Knox officials Wednesday stood by an estimated $3 million budget shortfall after appearing to backtrack on the severity of the problem, prompting several faculty members to question administrators’ treatment of college budget issues.
President Teresa Amott cited a conflicting Oct. 6 report in The Galesburg Register-Mail and Peoria Journal-Star as a “minor miscommunication.”
The administration is still looking for ways to fix the deficit before they present the figures at the end of the month to the Board of Trustees, who must approve the budget. The second-year president will propose that the college tap into budget reserves to balance the deficit.
“This is a very complicated question,” Amott said. “What’s complicated is that nobody outside of Knox fully appreciates that we don’t have a budget until the Board authorizes it. Everything is projected or estimated or proposed. Deficit is a term of art almost that people outside don’t understand.”
While Knox officials have faced budget deficits in the past, Amott acknowledged last week that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find areas in which to cut. She pointed to a part-time athletic director, a one-person career service center and faculty salaries that are already almost $7,000 below market value.
Still, the conflicting report caught many faculty members by surprise.
“It’s the fact that it almost smells like a cover-up that gets you,” Associate Professor of Mathematics and Chair Pro Tem of the faculty Andrew Leahy said. “It bothers me, because there are two narratives going on, whether or not there was a miscommunication.”
While he was careful not to make accusations, he said conflicting reports could have greater implications. If highballed to faculty and downplayed to incoming students, the deficit could be used to leverage against salary increases, while attempting to prevent panic among current and incoming students, he said.
In the scheme of things, the projected deficit is important because it provides a glimpse of the college’s priorities based on where they choose to cut, Leahy said.
“It may be a number, but it’s also a story,” he said.
Professor of Biology Stuart Allison said Knox students and faculty often struggle to deal with controversial issues among themselves, a phenomenon he called “Knox Nice.”
“When you’re in the Knox community, this has its positives and negatives. You try to always treat people with respect, but it also means that you sometimes don’t call people out when you should. You’re walking a fine line,” he said.
Register-Mail Business Editor John Pulliam, who wrote the Oct. 6 article, questioned where the miscommunication occurred. He spoke last Friday with Chief Communication Officer Sean Riedel and Vice President for Finance Tom Axtell about the estimated deficit.
“It was a very strange interview,” he said. “It almost seemed like a little spin, to be honest. My feeling was that they were admitting they had challenges, but they didn’t want to be pinned down by how big.”
Axtell said it is impossible to isolate the deficit before it is reconciled and presented to the Board because the number “changes daily.”
“It’s a snapshot in the budget development process. A $3 million deficit is certainly not what we’re going to take to the Board,” he said. “Before it gets to the Board, it’s really just a snapshot of the figure.”
In a Sept. 4 memo to faculty, for example, Amott quoted the estimated shortfall at $3.5 million. However, at the Oct. 1 meeting, the number had dropped to $3.1 million.
In an interview with TKS, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman warned against spreading information into the community without first providing proper context.
“If you’re going to tell the newspaper what’s going on, you have to be very cautious so people can understand the full totality of what’s going on,” he said. “You have to decide how much information you’re going to provide and realize that discussing all that may not be the best thing for the college right now.”
Schwartzman, however, commended the Knox community for its overall transparency when dealing with sensitive issues, such as budget shortfalls.
“You have to make yourself available to reporters as readily as you can, but to also have a damage control unit, so that if something gets out you can be aware of it. You have to keep a pulse of the community,” he said.
But some faculty noted that the exact figure is of little consequence. For them, it is more important to simply recognize the financial issues and how to combat them.
“I think it’s better to think of it in general terms,” Professor of Classics Steve Fineberg, who attended last week’s faculty meeting, said. Fineberg recognizes the college has “sizable” debt and operational costs, along with a relatively low endowment. Understanding that much, he said, is enough.
“When you start putting it down in terms of dollars and cents, I believe that’s a distortion. The minute you do that, you’re basically not reporting the truth,” Fineberg said. “The answer is that we have too big a deficit.”
Professor of Economics Rich Stout, who also attended the faculty meeting, recalled other times during his tenure at Knox when the college faced glaring financial problems, most recently in the late 1990s. Stout said the college has made it through tough times before, and he has no reason to believe that this situation will be any different, especially in light of Amott’s proposed capital campaign.
“When Tom Axtell gave his report on Monday, I thought, ‘Well, we’ve been here before,’” Stout said. “This isn’t desirable, but we’re going to be able to do some things that are going to get us out of this again, I’m sure.”
For Fineberg, that assurance and discussion of the potential solutions was conspicuously missing from last week’s meeting.
“What’s clear to me is (Amott has) thought this through,” Fineberg said. “Why didn’t she say that? … I do think she’s forthcoming and more rational than any president we’ve ever had.”
The Board of Trustees will decide whether to approve the budget and deficit resolution on Oct. 25. As of print time, a TKS reporter will not be in attendance for the meeting, as per Board rules on media attendance.
Managing Editor Charlie Gorney contributed to this report.