By Drew Troutman
Major changes related to tuition, enrollment, academic departments and more have come to Bellarmine. Dr. Susan Donovan, the university’s president, announced many of the changes during faculty and staff meetings in November and December 2018, but the changes did not take effect until this semester.
Tuition increased by 1.5% this academic year. Tuition costs for the 2018-19 academic year were just over $20,000 per semester for full-time undergraduates, meaning the costs rose about $300 per semester for the 2019-2020 academic year.
A Bellarmine faculty member who requested anonymity agreed to discuss the tuition increase. The Concord will not disclose any anonymous source’s identity to prevent any retribution against the source.
The source said tuition increases will further hurt students who are already struggling financially.
“I know three students who are gonna walk out of here this semester, just in one of my classes, because they can’t afford to stay,” the faculty member said. “Two of them I’ve walked up to the food bank.”
Donovan also said faculty and staff did not receive a raise for two straight years (2017-2018 and 2018-2019), and she said her cabinet members’ annual salaries were cut by 2% during that time. However, according to Vice President for Administration and Finance Bob Zimlich, there will be a 1% salary increase pool coming in January.
Professors are also required to teach an additional class per year now that the typical 21-hour, 9-month policy laid out in the faculty handbook is being changed.
“For the most party, the faculty load is 4-3: four in one semester and three in the other semester,” Donovan said. “This would put them at 4-4. So, both semesters they would teach four classes.”
Donovan wants to return to the 4-3 faculty load as soon as the budget allows.
Jillian Nethery, a 2019 Bellarmine graduate, said she’s concerned by the changes affecting faculty members.
“A few of my concerns are about talent retention and financial management,” Nethery said. “If professors are having to increase their workload without increased pay, I’m concerned that they might eventually leave the Bellarmine community to pursue opportunities with better compensation for their time.”
Some of Nethery’s concerns have become a reality.
Despite Donovan’s efforts, 11 faculty members have either relocated or retired since Aug. 1, 2018. This includes four professors who left Bellarmine in 2019 to accept positions at other schools. There are 11 new hires for the 2019 academic year, but Chief Human Resources Officer Lynn Bynum said only two of the four professors who left for other schools have been replaced.
The school’s retirement match dropped from 10% in 2016 to 8% in 2017 and has since fallen to 3%. Employees can participate in Bellarmine’s retirement plan after two years of service and must contribute 3% of their annual base salary to receive Bellarmine’s 3% contribution.
“Before the (2017) budget gap, (faculty and staff) would’ve contributed 5% and Bellarmine would’ve contributed 10%,” Donovan said. “They’re giving 3% and we’re giving 3%.”
At the State of the University Sept. 26, Donovan announced Bellarmine will contribute an additional 1% starting in January. This means the school will contribute 4% while faculty members still contribute 3%.
As Bellarmine has struggled, the school has also seen a decline in incoming students. The number of first-year students is 617 this academic year. An incoming freshmen class has not exceeded 680 students since 2015. There currently are 3,332 students at Bellarmine, with 2,554 being undergraduate students.
Dr. Sean Ryan, Bellarmine’s senior vice president, said numbers don’t tell the full story.
“You always have to look beyond just the numbers,” Ryan said. “(You have to) see what the health in the class is as far as academic quality and financial aid. To an untrained eye, you look at (the numbers) and jump to certain conclusions, which may or may not be accurate.”
Despite the drop in enrollment, last year’s six-year graduation rate was the highest it had been in the past five years. The average over the past 15 years is 65.1% while last year’s rate was 66.3%.
“Once we get a student here, we try to do everything we can to keep them, and hopefully they can graduate in four years,” Zimlich said. “On average, we lose about 20% (of students) from freshman to sophomore (year). Then, from sophomore to junior year, we generally lose about another 10%.”
Bellarmine’s budget struggles also have led to changes in the classroom.
The School of Communication and the School of Environmental Studies merged into the College of Arts and Sciences June 1.
Mary Huff, the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, said the decision was made to “streamline costs without sacrificing the educational quality our students expect and deserve.”
The faculty for the two schools will serve as individual departments within the College of Arts and Sciences. Current communication majors and environmental studies majors will be exempt from the College of Arts and Sciences’ foreign language requirement.
Two more Bellarmine faculty members, who both requested anonymity, had differing viewpoints of Donovan’s decision making. One faculty member said he or she approves of Donovan’s performance and believes Donovan is doing what’s best for students.
“President Donovan is really doing everything that I see good presidents do: communicating via email, communicating via town hall (meetings) and being involved in the workings of the campus,” the source said. “That’s how it works most effectively and efficiently, but it doesn’t mean everyone feels… that way.”
Another faculty member said he or she is disappointed by Donovan’s lack of communication.
“Faculty’s pretty grumbly about a lot of things. I can tell you that morale is really pretty bad,” the source said. “We’ve seen no steps taken to throw anything in our direction. If you continually get shut out of decision making… you just sort of begin to feel powerless.”
Ryan addressed this recent drop in morale at Bellarmine.
“There can be times when morale is down both for faculty and staff,” Ryan said. “It’s important to work with both groups to get them to understand exactly where we are and engage them in ways to help morale and ultimately retention of faculty and staff.”
Donovan said she holds town hall meetings, attends monthly Faculty Council meetings and recognizes faculty through luncheons and awards. Ryan said they also have a Celebration of Faculty scholarship every spring.
Donovan and Ryan currently are considering new programs in which to invest.
“The new provost was greeted with 21 new program proposals,” Ryan said. “We’re in the process of working collaboratively across faculty and administration to figure out how we can go through those in a systemic and pretty fair way. What we all try to do is (combine)… mission, market and student interest.”
Bellarmine’s new provost Dr. Paul Gore found the proposals when he arrived at the university.
“When I arrived at Bellarmine in July 2019, I found a series of proposals for new academic degree programs, professional development and credential programs, program enhancements, and centers that would capitalize on Bellarmine areas of expertise,” Gore said. “The proposals were in various stages of development from nascent to fully developed white papers.”
Gore said that Donovan’s cabinet established a rubric for scoring the proposals based on elements such as the market or need for the program, competitive educational landscape, cost and time needed for development, and availability of existing expertise.
“We will evaluate the outcome of our initial prioritization in October and hope to identify a subset of program proposals for more comprehensive analysis this fall,” Gore said. “It is our sincere hope that the hard work of faculty and academic leadership will clearly identify a path forward for new program development and deployment moving into 2020.”
Although Donovan is unsure of what exactly the school will invest in, she’s optimistic about Bellarmine’s future.
Donovan said, “I don’t think anything will hold us back this year in terms of investing in the future.”