Current as of November 17, 2009
While my current calendar should allow me to attend Faculty Conference later this week, I wanted to take this opportunity to provide a general update to faculty and staff alike as we prepare for Thanksgiving break next week and winding up the semester soon afterward.
Given last week’s report by South Carolina’s Board of Economic Advisers (BEA) that state revenue collections have taken another unexpected dip, it is clear our state has yet to feel the beginnings of recovery that are being reported elsewhere. Part of that appears to be related to structural issues in South Carolina’s approach to taxation, while another key factor is the continuing fundamental but slow realignment of the state’s textile-based employment to a different kind of economy. These new realities have considerable implications for Winthrop -- in terms of both the declining reliability of state fiscal support and in terms of the work we do to prepare our students for the economy of the future.
What sets this economic downturn apart from the more customary ups and down cycle is that it is increasingly clear this time is not a situation to be “waited out” until “things get back to normal.” Rather, everything about it is an unmistakable signal to adjust our thinking to the new era in which we suddenly find ourselves -- especially as a part of state government.
That is why Winthrop is continuing to emphasize recruitment outreach as one of our priorities -- and why contributing to the success of recruitment events is now considered an all-institutional responsibility at Winthrop. Long-term, incremental enrollment growth will become a far more reliable source of operating revenue than state appropriations for all public institutions -- which means ours is an increasingly competitive enterprise. As campus veterans know, Winthrop for many years has advanced by being both “values-based and market-wise.” The new era in which we find ourselves is certainly a time in which to re-emphasize both sides of that commitment, because that is how we will keep faith with our commitment to guide our students in preparing themselves to live, learn and lead for a lifetime. By providing students with an educational experience of distinctive Winthrop quality and value, they will be equipped to meet whatever the new realities of their lifetimes turn out to be, given the rapid changes that shape all our lives these days.
I want to provide you with some additional background on factors that are shaping Winthrop’s approach to these new realities, so please bear with the length of this message. It is important that everyone in our campus community understand the depth and breadth of the continuing economic challenges within our state, and how Winthrop is responding to those challenges. Consider the following:
- BEA Chairman John Rainey was on our campus in October to brief board members and chief administrators from all York County public education entities, and he spoke frankly about how deeply troubled he is that unemployment will continue to plague South Carolina’s economy for at least the next year and likely two years. He predicted that this trend will mean an increasing amount of the state budget will have to be devoted (even after recovery begins) to repaying unemployment funds currently being borrowed from the federal government, so that South Carolina can provide state unemployment benefits to its jobless citizens. Unemployment affects not only those who are jobless, but the rest of the state as well. That’s because South Carolina will receive virtually no income taxes from the long-term unemployed, and those citizens will be paying minimal sales taxes for only essentials for the foreseeable future. That further erodes the tax revenues that fund all aspects of state government, including higher education – and those very support services that citizens facing long-term unemployment need from their government.
Chairman Rainey last week indicated that as many as 500,000 South Carolina residents may be unemployed. (Rock Hill city officials recently pegged the current unemployment rate at more than 20 percent inside the municipal limits, though the York County rate is lower.)
"It's just so startling," Rainey was quoted as saying about the latest state unemployment estimate last week. "I don't see a lot out there about which we can be optimistic in the near term." Other economic advisers agreed, noting that corporations are “stabilizing, but not yet hiring.”
- Thankfully, Winthrop has been able to weather the onset of these difficulties without affecting the employment of any full-time permanent employee here. We have done this through a variety of institutional budget cuts and spending decisions, including careful prioritization of travel and filling of some vacant positions. Winthrop has avoided a blanket hiring freeze by filling only a limited number of positions for which sound justification even in these circumstances has been provided.
- Similarly, Winthrop is continuing to reduce its reliance on spending for part-time lecturers to supplement full-time faculty. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future -- reflecting a similar situation where staff positions are concerned. Just as teaching loads have increased somewhat in many departments, numerous staff are likewise continuing to perform their regular duties at the same time that they are converting key essential computing functions to a new system that is replacing one for which key vendor support is being discontinued. This is a multi-year process for all concerned.
While it likely is clear to everyone that current circumstances preclude the state considering a salary increase for employees for the foreseeable future, there also are some things that Winthrop is doing in the near-term to help ensure that the nature of the times doesn’t impair employees who are facing key milestones in career advancement.
- While travel priorities largely are centered around those involving student opportunities, Winthrop also has supported the travel needs of those members advancing toward tenure, so as to mitigate, in so far as possible, any impact that current conditions might otherwise have on an individual’s normal progress toward tenure.
- Similarly, appropriate salary increases have been carried out for those who have earned a major promotion milestone in their careers. It is not widely understood by those off-campus that there are only two main opportunities for promotion in most academics’ professional lives. Those come as one progresses through the ranks to full professor. Winthrop believes that appropriately addressing those compensation milestones within the community of learners, even in current circumstances, is an appropriate investment in retaining the national caliber faculty who provide the quality learning experience our students expect.
- For all employees, the state and Winthrop have absorbed increases in cost of health insurance for all full-time, permanent employees through paying a larger employer share of those costs, so that employees will be more likely to be able to retain such insurance.
- Also, Winthrop is continuing to absorb administratively as many costs as possible for all departments so that available academic funds are not eroded by increases in the cost of postage, copying, etc.
Please know that Winthrop is also continuing its work with state officials to make it clear that the structure of S.C. tax policies need to be addressed, both for higher education and for the well-being of the entire state. We also are presenting a case for the exceptional work being done by the state’s network of public comprehensive institutions in helping to advance the educational level of all citizens of the state, as well as pushing for a return to state support for the PASCAL network of college library services, so that PASCAL can be rescued.
As you know from previous budget updates, Winthrop’s guiding mantra in recent months has been to enable the growth of Winthrop in the future while meeting present circumstances.
With your continuing contributions to that work, Winthrop is continuing to adjust to the new realities we all are facing these days. Please know that your contributions to Winthrop’s progress are deeply appreciated by Winthrop’s extended family beyond campus, from our trustees to various other volunteer board members, to our cadre of alumni around the world. Likewise, your work is appreciated by our students in ways they can acknowledge today, and in ways they will not realize until they are years older.
Please know that I have never been more proud of the Winthrop campus community than I have been over the past year, as we have risen to these challenges together. As always, continuing thanks for all you are doing for Winthrop University.