Faculty say forgiven debt unfair to other colleges

Schulz argues nature of Arts and Sciences debt justified absorbing into central budget

CODY COTTIER, Evergreen reporter

The decision to forgive the $3.2 million  College of Arts and Sciences debt struck some faculty as an unfair advantage for one college and a breach of President Kirk Schulz’s promise that each university unit would handle its own financial situation.

When Schulz announced the college’s debt forgiveness — meaning the central budget will absorb the debt — earlier this month, he wrote in a statement  the move would allow the incoming dean to start with a clean slate.

Michael Neff, a faculty senator representing the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, read a statement at a Faculty Senate meeting last week from one of his constituents, who argued Schulz’s reasoning seemed inconsistent.

“President Schulz has publicly stated that colleges are responsible for their own debt. He has said that repeatedly,” Neff read from the statement. “The … decision goes against those statements and is unfair to other colleges … that also recently completed dean searches.”

The Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture hired Mary Rezac as dean in July, the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences will have a new dean on June 1, and two finalists are vying for the deanship of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.

Although the colleges face similar challenges in this respect, Schulz said, the nature of the debt is different for the College of Arts and Sciences. He called it a “legacy debt,” accrued in the College of Sciences and the College of Liberal Arts before they merged in 2012 to become a single college.

Most of the debt came from startup funds provided to new faculty in the College of Sciences for research projects, said Larry Hufford, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. However, Hufford said Arts and Sciences has also contributed to the debt over the years, so it is not entirely a legacy of the old colleges. He said he does not know how much debt came from each.

Because most of the debt predates the college’s formation, Schulz said, he differentiates it from the debt of colleges that have overspent and mismanaged money in recent years. He said he thinks the debt should have been forgiven when the college formed.

“We believe the two [kinds of debt] are fundamentally different,” Schulz said.

Faculty Senate Chair Judi McDonald, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, met with Schulz on Monday to discuss concerns about the debt forgiveness. She agreed there is a distinction between debt as the result of overspending, and inherited debt.

“It’s older than the college itself,” she noted. “To say that the college has to continue to take responsibility for this was perhaps unfair.”

Neff and his constituents also took issue with the fact that Schulz went back on his statement that each area of the university would have to solve its own budgetary problems and no one else’s. He said contradictory statements and actions erode faculty trust.

“I think that the real issue here,” Neff said at the Faculty Senate meeting, “is that we … are being told something by the president, and then something that is completely different happens.”

Schulz said the debt forgiveness does not necessarily mean the university will divvy up the debt among other colleges, but that it is a financial obligation the university must pay somehow. With reserves running low, this means it will be some time before WSU can repay the debt.

“It’s not like we just wrote a big check and made it zero,” Schulz said. “What we did is moved a liability to the central university reserves, and we’re going to have to figure out how we want to recoup those particular funds.”

Weiler previously said that shifting the debt to WSU’s central budget would have university-wide implications, as “we will have to share the burden amongst everybody in the system.”

Schulz emphasized that forgiving the debt did not eliminate the college’s deficit spending, which they still have to reduce like other colleges.

He acknowledged some will disagree with the decision, but said that as president he will make those decisions he feels are best for the university.

“I don’t think there is any explanation I can give that is going to make everyone happy,” Schulz said. “But I want people to understand that it is a legacy debt,” and therefore should not be the college’s responsibility.