Though it might seem strange to the outside visitor, Fairfield University’s grass is part of a running joke. From students watching the sprinklers run during torrential downpours, to hearing the whir of lawnmowers at the break of dawn on a Sunday morning, Fairfield has always seemed to put a lot of time and money into the upkeep of the grass around campus.
“When I set foot on campus as a freshman, I loved how green and manicured the campus was. Now, as a rising senior, the grass irritates me. It is a constant reminder that the grass is worth more than the causes our campus should be supporting. This is funding that could be helping to sponsor grants, scholarships, funding for clubs or other aspects of student life that would aim to build community,” said Allison Smolinsky ‘21.
Yet, for once, Fairfield’s grass is brown. Big intermittent sections of dry barren patches now stretch across the lawns throughout campus. This is a typical occurrence after months of having no students on campus, and instead the deer fill up the spaces that the students have left. Fairfield U’s brown grass is leading many to believe that the state of the campus lawns is less of an accidental occurrence and more of an allegory for things to come.
Still in the midst of a national pandemic, colleges and universities are headed towards a financial reckoning. With the spring semester cut short and most instruction moved online, many schools had to refund room and board, parking passes and other aspects of student life that they could no longer offer. However, litigation battles still persist between universities and their students over whether online education equated to the roughly $50,000 tuition price that was still paid after these refunds.
Tuition for 2020-2021 at Fairfield University has been set at $50,550. The average cost per year for a four year private institution is $35,830. This $50,550 is only the tuition, it’s not including the cost for housing, a meal plan, health insurance, the hundreds of extra dollars spent on books or any extra fees of this sort. This extra $15,000 is seen as simply the cost of attending Fairfield University over its competitors; the cost of calling yourself a Stag.
Like many other local universities, Fairfield refunded a portion of the room, board and the parking pass costs from the Spring 2020 semester. Sent in an email on April 29 from Mike Trafecante, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Fairfield University, the refunds were broken down into specifics of what would actually be returned to students through where they lived and what meal plan they subscribed to. “These costs include principal and interest payments due on outstanding bond obligations for dorm construction and renovation, and costs for key personnel, and have been factored in at a rate of 12.5%.” Yet, even understanding that, if you were to take the cost of room and board for a first-year student, Fairfield returned 23 percent of the semester back to your account even though most students spent nearly half of their semester off campus attending their classes through Zoom.
The “refund” also had a caveat where it applied as a credit in students’ accounts. Only seniors that had applied to graduate would receive a physical check.
With classes moving online and buildings no longer being used for academics, many students blanched at the concept of continuing to pay that full tuition without the use of these buildings. In reality, the reason other universities, and Fairfield in particular, weren’t so quick to refund tuition costs is because their cost of operation didn’t shift from in-person to Zoom like academics did.
Fairfield is set to take another financial hit in the fall after the lowered room and board costs for students choosing to stay on campus. There is also the possibility that many students will choose to stay home and take their classes online for the semester due to the risk of remaining on campus, especially for anyone with predisposed health risks.
With all of the possibilities of Fairfield’s finances remaining quite bleak, they now have to find the money somewhere within their budget to cover funds that they believed were coming. But, where this money comes from and which Fairfield department takes the brunt of the cut is still to be decided.
The Facilities department on campus is in charge of many essential areas of the maintenance and running of the campus system: fixing burst pipes, maintaining the heat in the dorm rooms, making sure Fairfield’s grass is in perfect condition and so much more. For decades, they were non-unionized and part of an at-will employment system which would allow little to no reasoning for a termination. Now, they’ve joined the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 30. This decision to join the union in 2012 requires new contracts to be signed every three years allowing for job security and the hope for better health insurance.
Their last contract was agreed upon last summer, but the months spent during the arguable “peak” of the COVID-19 crisis in Connecticut have revealed cracks in the relationship between Fairfield and its facilities staff.
Steve Broderick, a business agent of the IUOE Local 30, mentioned that it was the union that provided the personal protective equipment used by the staff, as Fairfield U didn’t supply it. Pat Bike, a plumber and Head Steward for the Union, said that the University did eventually supply masks, but it was weeks after they initially needed them.
There was also contention over whether the workers should be paid hazard pay. Hazard pay is explained as similar to being paid “double-time,” and it occurs when facility workers are working in conditions that others in the university are not. For example, if the school was closed and classes were cancelled because of a snowstorm, a facilities plumber would be paid “hazard pay,” or double their normal pay, for having to come into work while others remained at home.
Todd Leveen, a plumber and union representative, stated that Fairfield refused to give hazard pay during COVID-19, as they claimed the university was still open despite many offices being closed and only essential personnel being allowed on campus. “Nobody is allowed on campus. How is the campus open? How can you say the university is open?”
Despite all of this, Fairfield reached out to the Facilities Department as part of their solution to financial constraints. In their agreed upon contract, Fairfield is required to make contributions to the facilities retirement fund. It’s also written into their contract that if due to financial concerns, Fairfield can lessen the amount given to the retirement fund, but they can not stop them completely. Fairfield asked if they could stop the funds completely, and as that’s not part of the contract, the union refused.
Fairfield then came back with the option for the facilities employees to not take an increased wage as agreed upon in their contract signed last summer. The union once again refused, and according to Broderick, Fairfield finally came back with threatening layoffs which he called “unsettling.” John Minopoli, an electrician at Fairfield for 18 years, stated, “It’s unjust in a place that’s supposed to be for justice.”
This comes at a time where the Facilities Department is already stretched in terms of employment numbers. Following the “Fairfield 2020” plan that was revealed in January 2014 under the former University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., the amount of new construction on campus is seemingly ever-increasing. There’s the new Dolan School of Business, The Daniel & Grace Tully Dining Commons and the new housing complexes of the Barnyard Manor, to name a few. Though the facilities staff believe that the newer buildings are easier to maintain, Pat Bike stated, “Just because they’re new doesn’t mean they’re maintenance-free.”
Despite this, the facilities staff have yet to increase its number to match the more work needed to maintain all of these new buildings. Their staff has actually decreased since the union was formed in 2012. Starting with 34 members, only 26 remain in 2020. This caused a provision to be made in a letter signed by Scott Esposito, Vice President of Human Relations, to increase the facilities staff to 28 in 2020.
At this point, it’s interesting to note what other universities are doing in the area. The University of Connecticut is focusing on cutting the costs in more upper-level positions. With the University President, Tom Katsouleas taking a pay cut himself to help offset costs. This is a big help to UConn’s budget as when he was appointed by the Board of Trustees, his starting salary was $525,000. By reducing that by 10 percent, as well as many other larger salaries at the university, UConn will save nearly $5 million. This was a decision made even after the university received $21.5 million as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by Congress earlier this year. UConn’s part of the total $112 million received by Connecticut colleges and universities was by far the largest section, but many other schools received millions of dollars in aid from the government. Fairfield University received the 19th most in the state, collecting just over $2 million. With half being allocated to Emergency Financial Aid grants to students, that leaves Fairfield with $1,068,679 in economic assistance.
Though Fairfield received less than its Connecticut counterparts, their administration costs remain higher than its peers. According to a 2012 statistic, around 30 percent of Fairfield’s budget is spent on administration costs, and this was reported when Rev. Jeffrey von Arx was still president of Fairfield U.
Before Marc Nemec, Ph. D took over as president in 2017, von Arx was paid $382,935 annually, a lower number than many other University presidents, and the salary that would eventually be offered to President Nemec. The Board of Trustees chose not to reveal Nemec’s actual agreed-upon salary.
As salaries usually increase by the year, and considering that UConn’s Katsouleas’ salary started to increase $50,000 each year for good performance, it could be inferred that Nemec’s current salary is larger than his starting salary. Yet, unlike Katsouleas, there has been no statement on whether or not President Nemec and the other higher-paid Fairfield managerial positions will take pay cuts or where the money is coming from to cover the gap the CARES act couldn’t cover.
Athletics would be another possibility of where Fairfield could cut or seek to cut funds. However, as many schools have done, they could seek to cut the smaller sports that draw fewer finances in, and in-turn cut the sports scholarships of the students who play for the university. Many of the top schools in the nation who’s endowments double or even triple Fairfield’s $374.9 million have had to make the same decision.
Dartmouth University had an endowment of $5.73 billion in 2019, but due to financial constraints of COVID-19, they had to cut five of their varsity sports programs. Stanford University, whose $27.7 billion endowment, 73 times Fairfield’s, had to cut 11 varsity sports. Yet, interestingly enough, both schools say their reasoning for cutting is not solely on the pandemic’s shoulders. The director of athletics at Dartmouth, Harry Sheehy, said that the cuts would’ve happened regardless. Stanford U states much of the same, as their athletics program has been carrying a deficient for years.
According to financial documents from 2018, former men’s basketball coach, Sydney Johnson, received $613,220 in compensation from the university despite eventually being fired and having an overall losing record for his eight years spent at Fairfield. Fairfield Athletics also reported a “Banner Year in Fundraising” having raised $5.4 million in 2018 during STAGSgiving day, a 58 percent increase from the year before. Yet they’re also headed towards trouble in the Fall, as the Recreation Complex currently sits closed to all outside interaction, with only a basketball summer camp using its facilities. The possibility of collecting any ticket sales in the Fall was once thought to be slim to none, but with the July 27 cancellation of the fall 2020 Metro Atlantic Conference season, the university will receive no profits from ticket sales. A cut in this department would affect over 400 student athletes, but it would help with Fairfield cut costs.
There’s also the possibility of cuts being made in staffing or faculty. Just last week, protests followed a decision made in the City University of New York system to layoff 2,800 employees at 25 of its schools. Though it flies quite generally under the radar, and is not something brought up in tours or admissions trips, Fairfield’s faculty is paid significantly higher than other universities. This has been the practice for nearly 30 years. However, when an economic deficit hit Fairfield’s budget in 2012, and the idea of lowering this expectation of salaries higher than 95 percent of similar universities, 100 students and staff showed up to picket in the rain.
All of these possibilities are assuming that Fairfield even needs to cut down on costs to balance a financial sheet that’s covered in red. But, as the beginning of August looms, and many other universities have announced cuts, Fairfield has stayed publicly mum.
University budgets are separated by fiscal years. They don’t follow the normal January to December calendar. Instead, the year begins on July 1 and ends June 30. According to Professor Gary Weddle, Ph. D, a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and a member of the President’s University Budget Committee as an elected faculty representative, the university suffered a $9 million budget deficit for the year of 2020. This doesn’t mean the University lost $9 million; they ended the fiscal year in the clear due to “hiring freezes, senior leadership pay reductions, budget and travel reductions, federal aid, deferred maintenance, suspension of current construction projects and other cost-saving measures.”
Though we can listen to whispers about how other universities are handling a COVID-19 budget crisis, and thus infer how Fairfield would handle a possible deficit in the future, they are all nothing more than guesses.
The Faculty Salary Committee is still in contract negotiations. The Facilities Department has yet to hear back from Fairfield Management about possible furloughs. Fairfield University doesn’t yet know what or how much to cut, because there’s no certainty in how much they’ll lose. Though there is a possibility that money will be lost due to students opting to stay home this coming semester, there is also a distinct possibility that many students will choose to come back to campus.
At this point, all we can do is wait and see, and as we move closer to the start of the semester, decisions will have to be made.
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