COMMENTARY: Confronting tough decisions at Delaware State to ensure a bright future

Recently, the News Journal published an article about Delaware State University’s Program Prioritization Initiative, which resulted in a board of trustees vote deactivating many academic programs with very few students enrolled in them. The article was factually accurate in reporting that some of our faculty members are understandably opposed to that outcome, but failed to capture the current realities of high education in general, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities in particular.

The same day that newspaper article ran, the prestigious HBCU Digest posted its analysis of the process, concluding that DSU employed “a model” of program analysis that other HBCUs nationwide “should consider as a much-needed antidote for bloated salary and benefit budgets, operational costs, and a lack of traction in the local marketplace for high-caliber students and faculty.”

Dr. Harry L. Williams

Dr. Harry L. Williams

In 1980, over 80 percent of African-American college students attended HBCUs; today’s figure is about 10 percent. In Delaware, higher education accounted for 9.9 percent of the state budget in 1995; today that figure is only 6.4 percent, and we’ve seen a per-pupil drop of 27 percent in state support since 2008. It’s not that our legislators don’t support higher education — far from it. Instead, this is the “new normal,” in which all state agencies have to do more with less, because revenues are static and expenses like health care and retirement costs are rising faster than anyone expected.

Around the nation, prestigious schools like Louisiana State University and the University of California-Berkeley are experiencing structural deficits and deep budget cuts from state governments. LSU may have to end its Division I football program to avoid layoffs. The University of North Carolina system faces planned budget cuts of nearly $60 million over the next two years.

Declining enrollments, high debt, and faculty layoffs have particularly plagued HBCUs. The list of institutions facing difficult financial choices includes Howard, Morehouse, South Carolina State, and nearby Cheyney University, just across the Pennsylvania border.

We have developed new strategies to grow DSU in this environment. Thanks to the Inspire Scholarships approved by the General Assembly, and cooperative agreements with universities in China and Korea, DSU is the only HBCU in America to see enrollment rise significantly over the past 10 years.

Our Early College High School in Dover allows students to have completed 30-plus hours of college credit by the time they receive their high school diplomas. DSU’s new Wilmington location on Kirkwood Highway offers an expanding menu of the most affordable graduate degrees in New Castle County. The Delaware Institute for Science and Technology, housed in a multimillion-dollar facility at DSU’s main campus in Dover, serves as a research hub and economic development engine for the entire state.

But DSU has to become leaner to compete in that “new normal” of higher education. As I recently told the Joint Finance Committee, investing on a limited budget in the programs that attract the most students necessitates tough choices.

Universities today cannot afford to keep offering majors attracting fewer than a dozen students in any four-year period, and despite the efforts of talented, committed faculty members, responsible management requires us to focus our resources in ways that will make every dollar go further.

Because we have voluntarily undertaken this admittedly painful process before any emergency was upon us, DSU will ultimately be able to save $900,000 per year in academics, and another $5 million in administrative cuts, which adds up to more resources for our most popular majors. We will be able to invest in the personnel, equipment, and facilities that allow DSU to compete with anyone in those fields.

Moreover, our process entails no faculty layoffs, while still assuring the state that every dollar appropriated for DSU is well spent.

This year DSU celebrates its 125th anniversary. By directly confronting these tough decisions now, we lay the foundation to insure that DSU is still thriving when the university’s 200th year rolls around in 2091.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Harry L. Williams is president of Delaware State University.

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