million, from gifts, federal money and investments. But “well over half” of the funds have specific designations and use limits, according to Gray.
“We don’t have enough state support,” Gray said. “We don’t have enough income coming in from our investments and we don’t have enough funds coming in from our philanthropic area.”
The budget pressure has led to a proposed elimination of 10-12 faculty positions in the Department of Focused Inquiry that could start as soon as the fall, and would apply to future contracts that would not be renewed.
In addition, VCU will defer the issuance of any new three-year contracts for any university term faculty, until there is less budget uncertainty, according to William Nelson, senior vice provost for academic administration and operations. Term faculty do not have tenure, and longer contracts can provide a sense of more job security.
Current three-year contracts will be honored. Nelson also said that many focused inquiry faculty will have “at least a year’s notice, some of them more” if their contract is not renewed.
“We will resume offering three-year contracts where it makes sense to do so,” Nelson said. “We’re not abandoning three-year contracts.”
Gray has to present a budget to the VCU Board of Visitors in June.
“And the only way I can balance the budget is by putting cuts on every unit and holding them responsible for meeting their budget,” Gray said. “Every unit at VCU has received about a 5% cut.”
Some departments are able to hit the 5% cuts by keeping positions vacant, or because teachers are retiring.
The Department of Focused Inquiry currently has 64 faculty and staff, according to its website.
Focused inquiry classes are required for all students on campus and are typically taken in a student’s freshman year. There are 1-3 sequential courses, with at least the first one required for most students. The fundamental premise behind the starter courses is to introduce and develop student reasoning, communication, literacy and communication skills.
The department will need to adapt to the upcoming budget cuts, Nelson said. There are options on the table such as shifting to a two-course model and dropping the third option, which could keep more classes open, he said.
“I think there’s several options on the table that we can consider to make sure that we stay committed to focused inquiry and to our students,” Nelson said.
He noted that the department has made significant contributions to the university.
“But the contributions of the past don’t make you immune to evolving and budget pressures of today,” Nelson said.
Assistant professor Emily Williams has been at VCU over a decade and she currently teaches focused inquiry.
The courses have aided in retention rates among students of color and first-generation students, Williams said.
“The sequence has always been crafted in order to have a whole structure of support for students and we have made a difference in student retention rates, particularly with underrepresented minority students,” Williams said.
The focused inquiry department completes much of the work and student support that VCU prides itself on, according to Williams.
“They hire people in those administrative categories, framing that as a form of support for students while trying to fire the people who are more directly connected to students and supporting them face to face,” Williams said.
Class capacity for the focused inquiry courses is around 21 students, according to Williams. The number of students per course section will increase if the department loses faculty.
VCU promotes the “small, seminar style” classes as an important part of ensuring first-year success. Larger class sizes will limit important feedback and support for freshmen, Williams said.
“Those kinds of things can really shift and give students the sense that they are less individually supported,” she said.
VCU has offered over 100 of the classes, listed under UNIV, each semester since at least 2013, according to a review of the VCU Bulletin — used by students to register for classes. Almost all of the classes were full in the most recent spring semester, and many had waitlists.
Psychology major and rising sophomore Kennedy Ogden was enrolled in focused inquiry courses both semesters of her first year and found them helpful.
“I got to be more of an individual than when it comes to other class assignments because previously everything else has a very strict rubric, but this one it’s like you’re graded based on your performance and how you’re going to interpret the instructions,” Ogden said.
The course helped Ogden find community and adjust socially as a first-generation college student, she said.
The Faculty Senate, a body of university-wide elected representatives, recently voted 95% in favor of a resolution that supports keeping focused inquiry faculty. The resolution asked VCU not to reduce the number of full-time faculty. It was sent to President Michael Rao, Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos and the Board of Visitors, according to a review of the resolution provided by Williams.
VCU Workers is the university chapter of the labor union United Campus Workers of Virginia. In reaction to the budget cuts, the group has held protests, social media information campaigns and a recent meeting.
The chapter hosted a town hall on May 3. They maintain that the university does not have a financial crisis. A UCW lead researcher pointed to at least $500 million in reserves. It is the money Gray said is designated for specific purposes and not general education.
The union said that VCU could have better anticipated the dip in funding. UCW called on the university to resolve the budget gap through reserve funds, credit use and cuts to planned construction.
The VCU UCW Instagram is a platform for faculty to voice their concerns, and to help to connect students and faculty, Williams said. The UCW Virginia union launched a petition to keep the focused inquiry positions. It has over 1,400 signatures.
“We believe in a unified vision of what VCU should be and that we’re working towards that,” Williams said.
Will you help support independent, local journalism?
We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.