PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — The Bradley University student body president thinks the school, despite reports of a large deficit and fears of large cuts to their faculty, is moving in the right direction.

“I think that these (cuts) will help us put the university on a path, I know there’s been some issues with enrollment and I think there’s changes being made to fix these issues for the future,” said Jack Batz, a senior who is majoring in political science.

He continued, “I think that although it might not seem like Bradley is in a positive position, they are moving in the right direction.”

Over the past few months, rumors have swirled on the Hilltop about what could happen after the school’s president announced that changes would be coming amid a $13 million deficit.

And with a number that large, the biggest way to trim is salaries. Batz said students on campus are concerned, but don’t know the particulars. The belief is that things will stay roughly the same for now.

“They (the faculty) will at least be teaching out their courses as they are supposed to throughout the end of the year, and then for those programs that are not going to continue to be here at Bradley, those are the ones that will not be available come most likely next year,” he said.

It’s not what people want but it might be what the school needs.

“Of course, these cuts are coming in the form of academics which you never want to see at a university, but they have to happen this time and hopefully, after these cuts have been made, we won’t have to go through this in the future at Bradley,” he said.

What the concerns are

Proposed changes to Bradley University are a result of a massive budget shortfall that could “fundamentally change” the university, said the head of a faculty group.

And to try to prevent that, that group wants the university to slow down the process and to give them a seat at the table.

The group, the school’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which is akin to a union but without the ability to collectively bargain, wants more transparency and clarifications on the numbers.

“The reality is that we have a sizeable endowment, that should give us a financial cushion to make strategic decisions that will help us get into a better situation,” said John Nielsen, who teaches history at Bradley.

But Libby Derry, a Bradley spokeswoman said, no final decision has been made and the university is “in the midst of an assessment of our academic programs. This assessment is a critical step to ensure our programs remain relevant, rigorous, and aligned with our university’s mission and goals while we strive to remain financially sound.”

Derry said the process is “underway” and awaits “recommendations from the university provost and deans as well as a peer-elected Faculty Senate committee. The media, she said, would be alerted when the recommendations come down.

The Letter

Nielsen and Ahmad Fakheri, an engineering professor, who is the group’s president, co-wrote a letter to the university’s Board of Trustees last month that was also signed by more than 150 faculty members.

In it, they outline several items they think could be ways to turn the school’s fiscal woes around, one of them being reaffirming “Bradley’s primary mission as a primarily undergraduate comprehensive residential university offering quality education, with small classes and individual student mentoring,”

In late July, BU President Stephen Standifird released a statement discussing financial challenges that have recently affected the school, including a budget shortfall of $13 million for fiscal year 2023, nearly 10% of the school’s overall operating budget.

Cost-saving measures aimed to reduce spending by 10% will be implemented in the coming months with an analysis of program offerings, with academic restructuring to occur in the fall, he said in his statement.

The proposed budget cuts will almost certainly mean the elimination of some programs and professors and faculty with it as salaries are among the biggest pieces of a school’s budget. 

Nielsen said that he believes, as does AAUP, that roughly $10 million of that $13 million will come from academic affairs. Such cuts would likely mean the elimination of about 100 jobs or roughly a third of the faculty.

“How has this semester gone? Very stressful for the faculty and the students. Bradley is going to be here going forward but they (faculty and students) don’t know if their programs will be,” he said. “Many of us don’t know if we will have jobs next year. Recruiting was down, our incoming class was lower than we hoped.”

The letter says Bradley’s future could depend upon what happens in the next few months. 

Beyond going back to a primarily undergraduate residential school, the group recommends in its letter:

  • “A slow-down of the timeline for academic restructuring and cuts, to allow the careful work required to find solutions that won’t change our identity and harm our reputation.
  • “Immediate involvement of the Strategic Planning Committee and University Resources Committee, to arrive at long-term solutions involving all areas of the university, not just academics.
  • “A commitment to faculty and administration collaboration in establishing a vision for how online education fits into our mission, with safeguards to protect both the quality of a Bradley degree and excellence of our brand.
  • “An analysis of spending and revenues in athletics.
  • “A return to a streamlined administrative structure with fewer vice presidents to reduce spending and reestablish priority for academics and student-centered programs.”

Derry noted that Bradley runs “lean” compared with Butler University and on par with Drake University when it comes to compensation for their top employees.

“In the 990 files (IRS tax forms) for Drake and Bradley, Drake identifies their top 10 paid employees. Bradley identifies the top 16. If we focus on the top 10 only, Bradley is at $3.4 million compared to Drake’s $3.2 million,” she said. “Butler only reports their top nine paid employees at a total of $4.8 million. Both Drake and Bradley run lean compared to Butler.”

Online learning and culture change

Fakheri said Bradley has gone from predominantly a residential undergraduate facility to one that offers more online graduate-level programs.

“Is that appropriate for a school like Bradley? For Harvard or MIT?” he asked in an interview Tuesday night. “Or is it more appropriate for Southern New Hampshire University or Phoenix University?”

His colleague agreed.

“That is an online market that is saturated. If we try to compete in that market, we lose. We don’t even possess the expertise to function in that market,” said Nielsen, who is the vice president of Bradley’s AAUP chapter.

Rather, he said, engage the faculty.

“There are things that we can do. And there are many things that the faculty are very open and excited to explore. And these could open new lines of revenue for the university, and we are eager to do that,” he said.

Derry said faculty members are involved in the “vision for how online education fits into our mission.” No one is forced to do online learning, she said, and Bradley made strides in the area, pointing to their “highly regarded online nursing program.”

What Now?

Nielsen said for now, the AAUP wants a slower pace, one that will allow more “reasoned choices.”

“Let’s slow down and let’s strategically think about how we can put Bradley in its best financial position so that we can preserve a strong athletics program, a strong academic reputation, and a strong university going forward,” he said.

For him and the AAUP, it’s about the future of Bradley and what it means to be a Brave.

“I’m certainly proud to be here, so again if we lose 100 of our faculty, that will diminish our ability to deliver what makes us distinct, what makes our product distinct,” he said.

Bradley could consider using its endowment, which is at more than $300 million right now, Nielsen said, to give a “cushion to make the right cuts, to make the precise cuts, to use a scalpel as opposed to a blunt instrument.”

Batz said he hopes a decision is reached and that students are kept in the loop. Like Nielsen, it’s been stressful.

“Anytime something’s happening that’s negative at the university, you can feel it in the student body, and because of the unknown nature of the situation, we’re kind of feeling that right now. I’d say it’s mostly an issue when it comes to people just wondering what’s going to happen,” he said.