College focuses on faculty hires over department budget increases

The college’s departmental operating budget has not increased in the last seven years, President M. Lee Pelton said in an interview after the Student Forum on Finance on April 10.

The money in the departmental operating budget goes toward equipment, programs, trips, and other endeavors that help students complete their major. The lack of an increase in the operating budget puts a strain on some academic departments at the school and caused department chairs to seek outside funding and to make careful decisions about where they allocate money, according to interviews with chairs of the Communication Sciences and Disorders and Visual and Media Arts departments.

Other chairs of academic departments were not available to comment before publication.

While salaries and benefits have increased substantially, generally the operating budgets of the academic departments have not been increased since I arrived in 2013–2014,” Michaele Whelan, provost and vice president of academic affairs, wrote in a statement to the Beacon.

According to a presentation at the financial forum, the college allocates 85 percent of its budget to faculty and staff members’ salaries, financial aid, maintenance, housing, and food costs. This accounts for $232 million of expenses for the projected financial year 2020. Pelton said the other 15 percent of the budget, which includes the departmental operating budget, is constrained because it also includes contracts and other expenses that must be carried from one year to the next. The leftover 15 percent accounts for $41 million of expenses for projected financial year 2020.

“If you look just for inflation [over the past seven years], then the departmental operating budgets are flat,” Pelton said. “We did put $600,000 each year into operation budgets for departments, but we still have a long ways to go.”

Joanne Lasker, chair of the Communication Sciences and Disorders Department, said in an interview that her department must get creative in how they spend money, so they can allocate funds to projects that will enhance student learning.

“We will look to provide technology to analyze the quality of someone’s voice because we know that the students require that tool to help do clinical work,” she said. “That would be a choice we would make to spend our money in those kinds of pursuits.”

Lasker said because the budget stayed the same for the past seven years, the department often looks to foundations and donors to pay for certain aspects of the program from which students and clients of the The Robbins Centera speech, language and hearing center at Emersoncan benefit.

The CSD department receives support from donors to soundproof rooms in the center for students and clients who are hard of hearing.

“We’ve also been lucky because a lot of our faculty have gotten external grant funding,” she said. “As a result we’ve been able to work with the faculty who have money from the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation to acquire pieces of equipment that help with research, as well as clinical work.”

Brooke Knight, chair of the Visual and Media Arts Department, said in an interview that the stagnant operating budget puts a strain on the department as the college added more faculty and 500 more students to the department in the last seven years.

“We’re finding [the budget] is really limiting in terms of, if someone comes up with a good idea in the middle of the year, the money has already been allocated,” he said. “There’s very little leeway. The other thing is, we don’t have a contingency budget. If things cost more money than we anticipated them costing in the spring, when we put in our budget, and it costs something different in December, there’s no way to get around that.”

The departmental operating budget manages day-to-day costs, and the personnel budget pays faculty and staff. The VMA department also receives a separate equipment budget from the school to purchase new equipment for faculty and students, Knight said.

“We’ve been able to add faculty, and through the union process we’ve been able to increase salaries for staff and faculty along the way, ” he said. “We’ve also been able to add to our equipment budget significantly, which is at $1 million a year—when I started it was closer to $700,000.”

Knight said that the college is working hard to provide money for the various academic departments but feels the VMA Department could accomplish more with an increase in its operating budget.

“While VMA has been getting a lot of resources in really critical areas in faculty, staff, and equipment, the operating budget hasn’t kept up with those other increases,” Knight said. “We’ve had to look for efficiencies and be really careful about how we spend our money.”

Pelton said that he recognizes the lack of an increase in the departmental operating budget hurts the VMA Department the most. Pelton said the college does plan to increase the budget allocated to departments in the future, but at the moment is working to hire more faculty as the student population grows.

Knight said the VMA Department breaks up its expenditures to finance student curricular support, faculty curricular programming, faculty support, departmental operations, special programs, and the Bright Lights Film Series.

Knight said that out of the $300,000 in the VMA Department’s operational budget— about half the overall operations budget— $100,000 gets allocated directly to student support for programming and projects.

Knight said that it has been challenging to receive outside funding for the department due to turnover in the institutional advancement office. Funds donated to the department go directly to student support, often paying for students’ Bachelor of Fine Arts projects.

Lasker said while she does recognize that having a larger budget for CSD would be ideal, she feels the department can still provide what faculty and students need with the current budget and outside funding.

“I have to say that if people have needed something, we’ve typically been able to provide it through a variety of different strategies,” she said. “We sometimes have to think outside of the box, but I don’t know if there are that many faculty who are desperately concerned about equipment.”

For the VMA Department’s equipment budget, Knight said the college holds up well against other film programs, and most schools use a different model for operational budgets. Unlike some colleges, Emerson allocates a specific amount of money from the budgeting office to each department and does not determine the amount based on the number of students enrolled in those departments.

“We recognize that it’s a tight time,” Knight said. “The investments the institution is making are the right investments to make for the benefit of the college. While we could use a greater operating budget, we understand the context of the environment. But it would really help us provide more opportunities for students.”

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