More furloughs are expected at East Carolina University as a new committee begins the work of reshaping the institution to take on financial challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson said last week that the university will continue to implement temporary layoffs to address virus-related financial strains. The university already furloughed about 200 employees in July and two dozen more earlier this month.
“You should expect additional furloughs upcoming,” he told reporters in a remote news briefing on Wednesday. He did not say how many employees would be involved, citing that plans were pending approval from the University of North Carolina system.
Mitchelson’s comments came as the university announced the formation of its Fiscal Sustainability Coordinating Committee. Michael Van Scott, interim vice chancellor for research, economic development and engagement, will serve as chairman of the committee, which will look for ways to cut expenses and increase revenue.
“What we’ve experienced, really since 2008, is just a mounting pressure, a budgetary and financial pressure on our university,” Mitchelson said. “In the past, what we’ve done is to take an institutional approach, and that’s what this is.”
ECU launched a program prioritization effort focused on academic programming in 2011, followed in 2013 by a fiscal sustainability committee, which dealt with broader issues.
“I either led or co-led those two efforts so I am intimately familiar with how necessary, difficult and painful such campus processes are,” Mitchelson wrote in an Oct. 14 memorandum to faculty and staff.
“COVID-19 has served to intensify the existing (or anticipated) disruption to state and non-state funding,” he wrote. “So we need a plan to deal with short-run disruption and longer-term adaptation.”
Following state budget cuts in 2011, ECU lost the equivalent of eight filled full-time positions and more than 200 vacant positions. Mitchelson said positions the university has recently allowed to remain vacant could factor into cost savings.
“We have done a very good job over the last 15 months of doing somewhat of a modified freeze on hiring,” he said, though no number of vacant positions was available. “So we have certainly assembled a number of vacant positions that could prove useful in any adjustments that we make.”
While Mitchelson said it was too early to identify departments or programs that could face cuts, he said the committee will look at areas with low enrollment and will consider both academic and administrative efficiency.
“A university this large gets pretty ‘silo-ed,’ and some of the functions that have spread out over each silo can, in fact, be centralized with fewer employees needed to achieve the mission,” he said. “So we’ll be looking for those kinds of efficiencies and savings as well.”
He pointed to the elimination of the college of human ecology, a change implemented following the recommendation of a previous fiscal sustainability committee, as a case where consolidation was effective.
“We actually took very good departments and put them in places where I think they flourished but, at the same time, we’re not paying for a dean’s office,” Mitchelson said. “So we reduced administrative costs markedly, hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.”
But Mitchelson said the committee will not be focused solely on cost reduction but also will work to determine which programs require a greater investment of university funds. He said ECU’s engineering and nursing programs received funding increases as a result of previous reallocation recommendations.
“I want to make doubly sure that we think not only of retraction but also expansion,” Mitchelson said. “Which kinds of academic programs do we think we can actually grow so that ECU is as attractive a destination as we can possibly be? We simply can’t sit here and cut our way to excellence.”
He said the university could see expanded revenue from increasing online enrollment, creating new degree programs and developing the Millennial Campus.
ECU and developer Elliott Sidewalk Communities earlier this month unveiled Intersect East, a $155 million development project that is part of ECU’s Millennial Campus. The eight-year project, which aims to transform the downtown historic warehouse district into an urban hub, eventually will encompass 14 buildings over 19 acres.
“We’re going to think creatively,” Mitchelson said. “...What we have to make sure is we’re doing just as good a job achieving the mission as we can, and that often requires a little self-reflection, a little review, a little self-study in order to make sure that we’re being as efficient and effective as we can possibly be for our students and for our region.
“I think we would do this (form a fiscal sustainability committee) regardless of the kinds of financial pressures that we currently feel,” he said. “It’s a good idea.”
The committee is scheduled to submit its recommendations to the chancellor by the end of June.
Additional committee members include Chris Locklear, Stephanie Coleman, Puri Martinez, Mark Bowler, Keith Keene, Ken Wyatt, Hector Molina, Aisha Powell, Wendy Sergeant, Gary Vanderpool, Chris Stansbury, Kendra Alexander, Paul Schwager, Jamie Perry, Beverly King and Margaret Macready.