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Facing $3M deficit, SUNY Potsdam weighs cuts to majors

​​​​​​​Celia Clarke, North Country Public Radio
Posted 8/12/22

It’s no secret that the COVID -19 pandemic has caused financial headaches for universities and colleges.

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Facing $3M deficit, SUNY Potsdam weighs cuts to majors


POTSDAM — It’s no secret that the COVID -19 pandemic has caused financial headaches for universities and colleges. But the State University of New York system was facing problems long before the pandemic began.

SUNY Potsdam is staring down a particularly deep crisis. Enrollment is down by about half over the last decade. Key leadership positions are vacant. And the school is trying to close a $3 million deficit.

One solution the university is considering is to cut majors, some of which are at the core of a liberal arts education, like art history and mathematics.

There’s no quick fix to the problems that SUNY Potsdam is facing. State funding has been relatively stagnant for years. SUNY has been devoting more money to research centers than 4-year liberal arts schools like SUNY Potsdam.

“The financial situation of SUNY Potsdam is, indeed, quite dire,” said D. Jefferson Reeder, the United University Professionals representative. The union represents the faculty on campus. “Their enrollment is way down, like half of what it was seven or eight years ago. They are many millions of dollars in the red.”

Interim President Phillip Neisser, officially titled by SUNY as the Officer-in-Charge, said the university’s deficit is about $3 million. He said enrollment is the major way that a college like SUNY Potsdam makes money. This fall there will be about 2,400 students on campus, but that’s not enough to close the financial gap, he says.

“Academic realignment”

Patrick Quinn, SUNY Potsdam’s enrollment manager, said the university will never see enrollment numbers like it had almost a decade ago.

“The overall enrollment of the SUNY system has dropped over the past 10 years,” said Quinn, “partly due to some of the demographic shifts, but also competition from the private college sector.”

But Quinn said enrollment doesn’t have to go back to previous levels for the university to be in good shape. “I think I could see us growing by 10 to 15%, let’s say overall, so that might be another 200, 250, to 300 students.”

Quinn said it could take five years to increase enrollment that much. He said one key way to do that is what’s called ‘academic realignment’ — basically, strengthening academic programs that will attract more students.

“Academic realignment is happening everywhere. And quite honestly, if you’re not doing it, then you’re not doing your job as an institution, because you need to look at not only the programs that you’re offering but also opportunities to access those programs, whether it’s online, in-person, or some hybrid model,” he said.

NCPR acquired an early draft of that ‘realignment’ plan. It put 17 majors, eight minors, and two departments “on notice” that they could be eliminated.

A university spokesperson said that as of this week no programs are at risk of immediate cancellation. But the at-risk programs have to meet enrollment and restructuring goals to survive.

Those programs include majors in mathematics, computer science, French and physics. Four majors in the English department would be reduced to two. The physics and philosophy departments are merging with others, and the art history major, which was to be eliminated in the spring, is working on a partnership with SUNY Plattsburgh to be able to continue.

A crisis in liberal arts

D. Jefferson Reeder, the union representative, said after years of underfunding departments, the ‘realignment’ plan sends the wrong message to faculty. “They feel extremely bad about it. They’re depressed. They’re angry. They’re frustrated,” he said.

Neisser, the interim president, says no programs have been cut - yet. “You know, if a program is discontinued, it’s just hypothetical, then it doesn’t necessarily save any money,” said Neisser. “But it could mean that after that, eventually, someone is not replaced. And maybe [someone else] hired in another area for another program, which is an enrollment growth area. Please realize that we have to put our dollars into the programs that have enrollment potential.”

Kevin Kinser said SUNY Potsdam is not alone. Kinser is a professor at Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education. He also taught at SUNY Albany for 15 years. He said public and private universities across the country are taking a similar cost-benefit approach to their academic offerings.

“Whether that’s an effective strategy for reducing costs and long-term sustainability” remains to be seen, Kinser said. “As is often the case, it depends on the institution and what’s actually being done. It’s often really controversial.”

Controversial because, he said, the programs most often on the cutting board are those core liberal arts subjects.

“Is a liberal arts education a practical education? In the sense of, is it necessary for people to get jobs? Like it or not people are not going to college now for personal growth. They’re going there and they’re paying their tuitions, and frankly, the state is subsidizing this because they see an economic benefit and that economic benefit is both societal and personal,” he said.

Burnout is “very high”

At SUNY Potsdam, all this is happening amidst big staffing changes. There’s a national search for a president, the dean of the arts & sciences school recently resigned, as did the head of the school’s diversity and inclusion office, the head of finances, and the provost.

The vacancies and prospect of changes is taking a toll on the faculty. Heather Sullivan-Catlin has been a professor at SUNY Potsdam for 22 years. She said burnout is increasing among faculty. “It’s very high. When I talk to a lot of my peers the conversation lately is, ‘When should we retire? Should we try and stick this out?’’’ she said.

Late last month, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced $113 million in new funding for SUNY schools. About half of it will go to 30 campuses to address enrollment and academic issues.

It’s not clear how much SUNY Potsdam will get. In the meantime, the “realignment” plan is moving ahead.

Classes begin on August 29.


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