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MU board tables budget transition

Marshall
Apr. 18, 2013 @ 11:00 PM

HUNTINGTON — Marshall University's Board of Governors backed off approving a new, more centralized university budget structure Thursday after faculty members complained and President Stephen Kopp agreed that waiting would allow time to rebuild trust.

The board was prepared to provide "provisional approval" at one point, but the motion was withdrawn and the board instead voted to table the budget revision proposal.

"This is probably the best possible outcome," said Dan Holbrook, the chairman of the History Department. "It may be this is the day when things change for the better. It will take sincere and consistent efforts on all parts -- faculty, classified staff, and the president -- to make that happen."

Holbrook said what many faculty members, staff and students have been feeling since April 9, when most departmental funds were swept into a central holding account by the administration in what Kopp said was an effort to get a better understanding how much fee revenue was there and how it was being spent.

He told board members and Kopp that there has been an air of distrust with the administration going back two presidents. And, as students railed Kopp's leadership on a bullhorn outside the Memorial Student Center, Holbrook said Thursday was a sad day for Marshall.

"Very little has been done to change the culture," Holbrook said. "The place to start is ... by withdrawing these new budget parameters."

After Holbrook said he was confident Marshall could operate under its current budget model for another year and not harm the educational mission, Kopp turned to the board and told them waiting a year was worth it if it allowed time to rebuild trust on campus.

"If suspending this would help rebuild trust on campus, it needs consideration by the board," Kopp said.

Even if the state's financial picture weakens and it hurts Marshall, Kopp said, he would rather move forward with a budget transition knowing he had a unified campus.

That's when board member John Hess withdrew his original motion -- which was amended during the Finance, Facilities and Audit Committee meeting to call action on the new budgeting framework a "provisional approval" -- and offered his motion to table it.

"I put it on the administration to continue to work on this problem of trust," Hess said.

The budgeting proposal that Kopp and Chief Financial Officer Mary Ellen Heuton have worked on for the past five months would have shifted the university from a funds management style -- where departments build and maintain their own budgets -- to one that is centralized. Student fees would have been simplified, rather than having dozens of course fees. Kopp also said it would have enabled the university to create a faculty compensation pool because it would have had a better handle on revenues and expenses and could manage "closer to the edge."

Delaying a move to a new budgeting model, or perhaps not shifting at all, will affect the ability to raise salaries, Kopp and others on the board said. While they will continue to work on all possible avenues, Kopp and Hess said they can't commit to increased base expenditures without a new stream of revenue, especially while dealing with a $5.11 million reduction in state appropriations in the upcoming budget year.

Kopp reiterated that the budget proposal was developed on a short timeline after receiving a charge from the board last summer and again in December. He said that played a part in why other constituents were not involved and why the sweep took place last week, though many funds have been moved back as requests from departments have come in. Whether all the funds will be returned was being discussed later Thursday, and the administration will seek guidance from the board on that question, university spokesman Matt Turner said.

The president apologized Wednesday and reaffirmed his regret Thursday, in both the committee meeting and in the full board gathering. But he said that doesn't change the financial outlook and the need to make budgeting changes.

Board member and former state Sen. Oshel Craigo didn't disagree that changes are needed. He was the one who vehemently argued last year against consistently raising tuition. But even he had problems with being asked to approve the new budget framework after only receiving it a week ago.

"I've got a problem here," Craigo said during the finance committee meeting. "I'm not very informed on this. My suggestion is we don't vote on it but educate our board on it. You're talking about a major thing."

Marty Amerikaner, a psychology professor who also is the faculty representative on the board, joined the meeting by phone because he was out of town. He's been vocal against the fund sweep and budget proposal. He acknowledged that things can't stay the same but said giving provisional approval was still the wrong move.

It appeared by the end of the meeting that the faculty members who attended were satisfied with the action to table the matter and willing to work on rebuilding trust with Kopp and his administration.

Holbrook said later that the board took the correct action. "It sent a strong message to me at least that the board does not just do what the president asks, but is willing to take steps to ensure that shared governance is much more of a reality, potentially at least, than it has been," he wrote in an email to The Herald-Dispatch.

Outside, however, students were not as forgiving.

"No one should have that much power (to authorize a fund sweep)," said junior Patrick Breeden. "It's a sign of a dictatorship. We want him out."

Sophomore Olivia Bias said the sweep was offensive, though she took solace in the board's action. But she said the damage has been done.

They also were collecting signatures from students for a "statement of solidarity" to the Faculty Senate, which meets at noon Friday. Faculty member Pam Mulder, who was present at the board meeting, said Wednesday a resolution may be taken up for a vote of no confidence in Kopp.

Mulder said after the meeting that she wants to believe in the "good will" statements. And, she said she thinks Kopp finally understood why they were upset.

"I liked what I walked away hearing," Mulder said, though she's not sure it will stop a vote of no confidence resolution on Friday.

"I think they want to finish what they started. It's a statement that has to be made," she said.

Dr. Joe Touma, the chairman of the Board of Governors, said as painful as it was, he thinks what happened may have been a good thing. It got everything out in the open, he said.

"The past is gone, it's over," Touma said. "But what is the future going to hold for us? I want everyone to work together, with openness and cooperation."

The next step for the board is to come back for a meeting in early May to vote on tuition and fees for the 2013-2014 school year, which are due to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission by May 10. Then, the board will meet on June 11 to vote on the budget.

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