TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) — Faculty layoffs have begun at Emporia State University (ESU) in Kansas after higher education officials approved a plan to cut 7% of university staff.

In an interview on Thursday, Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) Chair John Rolph defended the plan crafted by university President Ken Hush. Rolph said it was a “tough” but necessary decision to make, given the university’s declining enrollment rate.

“There’s just really difficult decisions inside of that, but they were really looking at the data, the number, the trends,” Rolph told Kansas Capitol Bureau. “This was really in response to trends that were already happening pre-COVID, that COVID accelerated.”

The KBOR adopted a temporary workforce management policy in 2021 to give state universities “flexibility” to address the financial challenges created by declining enrollments and the pandemic. According to Rolph, because enrollment declines “continue to pose a long-term challenge,” in June, the Board extended the sunset of the policy to Dec. 31, 2022. So far, only ESU has acted on the policy.

Rolph explained that ESU saw a higher than average drop in enrollment compared to other state universities, which may have led to the decision to move forward with staff cuts. According to university spokeswoman Gwen Larson, the university’s on-campus enrollment declined by 24% between 2017 and 2021.

“I do believe that is the highest drop in on-campus enrollment in any of our regional universities over that time period,” Rolph said. “It’s something that’s really happening on a macro-level across the country, and regional universities are being impacted the hardest.”

“We’re going to be continuing to face a drop off in the number of college-aged kids in this country,” Rolph continued. “You not only have to look at your current moment, you have to look at what you can anticipate the next three to five years, and I think Emporia State took that into consideration when making these decisions.”

Despite calls to “Stop the Cuts” from university students Wednesday morning, the Board approved Hush’s new workforce management framework, which allows the university to “suspend, dismiss, or terminate” any employee, including tenured staff. The cuts have incited outrage from university staff and students, who said they’re concerned for the university’s future under Hush’s leadership.

Max McCoy, a professor at the university, said he worries that the staff cuts are “retaliatory” in an interview. McCoy said there have been a total of five dismissals from the English department as of 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

“I am deeply concerned about the possibility of this being retaliatory,” McCoy said. “One has to admit the optics aren’t great. Also, the numbers for journalism, the program I direct (we have a journalism minor and a second teaching field BSE licensure) have been steadily climbing over the past year, so I’m a bit confused as to the rationale.”

What are other state universities doing?

Other universities, which also saw a decline in enrollment, have found other ways to increase revenue and manage costs.

In an email Thursday, Lainie Mazullo, a spokeswoman for Wichita State University, told Kansas Capitol Bureau that the university does not plan to act on the KBOR’s temporary workforce management policy.

“Wichita State does not plan to utilize this temporary policy. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced institutions across the country to rethink how they do business: financially, programmatically and operationally. Wichita State is no exception. We have had to make our own difficult, strategic decisions to navigate these uncharted waters, such as voluntary retirements, previous hiring freezes, restrictions on discretionary spending, etc., but through the hard work, dedication and sacrifice of our campus community, we have been successful in raising revenue while reducing costs to preserve the policies and past practices of our institution.”

Lainie Mazzullo, Wichita State University spokeswoman

While higher education officials have pointed to ESU as experiencing one of the highest drops in “on-campus enrollment,” according to KBOR’s 2022 Enrollment Report, Pittsburg State University has had a much higher decline in “Full-time Equivalency” and “Headcount” over the past five years.

The report, which details changes in enrollment up to the past 10 years, shows that PSU has had a -15.3% change in enrollment over the past five years, based on “Headcount.” The university has had a -20.4% change in enrollment over the same period, based on “Full-time Equivalency.”

Even with declining enrollment rates over the past five years, Andra Stefanoni, a spokeswoman for Pittsburg State, told Kansas Capitol Bureau that they have not implemented the temporary workforce management policy. Stefanoni sent the following statement from Pittsburg State Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Howard Smith.

“At Pittsburg State, we will remain focused on what we know can work for us. We’re experiencing increases in first time, international, and transfer students, and are excited about working together to improve student retention and completion in the coming months and years. Like many universities across the state and nation, Pittsburg State has reduced our workforce, largely through attrition, and we’ve streamlined operations to reduce spending. At the same time, in three of the last four years, we haven’t raised tuition, as we are committed to higher education access in our region. We know we must grow our way out of a decade of enrollment declines, and we are confident the strategies we’re putting in place will work.”

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Howard Smith, Pittsburg State University

Kansas State University sent a letter to faculty and staff on Sept. 8, noting ESU’s move to cut staff based on KBOR’s policy. In the letter, University Provost Charles Taber emphasized that the university has “no intention” to submit a plan using the policy.

“Like many higher education institutions, we have faced budgetary challenges at K-State over the last decade. Working together through shared governance, deans, vice presidents, department heads, faculty and staff have made difficult decisions, including eliminating vacant positions and deploying furloughs. Even in these challenging times, we have a remarkable history of finding new pathways for revenue generation; creating new, innovative educational and research programs that attract new students and research funding to the university; and identifying and gaining efficiencies. Your engagement with the KSU Foundation in philanthropic efforts has also provided needed financial support. Your contributions have been integral to meeting our budgetary challenges.”

Excerpt of Letter from Provost Charles Taber, Kansas State University