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Western Conn. State University president John Clark resigns, after report on 'depleted' reserves

Western Connecticut State University’s reserves are “depleted” after officials tapped into it for more than a decade to finance operations, according to a report commissioned by the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.

Leigh Appleby, spokesperson for CSCU, said the system commissioned the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a Colorado-based education consulting agency, to conduct the review.

“NCHEMS has produced a first report with immediate recommendations, and CSCU is currently working closely with the WCSU leadership team to ensure they are implemented,” Appleby said in a statement to reporters.

Findings show that WCSU’s structural deficit essentially eliminated “all reserves at the university,” from $24 million in fiscal year 2012 to “depleted” in 2021.

WCSU’s financial woes led to the resignation of the school's president, John Clark, who will officially step down in July.

“As I look back at my seven years as president, the one thing I will remember is that during these difficult and challenging times — from the COVID-19 pandemic to the tragic deaths of students and staff — members of our university community have risen to the occasion each and every time at great cost to themselves, personally and professionally, to move the university forward and never give up,” said Clark.

Clark’s resignation comes after the report's findings prompted a no-confidence vote against him by the faculty union.

The report also stated that WCSU was the only university whose finances had dwindled to this extent, compared with the other three state universities in the CSCU system. By contrast, two state universities have grown their reserves since the end of the Great Recession in 2009.  

The reserves at Central Connecticut State University, however, dropped by a third over the same period, with much of the decline occurring prior to the pandemic.

The report found that WCSU’s expenditures were compounded by a decline in student enrollments, as well as employee costs and the impact of the pandemic. But some faculty members believe the root cause is deeper.

Economics professor Rotua Lumbantobing, who is president of the WCSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the university president’s large cabinet and the lack of coordination between the president’s office and the financial office are two major problems Those problems “resulted in this outspending, pretty much, without any coordination and without knowing, ‘Hey, how much do we have actually, or is this really necessary right now.’”

Appleby of CSCU said actions have since been taken to stabilize WCSU’s budget, including creating a program for students in New York and New Jersey to attend WCSU at an in-state rate to increase enrollment.

But Lumbantobing said more needs to be done to close the budget gap.

“We can’t balance our budget that way,” said Lumbantobing.

She pointed out that stagnated state funding over the years is another roadblock. “We don’t get a lot of funding,” she said. “But we wasted a lot of money.”

The report emphasized that WCSU has an expenditure control problem, not a revenue problem, which “can be addressed by cutting costs, increasing enrollments without increasing expenditures, or some combination of these two strategies.”

“Given the immediacy of the financial issues facing the University, short-term solutions will likely have to focus on cutting costs; benefiting from enrollment increases is a longer-term remedy,” the reported stated.

For Oluwole Owoye, an economics professor at WCSU, transparency and clear communication from the university are key elements.

“If we can begin to share where we are in our finances, then everyone would be on the same page,” said Owoye. “Right now, the boat is already sunk. We want to know when the boat is floating, when the boat is sailing, and thereby we know how to strengthen the boat.”

Owoye also said that “it would be a disgrace for one of the four campuses to lose accreditation because of this. We are all here for a single purpose, and that’s for our students.”

Catherine Shen is a Connecticut Public’s education reporter. The Los Angeles native comes to CT Public after a decade of print and digital reporting across the country.