Emporia State University seeks authority to begin campus workforce restructuring

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TOPEKA — Emporia State University administrators proposed Thursday deployment of a workforce management policy that could lead to discontinuation of academic programs or employee dismissals in response to a combination of financial and enrollment challenges.

ESU president Ken Hush said he would ask the Kansas Board of Regents for authority to modify the campus workforce by implementing a framework developed by the higher education governance board. The policy was initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic and recognized flat-to-shrinking student enrollment, pressure to hold down tuition rates and the capacity of taxpayers to support higher education.

The Board of Regents decided to make the special workforce management rules available to administrators at ESU and the five other state universities through December 2022. The framework includes guidelines on dismissal of tenured faculty and other staff and for modifying academic offerings.

University of Kansas administrators had expressed interest in making use of the policy, but later backed off that position.

Hush, an ESU graduate named president nearly one year ago, said the strategic objective was to realign campus resources “to address the university’s structural deficits that have been ongoing for several years.”

A statement from ESU and an interview with Hush didn’t reveal details of potential personnel reductions nor the possibility of program consolidations or deletions. He said ESU’s framework proposal would be reviewed by the Board of Regents on Sept. 14.

“We are simply putting forth that we would like to utilize this policy,” the president said. “Frankly, for the next week we’re not able to comment on a lot of these things.”

ESU officials said they had been gathering input regarding the future of the university from students, faculty and staff since January.

“We went to our students for input. And, we are listening,” Hush said. “We are simply addressing those students’ needs.”

Enrollment at Emporia State and at four-year institutions across the United States has been in decline for years. College-age students have numerous options after high school given the workforce shortage, rise of interest in online course offerings and a focus on college degrees with a clear financial payoff.

“Students have more choices than ever,” said Kelly Heine, ESU’s chief marketing officer. “Sixty-one percent of Americans think higher ed is going in the wrong direction. At Emporia State, what we’re really doing is evaluating everything, looking really hard and getting really focused on where do we want to be putting our limited resource dollars.”

Interim ESU provost Brent Thomas, who is dean of the liberal arts college, said decisions about altering university budgets weren’t as simple as imposing spending cuts. Changes at ESU would help identify funding that could be repositioned to meet future needs, he said.

“By getting out in front of this and utilizing this tool, it’s going to allow us to adapt to the realities of the changing world around us in a much quicker fashion,” Thomas said. “It’s going to allow us to reinvest those resources so we can build upon the unique strengths and the programs that are kind of in our strike zone that we do well. Or, perhaps, even venture into programs that we’re currently not doing.”

Recently, Emporia State announced expansion of in-state tuition rates to residents of the 48 states.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Emporia State graduate and an Overland Park Democrat, said she was disappointed in the Legislature for placing the university and Board of Regents in a difficult position.

The Legislature declined to invest sufficiently in higher education and ESU, she said, because ESU was known for its teachers college. She said it was no coincidence there were more women enrolled at ESU and in the teaching profession.

“Just given the way that the Legislature has treated higher ed in general, and the way that they have tended to devalue education, and devalue those who are getting training, and frankly, devalue women making their way in the world, it should really come as no surprise that that school has been helped the least by the Legislature,” Clayton said.

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