A national group of higher-education advisers has taken an interest in the financial situation at Hardin-Simmons University.
In response to program changes, including the pending closing of the Logsdon Seminary program and the move of the Logsdon School of Theology to the Cynthia Ann Parker College of Liberal Arts, the American Council for Trustees and Alumni sent a letter to university leadership expressing multiple concerns.
Chief among them, the letter states, is community perception.
HSU didn’t “appropriately encourage faculty participation” when assessing, prioritizing and closing programs.
“It would be wise for the board to address this perception by communicating clearly with the community at large and describing in detail the board’s deliberative process for academic program review,” the letter says.
Hardin-Simmons has restricted spring semester education to online only during the COVID-19 pandemics, and also postponed graduation until August.
How to help
The four-page letter, of which the Reporter-News has obtained a copy, also questions the university’s salary structure for administration, its new construction projects during a time of program cuts and the attitudes of alumni and donors toward recent actions.
While concerns were noted, a spokesman for ACTA said the council doesn’t typically represent a party in a dispute. Instead, it provides trustees with training and best practices.
ACTA reached out to the university to “help (educate) them on a few key tenets of trusteeship … focused on issues that may threaten accreditation, shared governance, program prioritization and the communication/transparency troubles the university seems to have had with donors.”
Hardin-Simmons said, in a statement, that it understands the topics raised by ACTA are important, and that’s why it is engaging all stakeholders about the changes previously announced.
“In the coming days and weeks, we’ll be sharing more about how our strategic plan will benefit not only our HSU family,” the university said, “but also the communities in which we live and serve, as we stand united in our mission of providing an education enlightened by Christian faith and values.”
Faculty important to the process
ACTA’s letter, signed by council President Michael B. Poliakoff, cites multiple university presidents from around the country as examples, including the University of Northern Colorado and Bemidji State University.
The latter of those recently faced a $5 million deficit, the letter says, but maintained a high level of transparency by explaining its budget to the community through a number of forums.
Faculty were “intensely involved” in Bemidji’s decisions.
These are the people who need to buy in, the letter says, as they serve as the most visible aspect of a student’s experience on campus.
“Hardly anything … is more vital to a university’s success than faculty morale,” the letter says. “Professors lead academic programs, oversee the curriculum, have full control over students’ experience in the classroom, and engage students in mentorship activities outside of class.
“Maintaining high levels of faculty morale in times of financial pressure is difficult. When institutions of higher learning face daunting challenges, especially budget challenges, university leaders must work to strengthen shared governance.”
Poorly explained decisions, the letter says, have “implications for academic freedom” as those who lack confidence in university leadership rarely engage in open discussions about the university’s future.
Leadership pay and ‘questionable’ strategies
ACTA, citing the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, said administration salaries saw significant increases between 2012-13 and 2018-19.
HSU employed 48 administrators in 2012-13 in either the “management” or “business & financial operations” categories, the letter said, at a cost of roughly $2.7 million. By 2016-17, a seven-year span, those employees cost the university almost $2.9 million, an increase of 8.2 percent.
But, the letter says, a 2018-19 human resources survey indicated that in two years, those categories received an additional $860,000, which equates to almost 30 percent in two years.
Over seven years, salary overlays in those two categories increased more than 40 percent, though total faculty salaries went up 3.5 percent over the same time period.
“While year-to-year fluctuations in reported data may occur for a variety of reasons, they are nonetheless worth investigating,” the letter says. “Note that these figures do not take into account the elimination of several dozen faculty lines in the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, which will almost certainly push salary outlay for faculty well below its 2012–13 level.”
HSU fired back in its statement, though, saying the faculty and staff are “qualified and valuable members of the HSU family and are responsible for maintaining the supportive, family-oriented atmosphere at HSU. We closely and carefully evaluate compensation for their essential roles on an annual basis and, according the latest data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, their salaries are in line with other universities.”
ACTA said this isn’t necessarily so.
HSU, the council said, has one more administrator in the two categories than the average of its peer universities, but in terms of enrollment, HSU is “significantly smaller.”
Retention, transfer out and graduation rates are also a cause for concern, “which makes shrinking their program portfolio without investment in new programs a highly questionable strategy from an enrollment management perspective.”
Buildings and costs
A 2018 finance survey indicted HSU had $11.8 million in construction value in progress, the letter says.
HSU said “new construction is necessary to maintain our campus infrastructure and (represents) a show of our faith for the future of the university. We are grateful for a variety of funding opportunities, project teams, foundations and donors that made possible renovations to several of our most used and beloved buildings, as well as critical infrastructure improvements.”
But ACTA questioned the decision to move forward with building facilities while cutting academic programs.
The council cited multiple news releases from HSU dating back to 2016, when the university secured $25 million in bonds from the city of Abilene “in order … to receive tax exempt, low-interest financing.”
These projects included HSU’s new apartments and its fitness center.
“Having reviewed HSU’s finance surveys going back to fiscal year 2010, we are concerned that debt related to property, plant, and equipment is rising much faster than net tuition revenue,” ACTA said in a follow-up email.
Loyalty isn’t there anymore
ACTA said its last major concern is the loss of confidence in the university by some of its alumni and major donors.
In citing recent program closures, like that of the seminary, the letter urges the university’s board to review any gift agreements.
Especially Logsdon, the letter says, “to ensure that HSU will always be viewed by its donor base as the most dependable of partners.”
In the followup email, ACTA said, “We understand that it is necessary for boards to make difficult decisions, such as cutting programs that are no longer financially sustainable. However, when cutting programs—particularly programs like the Seminary with such a devoted alumni base—it is critical that donor intent is honored throughout the process.”
ACTA cites a letter penned by retired Logsdon Dean Don Williford regarding potential issues with shutting down the Logsdon school.
Concerns about how the money is being spent are raised in Williford’s letter, which in turn led to ACTA including the issue in its letter.
ACTA is also offering support to an alumni group that has organized to help save HSU, with a memorandum expected to be released detailing their proposals by April 8, the council said.
As it has in previous statements, HSU said there never has been misuse of Logsdon Seminary funds.
“In reality, the annual deficit of the seminary has been funded by the university,” HSU’s statement said. “Unfortunately, the seminary has never been self-funding, even after taking donor gifts into account, which played a key role in our decision to close the seminary.”