Eight Fairfield faculty members raised concern for the current fiscal situation and downward trend in oversight at Fairfield University in a highly contested Jan. 27 memo cosigned by at least 50 other faculty members.

The memo was “designed to start a conversation,” not spark controversy or expand beyond the campus, explained Dr. Phil Lane, co-writer of the memo and a professor with 30 years’ experience at Fairfield. However, despite intentions, controversy has definitely been ignited across campus, creating a debate between the faculty and the administration.

The Mirror was able to obtain a copy of the memo from a source uninvolved with the creation of the document.

“We believe that the current financial crisis was both foreseeable and avoidable,” the memo notes. Although “the signers of this memo are deeply committed to Fairfield University,” they are still “deeply concerned about recent trends.”

The document outlines a few key indicators that have caused such concern among its faculty authors, most notably the student acceptance process, the education budget, and the increasing numbers and salaries of administrators.

 

Changing Acceptance Rates Leave Room for Concern

 

The memo explains that “it is very desirable to have a low admit rate and a high yield,” meaning it is best to accept fewer students, but have the majority of those accepted students decide to study at Fairfield instead of other schools they were accepted into. However, the memo explains, “both of these rates have consistently been trending in the wrong direction.” In fact, “in 2002, our yield rate was nearly 25 percent – one of the best rates Fairfield has had in the last 20 years. But that has declined steadily, and last year’s yield rate of 15.31 percent is the worst in 40 years,” the memo noted.

However, this year marks “the highest number of applications ever in Fairfield’s history,” according to President Jeffrey von Arx, S.J. in a campus-wide email sent out on Monday. This optimism seems to be bright spot in an otherwise challenging past few years of admissions. Different years provide different interest levels in certain universities across the country and different numbers of applications to each institution. “In 2000, prospective college students, on average applied to about five universities. Today they apply to 10,” a recent Connecticut Post article summarized Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Paul J. Fitzgerald as saying.

 

Administrative Positions Increase as Other Jobs Are Cut

 

The memo also included information about administration positions and salaries. In the wake of last semester’s layoffs, many students and faculty members expressed frustration that no employment reductions had been made for the growing administration staff. The memo highlighted this concern, noting that while other staffers were being laid off as the result of a six million dollar budget gap, there was actually a “net gain of two to three additional vice president positions.” The memo notes that the administrative side of the institution has consistently been the “fastest growing segment of our community,” explaining that “administration positions have increased by nearly 25 [percent] in the last six years, while faculty positions have increased by 10 [percent] and all other positions have decreased.”

In addition to this increase in staff size for the administration, the memo notes that the “salary for senior administrators has grown at a substantially higher rate than that of the rest of the campus community.” Illustrated through a chart in the document, the President of the University once received $187,000 in the 2001-2002 fiscal year. By the 2009-2010 fiscal year, he was receiving $300,000 (although this income is donated annually to the Jesuits by Fr. Von Arx). Similar trends can be seen from other vice presidential positions as well, while faculty salaries only increased by 32.6 percent between 2001 and 2010.

 

A Financial Focus on Education

 

One of the most highly contested sections of the memo lies in the authors’ concern for “the administration’s decisions to devote an inordinately high proportion of resources to priorities other than education.” While many schools allocate close to 50 percent of their funding directly to education, Fairfield spends only 37.9 percent of its funding on education, according to the memo.

“All institutions required to file this and related information (most institutions are required) must do so using the same form, the same categories, and the same instructions for what goes into each category,” Dr. Richard DeWitt explained. “The data in the memo came directly and unaltered from what each institution reported to the government.” This should mean that comparisons between universities are more easily drawn due to the direct similarities in data requirements.

But despite the similarities in forms and numbers, these comparisons between universities aren’t as simple as they seem, Fitzgerald noted. Different schools must offer different services depending on the breakdown of their student populations, the different academic schools they have, and other less comparable components. “A university with a high percentage of commuter students spends a significantly higher percentage of their budget on instruction because they don’t offer as many services to students, including things like residence halls and evening activities,” Fitzgerald explained. “A university that doesn’t have a research active faculty similarly spends a higher percentage on instruction. The things to look for at Fairfield are the faculty to student ratio,” which is 12 students to one faculty member, “and the high quality of both our faculty (measured in effective teaching and publishing in prestigious venues) and our student body (measured in graduation rates, placement into competitive graduate schools or annual average starting salaries).”

 

Starting A Conversation

 

The idea to begin tracking data for a potential memo was actually sparked years ago by a number of faculty members. Since then, they have been following enrollment trends and attempting to raise concern for negative patterns that have been emerging. The recent budget gap problem “certainly added an air of urgency to the issues,” said DeWitt, but it was not the initial catalyst for the memo as “the general concern is not really new.”

“As noted in the memo, the authors of the memo are deeply committed to Fairfield University. One of our goals is to encourage the administration to begin working with other segments of the university in a way that is genuinely transparent and cooperative.” The main point of the memo was to start a conversation, but this goal seems to have become lost in efforts to question the memo’s legitimacy.

All information included in the memo is publically available data, found online from the University website, the Department of Education, or the American Society of Professors, or can be found in the University fact book. The original draft of the memo included data from private sources, but was later removed before the final draft was distributed in order to ensure availability of access to data for all readers.

“As a private, not for profit institution, and as an institution that receives certain types of federal assistance, Fairfield is required to provide the government with a variety of publically-available information, for example, annual IRS tax forms,” DeWitt explained.  “The authors of the memo made the choice to work exclusively with data supplied by the administration (with the one exception being data on faculty salaries), with most of it coming from data supplied to the government.”

The writers of the memo have also noted that they were not responsible for the leak of the memo to the Connecticut Post, which spawned coverage from the newspaper and has attracted an unwanted spotlight to Fairfield and its handling of the situation. As a result of this, and as a culmination of a number of factors of contention between the administration and the faculty, an executive session was called at a recent meeting of the Academic Council.

During an executive session, no notes are taken and no student representatives are allowed to be present. This leads to a secretive environment, about which no outside parties – students, other faculty members, or staff members – are officially informed. While this reaction to the memo is troubling for some faculty members, others remain optimistic about more open cooperation in the future. “I hope as we move forward that we do so with genuine openness and transparency and not, for example, with calls for the Academic Council to go into executive session,” said DeWitt. “That is the very opposite of openness and transparency, and I trust we have seen the last of that kind of secrecy.”

 

Questioning Legitimacy

 

The authors, in theory, cannot be accused of manipulating data, as “it’s taken straight from the categories the administration uses, and uses exactly the numbers supplied by the administration for each category,” explained DeWitt.

Yet this is exactly what has been happening; while the authors of the memo assure all readers that the data was publically available and accurate, administrators contend that the data was inaccurate and incorrectly compiled to illustrate trends that do not actually exist.

In a recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the challenges of comparing data between universities are highlighted. The article suggests that “when you wade into those financial reports, you should understand that the numbers are invariably correct. What you need to be skeptical about are the words and labels attached to the numbers.” The author of the article reinforces that individuals researching their University should not “rely on the institution’s official financial reports. Transparency is not to be found there.”

The debate between the faculty members in support of the memo and administrators is unlikely to end successfully anytime soon. While further discussion of the memo among faculty members has been planned for an upcoming General Faculty Meeting, and although Fitzgerald has offered to meet with the writers of the memo, these outlets do not necessarily mean that progressive discussion will be achieved.

“If the administration wants to dismiss the memo and the figures in it, they will have to do so with real figures and detailed responses, not with empty generalities,” said Professor Ruffini. “The figures in the memo are publicly available from reputable sources, including the University’s own website. The memo as a whole highlights real problems, and the administration undercuts its own credibility by failing to address them head on.”

 

Making Progress

 

The key to solving the debate between faculty and administrators lies in open discussion, rather than closed-door meetings or private discussions about the other group. “The Fairfield community needs to work together in a cooperative, inclusive, and transparent way to begin reversing the trends documented in the memo,” DeWitt noted.  “I would like to see all segments of the university, including students, staff, faculty, and administrators, engaged in an open and honest look at where we are, how we got here, and how we might best get Fairfield moving in a better direction.”

Fr. Von Arx agrees that dialogue from various individuals across campus can help to solve some of the problems facing the University, as he noted in his recent campus-wide email. “I encourage you to participate actively in this collective process to develop and support strategies that move the University forward,” he wrote. “While we may disagree on specific choices and actions that we have taken and that we need to take for Fairfield’s future, it is critical that we are engaged in a constructive and responsible discussion that is focused on systemic solutions.”

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