Speaking to assembled faculty and staff, Georgia Southern University President Dr. Kyle Marrero took them deep into budgeting concerns and turned “Never in enrollment decline again!” into a mantra during his first State of the University speech on the Statesboro campus.
“I want you to lose the same sleep I’m losing,” Marrero said, “because I believe in the collective wisdom and intellect of you all, all together, shared governance on steroids, that together we can solve our issues that we face, our challenges. But I’m also going to give you some hope as we’re working our way through it.”
That statement came in his preamble to his remarks, as he warned employees that he was going to talk about the budget. Among other things, he would also talk about the university’s new strategic plan, centered on the slogan “People… Purpose… Action… Growing ourselves to grow others,” and about a trio of other plans: a strategic enrollment plan, a marketing and branding plan, and a regional academic plan.
“It’s really one thought. …,” he said of those three plans. “That is, how do we ensure that we are never in enrollment decline again?”
Since population trends ensure that there will be fewer new high school graduates in the near future, Georgia Southern needs to attract more dual-enrolled students still in high school, “nontraditional” older students and transfer students from other universities and colleges, in addition to traditional freshmen, Marrero suggested.
“What we have to have is a regional academic plan that’s fitting the needs of a region, that are timely and timeless in terms of what we’re delivering to our students and what the region needs for economic development and talent development, but then we need to tell that story through a strategic enrollment plan to all the constituencies and markets,” he said.
Standing at audience level, in front of the first row of seats, Marrero later led a brief call-and-response.
“Everyone say it with me. … Now, say it with some heart,” he coaxed, “Never in enrollment decline again!”
Last year, after a three-campus Georgia Southern had been created through consolidation with the former Armstrong State University, enrollment dropped by more than 1,000 students. After declines that had already occurred, mainly at Armstrong, university officials then acknowledged a loss of more 1,600 students in Georgia Southern’s and Armstrong’s combined enrollment numbers since 2012.
The two universities’ enrollments totaled 28,013 students fall semester 2012. After consolidation, Georgia Southern’s total count was 26,408 students last fall.
Because a large portion of the university’s funding comes from tuition and a state formula that is based in student credit hours, the most recent enrollment declines resulted in a $13.1 million reduction in the current year’s budget.
But spending cuts decided by GS administrators before and after Marrero arrived as president April 1 resulted in about $23 million in savings. This included the elimination of 195 vacant jobs.
A 2.5 percent statewide undergraduate tuition increase approved by the state University System of Georgia Board of Regents is projected to yield $2.87 million for Georgia Southern. The savings from budget redirection plus the new revenue amounted to a $26.4 million adjustment, covering the previous $13.1 million loss and giving the university $13.3 million to invest in “strategic priorities.”
In the first of these priorities, the university has earmarked $6.5 million for “equity” increases in faculty and staff salaries.
“We had $13.3 million to invest first, so where did we invest first? In you, our people,” Marrero told the employees. “We had done our faculty equity and staff equity salary studies, and we knew we had to address this now, because this was how would retain, recruit and keep the very best people here at Georgia Southern, on all three of our campuses.”
Roughly $1 million more is earmarked for the university’s share in funding the 2 percent statewide “merit” raise, after state lawmakers funded 75 percent, and another $500,000 will go for promotion and tenure raises.
In another strategic priority, Georgia Southern plans to spend $2.67 million for student success and enrollment growth efforts, such as hiring more counselors and doing more recruiting for students.
That left $2.6 million in unallocated funds, which Marrero said through some further savings has been increased to $3.2 million.
$3.8 million gap
That should help the university “through this next wave that we’re heading into,” he said. The lingering effect of the enrollment decline in the state funding formula leaves roughly a $7 million reduction in Georgia Southern’s allocation for fiscal year 2021, starting next July 1. So with $3.2 million set aside, the university still faces a $3.8 million funding gap for next fiscal year.
Marrero revealed a timeline, already underway, for a budget prioritization process with all faculty and staff members invited to have input. Eliminated jobs will be restored if they are shown to be “critical” positions “that we have to have to deliver our promise for students,” he said.
He also announced that the university will conduct a national search for an associate vice president of inclusive excellence, a new staff member reporting directly to the president.
This administrator will be Georgia Southern’s “chief diversity officer,” Marrero noted. During question-and-answer time, one professor asked how the university can add top administrators, who then need office staff, when it has cut many other positions.
“Inclusive excellence is critical when it becomes, from a leadership aspect of everything we do at this institution, a welcoming environment,” Marrero said, in part. “That will then help recruit and retain not only faculty and staff that feel welcome in this community, but then students that feel welcome.”
After stating simply that the university has more than 26,400 students – last year’s number – Marrero predicted a 0.7 percent increase for this year based on an Aug. 7 headcount. Enrollment figures become official after an October count.
Wednesday’s assembly was convocation, marking the formal start of the 2019-20 academic year.
This year’s first GS convocation was held at 10 a.m. on the Armstrong campus. For the 1:30 p.m. Statesboro ceremony, Marrero was scheduled to speak near the end of the program, but he and the other speakers were delayed in their commute by a traffic jam caused by an accident in Savannah.
Skipping lunch, Marrero arrived about 10 minutes late and spoke first while the others arrived.
GS students are now arriving in town, and classes start Monday. More than 3,300 employees, many of whom attended Wednesday’s ceremonies, are already at work.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.