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Struggling NJCU ponders tough decisions. It may look to William Paterson for some answers | Pro Club Bd

The long brick building with lime green windows catches the eye of prospective students attending William Paterson University in Wayne.

Perched on hilly land 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 couches and armchairs, and a high table with power outlets for laptops. The 276 students in the hall live in so-called “semi-suites” with a private bathroom for four residents each.

In the three years since Skyline Hall opened, it has become the most sought-after living space on campus. University leaders say it’s worth the $40 million it cost to build. Now, however, the WPU is paying the price.

Like New Jersey City University in Hudson County, another regional college that has grown into a massive state institution with thousands of staff and students, WPU is in financial trouble. Years of generous spending on expansive facilities and academic programs left the university vulnerable when COVID-19 hit, enrollment fell and tuition income — which accounts for 70% of the university’s budget — suddenly plummeted.

Today, the WPU is like an island recovering from a hurricane — a perfect storm that has forced dozens of layoffs and multiple cuts in academic majors, with a more likely possibility. Many think this is headed for NJCU, which announced last month that it was suffering from a similar storm.

NJCU trustees declared a financial emergency after acknowledging the university was deep in the red with less than a month of cash left.

An analysis by faculty members claimed that the school went from a $101.8 million surplus to a $67.4 million deficit during the tenure of Sue Henderson, the NJCU president, who resigned on July 1; The NJCU board said it ended its fiscal year last month with a $20 million deficit.

At the WPU, the storm wasn’t quite as severe; Most observers say the WPU’s budget gap will be somewhere between $10 million and $30 million once all of the pandemic’s effects have worn off. Nevertheless, it forces the school to rethink and save.

Two academic 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 cut, according to Inside Higher Ed, an online journal.

The class size has been increased. In the last spring semester, some classes were expanded by up to 10 students. Some students didn’t like the change because it made classes less “intimate,” according to a report in WPU’s student newspaper, the Pioneer Times.

About 13 faculty members and 16 professionals were fired in a first round of layoffs in late 2020, said Susanna Tardi, president of Local 1796 of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents WPU’s academic staff. Many others accepted a transition into retirement or a voluntary separation.

But the cuts didn’t stop there. A few months later, in the summer of 2021, talks began between the union and the WPU leadership over about 100 to 150 more layoffs, Tardi said.

To minimize the number of job cuts, Tardi said the union had made further concessions.

“We’ve given up everything that makes us academics,” she said. “We don’t have research time off, we don’t have sabbaticals, we have postponed raises from promotions for a year. We have a special type of counseling that we do when the faculty is compensated; we said we’ll do it for free.

“We’ve given up a lot, and yet we anticipate maybe two more rounds of layoffs.”

Some critics blame spending millions on Skyline Hall and a $26 million parking garage. But Stuart Goldstein, vice president of marketing and public relations, said these are investments the school needs to make to meet student demand.

“These were strategic investments in our main campus that were made while the university was in good financial position,” Goldstein said. “The pandemic has disproportionately impacted the student populations served by William Paterson and New Jersey City University.”

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, chair 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.”

But despite the continuing possibility of further cuts, WPU leadership remains optimistic about where the school is headed. In an email to faculty and staff earlier this month, President Richard Helldobler cited the school’s recent confirmation of its Mid-States accreditation, the completion of a scholarship fundraising campaign that was $6.5 million over target, and a new one Cannabis Research Institute.

Helldobler: “We shouldn’t downplay our challenges, but we must never lose sight of the great things that are achieved here every day.”

Haresh Oudhnarine, an intern at The Jersey Journal, is a senior at NJCU and the editor-in-chief of the Gothic Times, NJCU’s student newspaper.

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