The long brick building with pale green windows catches the eye of prospective students visiting William Paterson University in Wayne.
Set on rolling terrain near one of the highest points in Passaic County, Skyline Hall looks more like a luxury apartment building than a college dorm. Colorful seating areas feature video monitors, plush sofas and armchairs, and a high table dotted with laptop outlets. The hall’s 276 students live in what the university calls “semi-suites,” with one private bathroom for four residents.
In the three years since Skyline Hall opened, it has become the most in-demand living space on campus. University leaders say it’s worth the $40 million it cost to build. Now, however, WPU is paying the price.
Like New Jersey City University in Hudson County, another regional college that has grown into a huge state institution with thousands of staff and students, WPU is struggling financially. Years of generous spending on extensive facilities and academic programs left the university vulnerable when COVID-19 hit, enrollment declined, and tuition revenue – which accounts for 70% of the university’s budget – suddenly dropped.
Today, WPU is like an island recovering from a hurricane – a perfect storm that has forced dozens of layoffs and several cuts to college majors, with more likely to come. That’s what many think is in store for NJCU, which revealed last month that it was suffering from a similar storm.
NJCU administrators declared a financial emergency after acknowledging that the university was deep in the red, with less than a month of money available.
A faculty member analysis claimed that during the tenure of Sue Henderson, the NJCU president who left office on July 1, the school went from a $101.8 million surplus to a deficit. $67.4 million; the NJCU board of directors said it ended its fiscal year with a deficit of $20 million last month.
At WPU, the storm wasn’t as severe; most observers say the WPU’s budget gap will be between $10 million and $30 million once the full impact of the pandemic wears off. Yet it forced the school to rethink and entrench itself.
Two university programs, art history and geography, have been closed, and other programs – including a major in Asian studies and a master of fine arts – have been reduced, according to Inside Higher Ed, an online trade publication. .
Class sizes have been increased. During the recent spring semester, some classes saw their number of places increase up to 10 students. Some students resented the change because it made classes less “intimate”, according to an article in WPU’s student newspaper, the Pioneer Times.
In a first round of layoffs at the end of 2020, about 13 faculty members and 16 professional staff members were laid off, said Susanna Tardi, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1796, which represents WPU academic staff. Many others have accepted a transition to retirement or a voluntary separation.
But the cuts didn’t stop there. A few months later, in the summer of 2021, conversations began between the union and WPU management for somewhere between 100 and 150 additional layoffs, Tardi said.
To minimize the number of positions cut, Tardi said the union was willing to make further concessions.
“We gave up everything that made us academics,” she said. “We don’t have time off to do research, we don’t have sabbaticals, we’ve deferred promotion pay raises for a year. We have a special type of counseling that we do when teachers are paid; we said we would do it for free.
“We’ve given up a lot, and we still anticipate that we could have two more rounds of layoffs.”
Some critics blame the millions spent on Skyline Hall and a $26 million parking lot. But Stuart Goldstein, vice president of marketing and public relations, said these were investments the school needed to make to meet student demand.
“These were strategic investments in our main campus, which were made while the university was in a good financial position,” Goldstein said. “The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the student populations that William Paterson and New Jersey City University serve.”
More than half of the students who enroll at WPU and NJCU are black or Hispanic. In an email to NJCU staff and students last month, Joseph F. Scott, chairman of the school’s board of trustees, attributed NJCU’s challenges in part to “historic underinvestment in the university and in black and brown communities”.
Yet despite the continued possibility of further cuts, WPU management remains optimistic about the direction the school is headed. In an email to faculty and staff earlier this month, President Richard Helldobler cited the school’s recent reaffirmation of its Middle States accreditation, the closing of a fundraising campaign for scholarships from $6.5 Million Studies Above Target and a New Cannabis Research Institute.
Helldobler said, “We must not minimize our challenges, but we must never lose sight of the many great things that are being achieved here every day.
Jersey Journal intern Haresh Oudhnarine is a senior at NJCU and editor of the Gothic Times, NJCU’s student newspaper.