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At Stephen F. Austin State University, a quiet pay bump for the president sparks outrage and questions over the budget and furloughs

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Posted at 9:00 PM, Oct 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-14 22:00:00-04

By all accounts, the mood was tense among faculty at Stephen F. Austin State University this fall as they welcomed students back to Nacogdoches for the first in-person semester in over a year.

COVID-19 had exacerbated four years of enrollment declines at the East Texas university 140 miles north of Houston, resulting in subsequent revenue losses and forcing the recently hired SFA President Scott Gordon to call for voluntary retirements, cuts to academics and staff furloughs.

Despite those interventions, the university — one of the last public universities unattached to a university system in Texas — still found itself grappling with a $19 million shortfall heading into the new school year.

So the reaction was swift when faculty and staff discovered in late August that SFA’s board of regents had quietly handed Gordon an $85,000 pay bump last spring as part of a “contract” renegotiation, even as administrators warned members in that meeting of “turbulence ahead.” The new contract also included an additional $25,000 pay increase each year for the next two years.

In a word, nearly everyone – staff, faculty, even students – was angry.

“We were told no salary increases, tighten your belts, we’ve got to buckle down to be frugal,” said Matt Beauregard, a SFA math and statistics professor, interim chair of the physics, engineering and astronomy department and interim chair of the computer science department. “Why in anyone’s right mind would you renegotiate contracts? To me that shows just a lack of foresight or you just don’t really understand the academic mission of a university.”

The pay hike was easy to miss, buried in vague language when it was listed on the board’s agenda last April.

But the irate reaction from faculty, staff and students was much harder to ignore. An apologetic Gordon quickly returned the pay raise at a special board meeting on Sept. 6, where the board claimed they approved the raise based on “information provided at the time.” The next day, both Gordon and SFA’s board of regents chair, Karen Gantt, quickly set up a series of meetings with faculty and staff as part of a “listening tour” where complaints could be aired, giving all a better path forward.

Gordon and Gantt declined multiple requests to participate in this story through their spokespeople.

For many employees, this was not the first time they were concerned over decisions made by Gordon since he was hired as president. While many faculty acknowledge that SFA had been dealing with declining enrollments and revenue challenges before Gordon’s arrival in 2019, they told the Tribune he has only exacerbated these issues with his call for major changes in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.

Taking a pay raise during a time of budget cutbacks was the final straw for many.

“There was a tone deafness there by the Board of Regents and by Dr. Gordon,” said John Hendricks, chair of the mass communications department. “And that’s what, I think, got a lot of people upset. Is there really a budget problem if they can afford to give him that kind of a raise? It seemed to people on campus that it was a matter of priorities and maybe academic affairs wasn’t a top priority at this time. Some on campus believed that the quote ‘budget crisis’ might be a bit disingenuous if they're able to do all of that.”

“We’re finding stuff that is wow.”

Those budget questions have only grown this fall. In a meeting with Gantt and Gordon on Sept. 7, a group of about 30 department chairs left with even more questions about SFA’s $262 million budget and, for some, less faith about whether the people at the top had as firm a grasp on the institution’s financials as they should.

According to multiple department chairs who attended the meeting, Gordon indicated that he and his administration were struggling to get a handle on the university’s finances. Department chairs told the Tribune that Gordon said it could be a year before the university does so.

“We're finding stuff that is wow,” Gordon told the chairs, according to department chairs Cleo House Jr., Beauregard, and Hendricks, who all attended the meeting.

“They were communicating to us that they don’t know all the nooks and crannies of the budget,” House, chair of the theater department, told the Tribune in an interview after he attended the meeting. “As someone who is always getting our [own] budget scrutinized … [with questions] like, ‘why do you need this?’ and ‘why do you spend money on this?’ — it’s very concerning that so much of the [overall] budget is in question.”

Other faculty members said that in the meeting, Gantt, a McKinney attorney and SFA grad who has served on the board since 2017, reassured the department chairs that the school’s nine regents and a nonvoting student regent – all appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott – are more engaged on budget issues than ever before.

She told those in attendance that SFA’s board of regents was an inquisitive one, asking questions about particular items and doing much more than rubber-stamping the budget, several department chairs told the Tribune.

“We have been told that ... they are trying to wrap their arms around the budget situation,” said Hendricks. “It disturbs me that important decisions regarding academics and the university as a whole are being made without a complete understanding of the budget, with the budget being used as the rationale for making these decisions.”

A breakdown in confidence

Outside the campus, state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, was less concerned by the lack of clarity over the budget intricacies.

“Whether members of the board of regents or any administration or faculty may not have a complete understanding of detailed financial matters and auditing principles would not surprise me because, frankly, I would be in the same boat,” Clardy said, saying it’s common for the board to rely on finance staff just as the Legislature relies on appropriations experts to help members as they pass the budget.

“Just like you hire an engineer before you decide to build or hire a lawyer before you go to trial, you bring in the experts that you need as needed,” Clardy said.

He said Gordon’s “heart is in the right place” and that he “entered a university that was a hard climate for him to be successful,” given the death of the former president and the pandemic.

A spokesperson for Abbott said in a statement that the governor is monitoring the situation at SFA and “their services to the students, faculty, and the Nacogdoches community.”

But those on campus were less convinced about the SFA regents’ budget stewardship.

“The Board of Regents have not done their job,” said Brent Burt, a biology professor. “They are the fiduciary responsible party associated with the university and a lot of us feel like they have not been making good decisions in that regard and that is in large part [how] we got ourselves here.”

On Sept. 8, a day after that huddle with SFA department chairs, the SFA Faculty Senate held their own meeting with Gordon in which they expressed their anger with his decision to take the pay increase. Ultimately, the faculty organization took a vote of no confidence in Gordon’s leadership.

The Faculty Senate’s no confidence resolution pointed not only to the salary increase, but to other initiatives recently introduced that “generally have failed outright or provided no tangible results.”

Two months into the pandemic, Gordon told his department heads to submit ideas about how to better organize the colleges within the university. Some faculty members said they did so but no action on those ideas was ever taken. Then last summer, Gordon made major changes to the schedule, cutting many standard 16-week courses into 8-week courses, which faculty said caused confusion for them and students who did not want to take the condensed courses. The senate members’ resolution also stated, with no detail, that the president has “on several occasions exhibited bullying and unreasonably impatient behavior both in public and private.”

That vote of no confidence was quickly supported by deans and department chairs who issued their own statements. Two days later, the SFA Staff Council, a new organization created by Gordon, also condemned the salary increase and supported the faculty.

“I have never seen this kind of solidarity,” said Ken Untiedt, professor and interim chair of SFA’s department of English and creative writing. “I’ve never seen the Faculty Senate, the Chairs' Forum and the Deans' Council and the student body and the newly formed Staff Council all on the same page, all saying we cannot work with this person.”

Meanwhile, both Board Chair Gantt and President Gordon shared feedback from their meetings with deans, faculty and staff at a Sept. 12 board meeting.

“To say morale is low in the faculty ranks is a gross understatement,” Gantt told her fellow board members.

At that same board meeting, the regents agreed to hire an external auditor to review the university’s budget. The board also pledged to improve the board’s communication and relationships with the entire university.

Meanwhile, students have called for more transparency. A 625-signature student petition asking for more budget clarity was circulated.

And a Sept. 13 editorial in the student newspaper, The Pine Log, said students hear more about the budget from their professors than the administration and regents.

“Throughout the whole process, students have mainly been left in the dark – only receiving emails full of apologies instead of reports,” the editorial stated.

Some students say the budget problems have resulted in fewer but larger classes, and have made it harder for students to take the requisite courses needed to graduate. They believe budget issues will not impact just their learning experiences, but also future career opportunities.

“If this continues and if we cut skills and academics more and more and more to the point where we can't publish much and we produce graduates with no real skills, that does impact the value of my degree and the way other businesses perceive the value of my degree,” said Jordy Sloan, who is pursuing a graduate degree in cellular biology.

After weeks of tension, and at the request of the Faculty Senate, the board called a special meeting on Sept. 27 to discuss Gordon’s contract.

But after nine hours of private deliberation, the board decided to keep Gordon without explanation, calling on him to repair the tense relationship with faculty. Yet professors were exasperated that the board said, on one hand, that they would be more communicative but, on the other, continued to provide few details as to why they decided to keep Gordon.

“It’s just an insult,” said Untiedt. “That tells us, ‘we’re just going to keep on doing what we were doing. And all of your concerns from all of the groups are unheard.’”

“We have lived outside our means”

Gordon is only the ninth president to oversee SFA, which began as a teachers college in 1923. Before arriving in Texas in the fall of 2019, Gordon was provost at Eastern Washington University, a public university of similar enrollment size to SFA’s. Gordon was the first new leader for the East Texas university in more than a decade after its previous president, Baker Pattillo, died in 2018.

When Gordon arrived, the university had been struggling with stagnant enrollment, a major revenue driver. In 2012, enrollment hovered around 13,000 and declined slightly over time. This fall, enrollment was 11,946, the lowest in the last decade, according to federal data. SFA was also a campus that had grown accustomed to a lack of transparency.

If faculty wanted to view the annual budget, for instance, they had to hand over their university ID to check out one printed copy available at the university library and they were allowed to keep it for only a few hours at a time, faculty said.

A few months into his tenure, Gordon told The Pine Log that he wanted to create a more user-friendly budget that was more accessible to faculty, staff and students so they had a better idea how it is developed and where money is allocated.

“They can ask anything they want, and I will answer them,” Gordon told the student newspaper. “Everything from what I like most about SFA [or] what I like least to ‘How much money do you have in your budget?’ Those are all questions I will take.”

He held budget town halls and launched a group called the University Budget Council, made up of faculty, staff, students and administrations, who would serve as informal advisers as he and his staff decided where to allocate money each year.

Danny Gallant, the former long-time vice president of finance, ran this new committee. But Gallant suddenly left the university over the summer.

According to an email provided to the Tribune, Gordon sent an email to the campus community stating that Gallant was retiring effective July 27, 2021. The associate vice president for finance would serve in the interim.

But Gallant told the Tribune he was forced out one afternoon when Gordon called him into his office.

“Essentially I was threatened with having to make a decision to retire that afternoon immediately or else it would be taken in front of an emergency board meeting [to decide],” Gallant told the Tribune. “I was treated like a criminal. I’ve never been so shocked and humiliated my entire life.”

Gallant provided a letter to the Tribune that his attorney sent to SFA alerting the university of their plans to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Texas Workforce Commission against SFA. They accuse Gordon of discriminating against Gallant because of his age and disability when he contracted COVID-19. Gallant’s lawyer also claims they are looking into potential First Amendment violations by Gordon, claiming that Gallant was retaliated against for making comments about SFA’s hiring practices, among other things.

A university spokesperson declined to answer questions about Gallant’s departure. A lawyer for the board of regents did not respond to a request about whether the letter from Gallant’s attorney had been received.

The post-pandemic health of Texas colleges

To be clear, COVID-19 had a major impact on public university finances across Texas, cutting into revenue through housing and dining refunds and adding additional expenses. Many schools froze hiring and eliminated open positions to balance budgets. But enrollment declines were not as widespread across Texas’ four-year universities.

Overall, Texas saw most of its enrollment declines last year in its community colleges, with public university enrollment remaining generally flat statewide.

Most large public universities, including the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Tech University, have continued to see record enrollments. Regional public universities like SFA, however, have seen mixed results, with some like Tarleton State University and Sam Houston State University seeing increased enrollment, while other schools, such as Texas A&M University at Commerce and Texas A&M University at Kingsville, faced slight declines.

Yet a new webpage on SFA’s website indicates that some of its budget issues have been “forming during the past decade,” pointing to declining state appropriations, increased institutional debt and enrollment drops.

“Essentially, we have lived outside our means far too long and covered much of this activity through tuition increases that have resulted in SFA’s tuition being in the top quartile among public universities in Texas,” the website reads.

When asked about this assessment, Gallant acknowledged the revenue declines related to COVID but said he did not understand what Gordon meant when he said the deficit was forming over the past 10 years.

“He’s pointing the finger at a lot of people, including past boards, when he says that,” Gallant said.

But exactly what Gordon found in SFA’s budget upon taking the reins at the university is not clear. The Tribune made several attempts to interview the president about how the budget looked upon his arrival as well as those meetings with staff and faculty, among other topics. At least two interviews were scheduled, then canceled by the university at the last minute.

Instead, Gordon issued a statement that said he’s focused on developing a more “user-friendly budget” and creating a new budget council to increase budget transparency.

“These initiatives will further the campus community’s awareness and understanding of SFA’s budget and the importance that enrollment – our primary revenue generator – has on university finances.”

The school’s general counsel, Damon Derrick, said SFA’s rules barred regents from talking publicly without approval of the full board.

When the Tribune provided Gordon with a list of written questions, a spokesperson provided an additional statement, in which he called SFA’s budget “sound.”

“The university’s budget and financial processes have been highly technical and not particularly user-friendly,” Gordon said. “As we have entered a period of greater transparency and participation at SFA, we need documents and processes that are more accessible to a broader range of stakeholders.”

For some, the solution isn’t more accessibility, but more accountability.

Some faculty members say the board’s decision to keep Gordon in the face of their call for his removal, at the very least, has renewed the conversation on campus about whether it’s time for the university to join a system. SFA and Texas Southern University remain the only two independent public universities in Texas.

The previous president had adamantly opposed joining a university system and in his statement to the Tribune, Gordon said joining a broader university system is not the solution to improving SFA’s issues.

But Hendricks, the mass communications professor, wondered if the time for more oversight had arrived in the East Texas Piney Woods.

“Would this type of lack of understanding of the budget and stagnant enrollment for more than a decade have been tolerated,” he offered, “had SFA been a part of a system?”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/14/stephen-f-austin-budget/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.