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EDITORIAL: It’s time to hold WKU leadership to a higher standard

This story was originally published in the Nov. 6 newsmagazine.
Emilee Arnold
WKU president Timothy Caboni discusses budget overspending at a faculty senate meeting on Oct. 19. He discussed the $11 million overspend from last year, faculty and staff compensation and answered written faculty questions.

As students, we chose to attend Western Kentucky University out of love for the university and everything it offers. We live and learn on a beautiful campus where we are provided resources and activities that other universities do not have.

The university’s student-centered approach cultivates an engaging and lively atmosphere for young adults taking first steps into the rest of their lives. We are able to learn more deeply in smaller classes and build meaningful relationships with instructors that shape our futures in ways we never could have imagined.

No one will doubt that faculty are the backbone of this university and this system. They are quite literally shaping the future of each and every one of us, and for that, we each should be forever grateful.

It is only natural that faculty and staff should be properly compensated for their work, and this includes making sure they receive the proper raises each year for the work they do.

When the university faces budget problems, this becomes difficult, but the salaries of the rank-and-file faculty and staff should not be the first sacrifices made.

On Oct. 11, the Herald first reported that during the 2022-2023 academic year, WKU spent $11 million more than the revenue it generated that year, coming primarily from overspending in the athletics division and the enrollment and student experience division, as well as various one-time payments.

Time and time again, however, WKU President Timothy Caboni and other administration officials have stated that there is no budget problem at WKU. Caboni told the Staff Senate at its Oct. 11 meeting that “I want to be really clear: there is no budget deficit at the institution.” Susan Howarth, Executive Vice President for Strategy, Operations and Finance, has repeated the message.

In front of the Faculty Senate on Oct. 19, Caboni commanded the room, once again retorting, “We do not have a budget crisis, okay?” He provided a statement regarding salary increases, as well as answered a few written questions.

Caroline Chubb

At the same time, several top administrators are receiving large pay increases – ranging from an $11,160.72 increase for Howarth to a $37,452.80 raise for Terrance Brown, dean of the Potter College of Arts and Letters – while most other university employees were set to receive only a 1% pay raise.

Over the last year, the United States has seen high rates of inflation, impacting the prices of anything and everything on the market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, consumer prices rose 3.2% from July 2022 to July 2023. This is on top of the inflation levels that reached 8% during 2022.

Obviously, the faculty and staff members receiving raises cannot be cherry-picked; employees across the board should receive a raise because of current economic conditions. With the rise in inflation hitting everyone on this campus, a small raise such as 1% for most is creating a system of haves and have nots. And, intentionally or not, that creates an atmosphere that devalues the work done in the classrooms and in department offices across campus.

What does this mean? Quite plainly, a 1% raise for faculty and staff while those on top see much more substantial raises is a slap in the face.

In 2021, the Board of Regents approved a new base salary of $450,000 for Caboni, an increase from his starting salary of $416,016. At this same meeting, regents approved a 10% performance-based bonus for Caboni each year, as well as a deferred compensation plan that will be available to the president in full should he stay at the university through June 30, 2025.

Caboni’s salary currently sits at $468,180, according to the 2023-2024 WKU budgeted salary information.

Caboni told the Faculty Senate that he is feeling the struggle of inflation, too, and that he understands the struggles of a 1% raise. However, a 1% raise for his position equates to $4,681.80. This is in comparison to the 1,547 full-time faculty and staff employed by WKU who are making less than $100,000 annually and will receive a pay raise of less than $1,000.

Like other university presidents, Caboni’s home, car and utilities are provided for him, meaning he does not have to budget this out of his salary. Faculty and staff, however, feel this every month when they have to pay these expenses.

Factoring in taxes and increased health insurance premiums mean that by the time faculty and staff receive these raises, they may have enough extra money left over for a cup of coffee. Maybe.

On the other hand, WKU’s top paid leaders will be measurably better off, because after these deductions, they will still receive significantly more than the year prior.

This points to the central problem– a fundamental disconnect between top administrators and faculty and staff who are in the classroom and offices each and every day.

Aside from the sting of low salary increases for most WKU faculty, there are also plans to solve the “overspending problem.” Caboni has asked all the university’s departments to spend only 90% of their budgets this year. He told the Staff Senate and Faculty Senate that this is not a cut, it is “actually just managing our money well.”

During Caboni’s tenure, the year that came closest to his 90% spending target was fiscal year 2021, the year after the onset of COVID-19, in which spending was tightly controlled and came in at 91% of revenue.

In last year’s “spending issue,” the largest area in the university budget, Academic Affairs, did not overspend its budget. Yet Academic Affairs is being subjected to Caboni’s 90% target.

Have some areas of the university been spending extravagantly? Clearly. But to impose budget restrictions upon everyone, including Academic Affairs, simply is not fair. Those who overspent should be those reined in.

Statistics and charts provided by the university and published by the Herald on Oct. 12 break down over $8.3 million in overspending into areas including athletics, “physical plant and IT software related maintenance,” utilities and more.

Several of these expenditures – $4.017 million – fall under the purview of WKU’s Division of Strategy, Operations and Finance. This means about 36% of WKU’s overspending was in Howarth’s division.

She is receiving a raise of $11,161, setting her pay at $270,000. To outsiders, this looks like a reward for overseeing areas that were the source of a significant portion of WKU’s overspending last year.

The remainder of the overspend was attributed to the division of Enrollment and Student Experience ($740,000), one-time payments to eligible employees ($1,100,000) and to WKU Athletics ($1,770,000). The remaining amount, $2.67 million, is attributable to other “unbudgeted campuswide inflationary costs,” according to Renaldo Domoney, WKU’s assistant vice president for budget, finance and analytics.

As expected, high inflation had an impact on department expenditures, which helps to explain the overspend, and the university is now monitoring monthly to ensure an overspend does not happen again.

It also cannot be ignored that WKU has received less and less funding from the Kentucky General Assembly over the last several years. During the last budget session in 2022, WKU saw no base funding increase from the legislature, only asset preservation and performance-based funding. This is not the administration’s fault, and is no doubt a factor as to why more significant, across- the-board raises have not been granted.

What new funding the legislature has provided in recent years has been for specific purposes, such as performance funding, and not for general operations of Kentucky’s public universities. As a result of this targeted funding, combined with enrollment declines, WKU has been forced to cut, trim and adjust its budget for more than a decade now.

But that’s no excuse for spending $11 million more than the revenue WKU generated in fiscal year 2023. And it is no reason to punish everyone for the overspending that occurred in specific areas of the university.

In his Faculty and Staff Senate appearances, explaining his desire for various WKU’s departments to curb their spending below budgeted levels, Caboni did not accept responsibility for the overspending. Some of those who participated in these meetings felt he talked down to faculty and staff.

We agree.

At the Faculty Senate meeting, Caboni consistently removed any responsibility from himself, placing it on the deans and anyone else with an ounce of financial control. Over and over, he explained to those present the principles of good budgeting. At the end of his remarks, Caboni told the faculty that “you all have ultimate authority over our academic programs. What are you doing as an organization to push deans and faculty to think about it?”

Members of the Faculty Senate asked Caboni for the budget so they can examine it for themselves. Caboni dismissed this, saying “you wouldn’t understand it” and that faculty should instead “… trust your budget folks, trust your dean, trust your department chairs.”

His words stung, some who participated in the meeting remarked. In the Zoom chat room for the meeting, one faculty member commented: “That was insulting.” Another said: “If faculty talked to students the way the president talks to faculty…”

Caboni’s consistent choices in demeanor and rhetoric are striking. Leadership of an institution such as WKU should be collaborative. It is imperative that faculty be encouraged to have a stake in the university and its governance, yet Caboni is insisting they possess blind faith in a system he heads.

Choosing such rhetoric displays an unsettling detachment from faculty. If the administration truly understood the faculty’s concerns, they would accept responsibility to respond in a transparent, straightforward and respectful way. Instead, leadership continues to work as if nothing is wrong and that faculty concerns only harm the university.

Susan Eagle, public health professor and chair of Faculty Senate, said at the meeting: “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”

This couldn’t be closer to the truth.

While the university’s goals are to prepare students for adult life and successful careers, the backbone of this mission is the faculty and staff. Because of their work, students are able to develop as human beings and discover themselves.

When faculty are not properly compensated for their work and administrators receive substantial raises amid directives to cut spending, it signals a lack of appreciation from leadership. That can translate into a lack of desire to do the work. Faculty and staff are human beings with needs that must be fulfilled, and they deserve to know they are valued.

We, the members of the College Heights Herald Editorial Board, present this piece not out of vindictiveness but love for this university and the faculty and staff we learn from and work with every single day. This board represents a wide swath of campus – we are involved in many different organizations up and down the Hill, we come from many different colleges and we wish to see WKU thrive.

We recognize that while we don’t fully understand the complexities of a nearly $400 million budget, we see the value of the faculty we learn from. We stand by them.

They deserve to know that the administration values them as much as we value them and that every single person in the WKU community is grateful for the work that they do.

We understand that talking down to faculty and staff members and forcing their compliance is not good leadership. We also understand fairness, and penalizing areas that didn’t overspend is not fair.

Staff Senate

As college students, we do not wish to tell the administration how to do their jobs. But there are issues here, with overspending by some areas and undercompensating faculty and staff. The administration’s choice of how to deal with both has been insulting and unfair.

If you would like to submit a reaction to this editorial, a Letter to the Editor or other submission, please send it to [email protected] or to [email protected].