Part III: Market values and human values

By Justin Henry, Editor in chief

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Ithaca College had to raise funds for IC 20/20 while keeping tuition low and discount rates high. The Institutional Effectiveness and Budgeting Committee (IEBC) met with departments across the college to negotiate cost cutting wherever possible, including unnecessary catering expenses and staff personnel. The budgets at the time describe their use of financial practices known as “zero based budgeting” and “strategic sourcing”.

“Zero based budgeting” described the IEBC’s process of meeting with the various institutional departments to determine if their expenses were “needs” or “wants”. If they were deemed “wants”, “strategic sourcing” required them to be reallocated to an area of the budget which supported the re-envisioned student experience of IC 20/20 and a low cost of attendance.

David Turkon, associate professor in the department of anthropology, said the competition for financial resources has led departments to compete among each other for operational funds at annual meetings with the IEBC. Turkon said if an anthropology professor retires, that position will likely be filled by part-time professor or no professor at all, depending upon the support from student income.

“If anthropology loses a faculty member, that faculty member is not replaced, unless we can show that we have the numbers among our students to justify replacement of that line,” Turkon said. “It puts us in competition with other programs to attract the most number of students that we can.”

Political cartoon featured at the faculty union voting booth

These financial practices manifested a new mantra for the administration’s budget allocations: Value = Quality/Cost. Carl Sgrecci, former vice president of business and finance, wrote in the 2013-14 budget narrative that the entire school was to adopt this approach to evaluating expenses.

This equation expresses the cheaper something is, the more likely it is going to be valued and implemented by the administration.  Conversely, the more expensive something is, the more value it must offer the student experience for it to be supported with funds. And the most valuable asset, the college discovered, was a competitively low cost of attendance.

Whether professors liked it or not, annual meetings with the IEBC would be dedicated to evaluating whether a new tenure-track higher, a long term investment in a scholar’s career, was a “need” or a “want”. If it decided it was a “want”, that money would be reallocated to support IC 20/20 and keeping tuition low.

In response to faculty who feel devalued by this new model, Chris Biehn, vice president of business and finance, said the administration may have neglected to be more transparent in the college’s use of funding.

“I think what we haven’t done is help everybody understand that…colleges like Ithaca College have to be focused on cost and value,” Biehn said. “We have to reduce the increase level that grows each year in cost and at the same time we have to continue to provide greater and greater value to our students and to ensure student success and to enhance student experience.”

By “investing” in the student experience, the college not only attracts tuition money from prospective students but provides long-term financial sustainability.

“The more we enhance the student experience, the more you have a successful alumni body, the more successful you’ll be as a college but you also do well in the world and that’s what we want,” Biehn said.

Here begins the split between faculty and administration: administrators begin to “invest” in profitable features in attempt to make way for the college’s future, however, the college’s community members resist the terms of quantification. Professors in the humanities are forced to confront a threatening question: how can the administration quantify the “value” of liberal arts learning? And if they can, is it as “valuable” as technical and professional training?

By the 2014-15 academic year, IC 20/20 had integrated into the college’s operations and value=quality/cost was the administration’s operating mantra. Supporting these efforts and keeping tuition low justified broad cuts across the budget.

“We are lowering our rate of increase in tuition and increasing the discount rate, which both affect the net tuition negatively,” wrote former Vice President of Business and Finance Gerald Hector in the budget narrative for the 2014-15 academic year. “The consequence of these actions puts a new emphasis on reducing operating expenses since there will be less net tuition revenue to pay for them.”

During the 2013-14 academic year, the college’s budgeting team successfully reclaimed $1 million dollars in positions deemed “vacant or redundant”, according to the budget narrative, and planned to reclaimed another $2 million the next year.

For many faculty and staff, these practices have created a “culture of fear” according to an open letter campaign during the Fall 2016 semester published in The Ithacan, the college’s foremost student-led news source.

Allocations to specific IC 20/20 initiatives are difficult to report since the budgets don’t record allocations to them for fiscal years beyond that of 2011-12 when they only amounted to 171 thousand dollars. By the 2014-15 academic year, Hector wrote in the budget narrative that IC 20/20 can be considered as having been integrated into each of the lines of expenses.

A great deal of funds, however, were allocated to the Office of Institutional Advancement led by Vice President Chris Biehn. During the 2012-13 and 2014-15 academic years, the college invested over 17 million dollars in institutional advancement which returned 15.4 million dollars on top of making back the original 17 million dollars.

But this was money the faculty never saw, unless their department was included as a “need” to support IC 20/20. For as long as the college remains so dependent upon tuition income, the strongest claim they would make for funding was income from high student enrollment.

Therefore, some departments garner consistent funds from the college since the college receives consistent funds from students in those respective majors—like business administration and integrative marketing and communications. Other departments with lower rates of student income—like anthropology and outdoor adventure and leadership—struggle to receive support from the college and gain a second class status.

Click here to read Part IV: A lost liberal arts dream

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